A Manchester imam being investigated by police for appearing to call for jihad just days before Salman Abedi bought a ticket to attack an Ariana Grande concert has said he was simply “doing good for the community”.
Iman Mustafa Graf told the Telegraph his "jihad" sermon was not a call to arms but an appeal for people to help each other. He said: “I understand that the police have a job to do and I will cooperate fully with them. I am confident it will be fair, and look at everything - not just Abedi and the people who went to Syria, but the context of what I said. I am confident that I will be cleared of any wrongdoing and that in fact they will find that I was doing good for the community.”
The recording the BBC obtained is of Friday prayers at the mosque six months before Salman Abedi detonated a suicide bomb following an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in May 2017. Scholars Usama Hasan and Shaykh Rehan said it referred to "military jihad".
The sermon, which was at a time of bombing in the Syrian city of Aleppo, includes prayers for "mujahideen" fighting abroad - a term commonly used for Islamist guerrilla fighters. "We ask Allah to grant them mujahideen - our brothers and sisters right now in Aleppo and Syria and Iraq - to grant them victory," Mr Graf is heard saying.
Elsewhere it says: "Lots of brothers stayed behind unfortunately. They love Islam and Muslims but they do nothing for the support of their brothers and sisters." Another passage says: "Jihad for the sake of Allah is the source of pride and dignity for this nation."
Abedi and his family regularly attended the mosque and his father sometimes led the call to prayer. . . although Mr Graf on Friday denied that Abedi had attended the mosque on the day of the sermon and said he last met him as a little boy.
Ten days after Mr Graf’s sermon Abedi bought a ticket for the concert, going on to detonate a suicide bomb as children and parents left the arena.
Mr Hasan, head of Islamic studies at Quilliam, a think tank that focuses on counter-extremism, said: "From the context and the way these texts [the religious passages quoted within the sermon] are used they are clearly referring to military jihad, to armed jihad. "I have known the Islamic discourse for pretty much 40 years, from being a child in this country and worldwide, and the mujahideen are the group fighting armed jihad."
Mr Rehan said he was in no doubt about what the sermon meant. "The jihad he's referring to here is actually being on the battlefield, there's no ifs and no buts in this."
The imam’s denials came as it emerged that he was also the founder of an Islamist group which staged a rally attended by Abedi, whose attack on crowds at the Manchester Arena killed 22 people in May last year. Further details have now emerged of possible links between Abedi and the radical Islamist circles in which Mr Graf, 47, appears to have played a key role.
In May 2015 he spoke at a rally staged in Manchester by the Libyan 17 February Forum against Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan Army, who had been fighting against Islamist militias. In his speech Mr Graf accused Haftar and the Libyan government that had replaced Colonel Gaddafi of targeting civilians.
Abedi did not appear to be present at the rally, but a few months later he attended a protest staged by the same group, this time in London.
Speaking to The Telegraph inside Didsbury Mosque, which has "We (heart) Manchester" banners pinned to the side of the building, Mr Graf defended his sermon, saying: “I have no links whatsoever to Salman Abedi. I met him when he was a boy, running around the mosque aged six or so, because I knew his father. But not as a man. I condemn the barbaric act in the Manchester arena. It was appalling. That is not what we teach.”
Mr Graf also denied that Abedi had been at the mosque on the day of the sermon. “I have looked back. We have checked CCTV. I have talked to others. He was not there," he said. Commenting on the rally attended by Abedi, Mr Graf said: “I was not there when that picture was taken in London and although I founded the group, sometimes they do things without me.”
Greater Manchester Police said they had the BBC's material and were reviewing it "to establish if any criminal offences have been committed".
The BBC come late but even they can no longer ignore the changing tide.