A family of 12 from Luton who it’s feared have travelled to Syria were stopped and held at the airport when they first left the UK and had their home raided, Channel 4 News has learnt.
Our Home Affairs correspondent Darshna Soni has spoken exclusively to the brother who reported the family missing to the police. Police are now investigating one of the family’s links to radicals who were once members of the now-banned al-Muhajiroun group.
“I’ve been worried sick about my father, he’s not in the best of health,” Mohammed Akhtar Hussain told me. He has heard nothing from his father Abdul Mannan in weeks.
Mr Mannan is a pensioner and his son is adamant he would never have wanted to go to a war zone. “There’s just no way.”
If anyone had plans to go to Syria and join any groups there, it would have been my sister
Mohammed Akhtar Hussain, brother of missing family
And yet Bedfordshire Police are investigating whether that’s exactly where Mr Mannan and 11 members of his family have ended up. The 75-year-old travelled there in May with his wife, five of his children, two daughter-in-laws and three grandchildren. The youngest is just a baby aged one.
“It was meant to be a big family holiday, because his wife had been sick with cancer,” Mr Hussain explained. His father had remarried after the death of his first wife, Mr Hussain’s mother.
Mr Hussain runs a successful plumbing company and had trained one of his brothers, Saleh Hussain. “The business was doing really well and Saleh had just got a qualification as a gas engineer. I told him it wasn’t the best time to leave the business, that he should wait until next year. But he said it was only for two weeks and that I could manage on my own until he got back.”
Mr Hussain is convinced his brother was planning to come back home to the business and that he no idea about any plans for Syria. So how is it the family may have ended up there? “If anyone had plans to go to Syria and join any groups there, it would have been my sister,” Mr Hussain told me.
His sister, Rajia Khanom, is 21 years old. In family pictures, she is seen smiling happily next to her brothers. But according to Mr Hussain, they had recently argued because she had “fallen in with the wrong crowd.”
He told me that Ms Khanom had joined a group of known radicals in Luton who were once members of the now-banned al-Muhajiroun.
In April, another former member of al-Muhajiroun, Asif Malik, also left for Syria with his wife and four children.
Luton is known for having once had an active branch of the extremist group and Channel 4 News understands that anti-terrorism police are now investigating any potential links Ms Khanom may have had with it.
Bedfordshire Police subsequently confirmed that one member of the family was stopped under schedule of the Terrorism Act.
“While the suggestion is that the party’s current location is in Syria, this remains uncorroborated and our enquiries are continuing,” the spokesperson said.
Our home affairs correspondent Darshna Soni has also learned that Ms Khanom had already come to their attention and was initially prevented from flying on the family holiday to Bangladesh.
When the family tried to check in at the airport, Ms Khanom was pulled aside and questioned by officers. “She didn’t have any of her own luggage to check in, because everyone’s luggage was mixed in together,” Mr Hussain told Channel 4 News.
The day they were supposed to land here all of their phones were dead, I couldn’t get through to them
Mohammed Akhtar Hussain, brother of missing family
“But the officers thought this was odd as she was supposed to just be going on holiday.” Mr Ahmed said that his sister was then held for questioning and that the family home was raided and searched by police
“My father and everybody else had to stay with me. They said to him they were only interested in my sister, that everybody else could fly. But my father wouldn’t leave without her.” A neighbour confirmed to me that the police had sealed off the house for two days.
Eventually, the family including Ms Khanom were allowed to travel. “I just keep thinking if only she hadn’t been allowed to go, this might have not happened. I also don’t understand why they were allowed to stop off in Turkey on the way home.”
Many passengers to Bangladesh stop off in Istanbul, as Turkish airlines offers free stop-overs. Mr Hussain said he assumed that because his sister had been questioned in the UK, that the authorities would have some sort of record and that she wouldn’t be allowed leave the airport in Turkey.
They were due to have returned to Luton on May 17th.
“I sent a message to Saleh two days before to ask where they were, he told me they were in a hotel in Turkey. So I thought they must have been allowed in after all. But the day they were supposed to land here all of their phones were dead, I couldn’t get through to them.”
Mr Hussain said he and his elder brother were extremely worried at this stage. Yet they didn’t call the police straight away. “We’ve heard so much in the news about people being arrested in Turkey or when they get back to the UK, we didn’t want this. We thought we’d give it a couple of days to see if they came back.”
The family didn’t want any media attention either. “That’s why we haven’t given any other interviews, I don’t think it will help.” The family had watched the reports surrounding the Dawood sisters from Bradford who it’s also believed left for Syria and they didn’t want their story to become as high profile.
When they did contact the police, they were told officers were investigating whether the family may have crossed into Syria.
“We are just all gutted, we can’t understand it. There’s no way my father would want to do that. We just want him back, him and everybody else. I really miss Saleh too, as he was my business partner and we saw each other every day.”
Mr Hussain says somebody from the family did contact relatives in Bangladesh towards the end of May to say they were safe, but wouldn’t reveal where they were.
“Since then we’ve heard nothing. It’s been awful. If my sister did want to go to Syria, why did she have to take everybody else with her?
“What she does is up to her, but it’s not right to take everyone else.”
A statement from Bedfordshire Police said; “On the day that the family were due to travel to Bangladesh (9 April), one of the members of the party was stopped at Heathrow Airport and was subject to a schedule 7 examination.
“At the time the schedule 7 was taking place, a search was carried out at their home address in Spencer Road, Luton.
“There was no information, either through the schedule 7 or search, which suggested that any of the family were intending to travel to Syria, so they were allowed to travel the following day without any police intervention.