This U.K. commuter town has a reputation as a jihadi breeding ground

LUTON, England — Stalls with colorful dresses and fresh vegetables spill out onto the streets of this suburb as children wearing traditional Islamic dress over their school uniforms run down pavements. Older generations greet neighbors or chat in groups, leaning against shop walls as they enjoy the early spring sun.

The quiet, unassuming town of Luton some 30 minutes from London by train is known mainly for its airport — one of the main international transport routes to the capital. But it has also developed a more dubious reputation as a breeding ground for jihadis.

Luton is home to 200,000 people, 50,000 of whom are Muslim — mainly of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi heritage, according to 2011 census data. While only a tiny percentage of the population has felt the lure of radicalization, community leaders and experts point to several reason why extremism has crept into the area.

Two decades ago, notorious and now-jailed extremist preacher Anjem Choudary planted roots here, recruiting young men who often felt alienated by far-right activists. At the same time, out-of-touch religious leaders failed to draw them back to the moderate mainstream, some locals say.

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Life in Luton, England
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Life in Luton, England
A woman sits on the wet pavement on January 01, 2017 in Luton, England. At the end of 2016 Luton was named Britains most desirable location, due to its diverse community, rail links, airport, and the bustling town centre. Photographer and local resident, Tony Margiocchi, believes this is a stark contrast to what he has witnessed in the town, and has documented homelessness, fly tipping, filth on the streets and the rats this brings along.
Shoppers browse the windows as they walk down a main road in Luton 15 April 2004.
Posters advertising an Islamophobia conference by the Islamic Human Rights Council were photographed on the wall of a Luton Mosque and at an entrance to Luton Town Football Club on December 14, 2017 in Luton, England. 
A poster is shown next to the Luton Town Football Club promoting an Al Quds Day March, Clifton Road on May 23, 2016 in Luton, England. Al Quds Day is a is an annual event held on the last Friday of Ramadan to express support for Palestinians and oppose Israel's control of Jerusalem.
Luton, England on September 12, 2017.
A Teenage boy with Mum & Dad Tattoo, Scooterists, Luton, England in 2004.
A teenager kisses his girlfriend, Luton, England in 2004.
A group of teenagers smiling and posing next to a Police car, Luton, England in 2004.
The Central Mosque nestled between two residential houses in Luton 15 April 2004. 
Shoppers walk past a grocery store on a main road in Luton 15 April 2004.
More than 1000 Muslims hold a large procession through Bury Park shouting Allahu Akbar as they celebrate Milad-un-Nabi to mark the birthday of their Prophet, Mohammad, with a peaceful procession including males from tiny toddlers to the older generation in Birch Walk on December 11, 2016 in Luton, England.
An Iman helps a young boy learn The Koran at The Central Mosque in Luton 15 April 2004. 
Haji Muhammad Sulaiman helps a class of young boys learn The Koran at The Central Mosque in Luton 15 April 2004. Sulaiman is President of The Islamic Cultural Society in the area.
Haji Muhammad Sulaiman greets a young boy in the doorway to The Central Mosque in Luton, 15 April 2004. 
Luton Pentecostal Church in Luton, England. The church failed an OFSTED Inspection for teaching creationism as science fact. 
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visits Youthscape on August 24, 2016 in Luton, England. The Duke and Duchess visited Youthscape at Bute Mills to tour the facility and learn about Youthscape's work, and then meet CHUMS and the OM Group and Luton Council of Faiths and Grassroots for discussions about coping with suicide and supporting young people's mental health and emotional wellbeing across faith groups. 
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge visit Youthscape on August 24, 2016 in Luton, England.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge visit Youthscape on August 24, 2016 in Luton, England. 
A covert patrol by the National Crime Agency in Bury Park in Luton, England. 
Police stand guard outside a house in Luton, southern England December 13, 2010, that was being searched as part of investigations into two explosions in Stockholm which Swedish authorities called an act of terrorism.
Members of the media wait outside a house in Luton, England on December 13, 2010. The house was being investigated in connection with two explosions in Stockholm which Swedish authorities called an act of terrorism.
A police handout image taken from CCTV footage and released on September 20, 2005 shows London bombing suspects (L-R) Shahzad Tanweer, Germaine Lindsay and Mohammed Sidique Khan at Luton train station in central England.
A police handout image taken from CCTV footage and released on September 20, 2005 shows London bombing suspects (rear, L-R) Mohammed Sidique Khan, Shahzad Tanweer and Germaine Lindsay at Luton train station in central England.
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Last week the British media reported that Khalid Masood, the 52-year-old attacker who killed an American tourist and three others outside the U.K. parliament, spent two years living in Luton.

Local media quoted a neighbor who said she remembered the attacker as an enthusiastic gardener who had lived opposite her between 2010 and 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, news Masood had links to the area was met with exasperation.

"When I heard about the attacks in Westminster I said I guarantee you this guy will have some link to Luton," said Amjad Iqbal, who added that he was frustrated that his town had once again been tied to extremism.

"He either parked his car here or he came here. Somehow it will have something to do with Luton," added the 42-year-old, laughing wearily.

The so-called 7/7 bombers, who killed 52 people on London's transport routes in 2005, took the train to London from Luton on the day of the attacks.

