Islamist Irishman comes home, with a plan
Irishman Khalid Kelly – who dreams of seeing the ‘black flag of Islam’ over the Dáil – has returned from Pakistan to set up a group called Islam for Ireland, writes MARY FITZGERALDForeign Affairs Correspondent
IT IS seven years since Khalid Kelly, Liberties altar boy turned Muslim convert turned radical blowhard, prompted heckling and jeers from a Late Late Showaudience. Back then Kelly, dressed in black and grey robes and accompanied by a fellow member of British-based organisation al-Muhajiroun, defended the 9/11 attacks and claimed one day the world would be ruled by sharia law.
Kelly became something of a poster boy for al-Muhajiroun and its founder, the controversial Syrian-born cleric Omar Bakri, and his association with the movement continued throughout the several reincarnations that followed its disbanding in 2004.
Bakri and his followers developed a schtick that blended jihadist rhetoric with virulent anti-Semitism and homophobia. They revelled in the notoriety and acres of press coverage generated by their inflammatory pronouncements.
Kelly regularly featured in breathless tabloid reports. He popped up on CNN to argue that the 2005 London transport bombings were justified because of Tony Blair’s foreign policy.
Then suddenly the man some media outlets referred to as “the famous Irish Muslim convert” dropped off the radar. Rumours he had pitched up in Pakistan proved correct when a reporter for a British newspaper interviewed him there last November. Under the headline “Irishman wants to kill for Islam”, Kelly boasted of undergoing weapons training in Pakistan’s tribal badlands.
“I’m already on the path to jihad,” he said. “Next week, inshallah, I could be in Afghanistan fighting a British soldier.” But Kelly’s dreams of jihad turned sour and he never made it to Afghanistan.
The possible reasons for this were hinted at in an interview he gave to the Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsatsome years ago. Kelly said many people in the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar had warned him that, because of the colour of his skin and appearance, the Taliban might kidnap him for ransom or kill him if they suspected him of being an American spy.
In Dublin last week, Kelly explained he believed intelligence agencies were tailing him in Pakistan and he began to fear for his safety. “I went there to join people who were likeminded and help establish an Islamic state,” he says. “But as a white convert, I stuck out like a sore thumb.” Instead, he returned to Ireland in April and has been here since. In some ways, he seems different to the man who stirred such outrage on RTÉ in 2003.
His beard is now threaded with grey and his face is turning jowly. He also seems far less cocky.
Kelly is coy about what exactly prompted his hasty departure from Pakistan and what happened between that point and his arrival in Dublin – he mutters about his passport being “lost or stolen” in eastern Europe and mentions being deported somewhere along the way.
Soon after returning to Ireland, Kelly was ruffling feathers within the Muslim community here. Even though he now prefers to be known as Abu Osama (Arabic for “father of Osama”, a reference to the son he named after Osama bin Laden), people remembered him – Kelly and his al-Muhajiroun cohorts previously tried and failed to gain a foothold here.
Kelly was one of the most vocal speakers at a small demonstration outside the Belgian embassy in May. He told those gathered to protest against Belgium’s proposed ban on full-face veils that Europe was oppressing Muslims, and that he dreamt of seeing “the black flag of Islam” over Dáil Éireann. He also railed against the use of Shannon airport by US troops, and criticised the participation of seven Irish army personnel in the UN-mandated Nato-led mission in Afghanistan.
He made similar statements in an interview with Metro Éireannnewspaper earlier this month, adding that Ireland is a “target for attacks” because of its involvement in Afghanistan. The resulting front-page article, headlined “We must listen to bin Laden” prompted complaints from Muslims living here.
Many consider Kelly an attention-seeking nuisance. He says he was recently told to move on while talking to a group of men at one of Dublin’s bigger mosques. He dismisses those who say he and his message are not welcome in Ireland as people “whose Islam is in doubt”.
Kelly complains he has been visited on several occasions by the security services since his return. He says he is seeking legal advice following one such encounter at his Dublin home last week, which he alleges resulted in a physical confrontation.
“They want me to stop speaking out, but I won’t,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in Pakistan, Lebanon, England or Ireland, there is an obligation to speak wherever you are. I’m not talking about fighting here in Ireland, but I am encouraging Muslims to fulfil their duties.”
The story of how Kelly, a former nurse, converted to Islam while serving a jail sentence for illicitly distilling and selling alcohol in Saudi Arabia, is told in Holy Wars, a new documentary currently showing in film festivals in the US. Five years in the making, it charts the personal journeys of both Kelly and Aaron Taylor, a Christian missionary from the US who tries to proselytise in Muslim-majority countries. Film-maker Stephen Marshall followed Kelly to Pakistan. Promotional shots show Kelly inspecting the wares at a gun market in the Northwest Frontier Province.
In a recent interview with a US newspaper, Marshall summed up many of the contradictions of the man once known as Terry Kelly.
“Khalid to me was this amazing enigma and paradox. He was this white Irish guy who was a Muslim and he was one of the most articulate spokesmen for his cause. And he loved the camera,” Marshall said. “I definitely feel that Khalid had this nihilism about him. Even though Khalid’s not really a threat, he’d like to think of himself as one. All his talk is focused on this battle that would only lead to his own destruction . . . But also, I think that Khalid loves life too much. He’s not the suicidal prototype. I think he can find happiness. I think that Khalid wants to be happy.”
So what next for Khalid Kelly? He claims he came back to Ireland only to get a new passport before deciding where to resettle with his family – his sons Osama and Mohammed live in Britain with their mother, a Pakistani woman whom Kelly met through associates of Omar Bakri.
However, he told Metro Éireann, he plans to establish a group here with the title “Islam for Ireland”. The name echoes that of Islam4UK, al-Muhajiroun’s most recent reinvention until it was banned in Britain in January on grounds of national security.
Kelly says he remains in regular contact with his mentor Bakri, who fled to Lebanon following the London bombings. When I interviewed Bakri in the Lebanese town of Tripoli three years ago, he praised Kelly but said he had no interest in setting up an organisation in Ireland.
“It is not a relevant arena for me because I don’t have people there,” Bakri said. “Ireland is definitely not on our map.”