In 2010 Swedish student Taimour Abdulwahab blew himself up in central Stockholm after attending university in the town. Three years later four men were jailed for plotting to send a remote-controlled car carrying a bomb into the town's base for the Territorial Army — a British volunteer reserve force.

More recently there have been reports of entire families leaving the town to join ISIS in Syria, including one of 12 with a one-year-old baby. In 2015, Rahin Aziz, a key figure in Luton with a prominent social media presence, was killed in a drone attack in Syria after skipping bail, according to security sources.

In May, Junead Khan, who worked as a delivery driver and whose uncle, Rajib, was jailed for supporting ISIS, was jailed for life for plotting to run down and execute a U.S. serviceman. And in February, five men were sentenced to up to six years in prison after an undercover investigation found they had recruited for ISIS.

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What's left behind in Islamic State abandoned strongholds
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What's left behind in Islamic State abandoned strongholds
Blindfolds are pictured inside a prison, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters belonged to Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Burnt out prison cells belonging to Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A view shows containers, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used for making explosives by Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Handcuffs are pictured inside a prison, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters belonged to Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters inspect bags of niqabs at a centre that was used by Islamic State religious police (al-Hisbah) in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A factory abandoned by Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Muslim against Muslim

In Bury Park, a small area of Luton, around a dozen mosques stand in a warren of terraced houses, vegetable stalls and south Asian fashion stores.

Locals say the trouble started with Choudary, who started visiting Luton almost 20 years ago, recruiting members for the extremist Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun.

"Choudary was the spark," said Iqbal, 42. "His guys would stand outside the bank on the corner and hand out leaflets."

"We used to chase them off saying you're giving us a bad name," interjected his friend — a pharmacist with a star and crescent tattooed to his bald head, who declined to give his name.

Tanvir Munir, General Secretary of Luton Central Mosque said the leaflets promoted forming an Islamic state — a vision incompatible with the beliefs of most practicing Muslims.

Munir told NBC News that local religious leaders had complained to the authorities that Choudary's group was misleading and confusing their teens but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears, as the organization's rhetoric was initially tolerated under the right to freedom of speech.

The owner of a local fabric store said the fault lay with the government.

"Why do we let people like Anjem Choudary into our country?" said the 53-year-old who identified himself as Ahmed M. "Blame the authorities if they're preaching bad things. Why didn't the authorities stamp them out?"

The trouble continued, Munir said. Fistfights started breaking out between local Muslims and Choudary's men when the Luton Central Mosque had to begin "physically removing" the extremists from its vicinity, he said.

"It reached fever pitch during the Iraq war," said Munir. "These people were English speaking, they were eloquent, middle class, educated to a university sort of standard, and were quite convincing in terms of their rhetoric."

The fact that Luton's mosques mainly hired imams from the Indian subcontinent compounded this problem, Munir added. Many of these religious leaders did not speak English, and struggled to rebut Al-Muhajiroun's political arguments and communicate with young Muslims who had been born and raised in Britain, he said.

UKIP Office Opens In Bury Park, LutonA gathering of Muslim women on April 19, 2015 in Luton, England. Photo credit: Tony Margiocchi / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

"We weren't really getting to the youngsters," Munir added.

What emerged, he continued, was a generation of young people going through an identity crisis with some becoming more western, going drinking and clubbing, and some becoming more insular and conservative.

Then came the far right.

The English Defence League (EDL), formed in 2010, started targeting Muslims in Luton in what former leader Stephen Lennon described as a "tidal wave of patriotism."

"Every far-right group that emerges wants to come and march in the town," said Rehana Faisal, 39, who leads a Muslim women's group in Luton. "They would invade our mosques, throw bibles at us, and stand outside with banners saying 'stop the Islamization of Britain.'"

"It has an effect on young people to hear that hateful language, for it to be imported into your streets," she said.

Faisal disputed the idea Luton has a problem with radicalization.

"There was a pocket of difficult individuals that we knew about and we worked with the authorities to sort the problem" she said, adding "some grew out of it, while a significant number have been arrested and been imprisoned."

She said the perception of the problem is much greater than the reality on the ground.

"There's an overwhelming feeling in this town that we really want this put behind us, that we want this town to move on," Faisal added.

Luton officials declined to comment on the issue of radicalization to NBC News.

An Iman helps a young boy learn The KoraAn Iman helps a young boy learn The Koran at The Central Mosque in Luton 15 April 2004. Photo credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

'Heads out of the sand'

Locals remain defensive about the attention their community has garnered and contend that the problems with radicalization are over. After all, many Muslims in the town celebrated when Choudary was jailed last year for encouraging support for ISIS.

Still, experts believe that the issue continues to dog the community.

"Some people might want to believe it's getting better, but unfortunately it's not. They're very much mistaken," said Hanif Qadir, an anti-radicalization activist and himself a former extremist.

"Anjem Choudary and his cronies have done a lot of damage and on top of that, to make matters worse, the EDL has been very effective in recruiting extreme right individuals," he added.

For things to change in Luton, Qadir said Muslims need to get their "heads out of the sand," and accept that there is a real problem stemming from within the Muslim community.

But also Qadir stressed the effort had to come from all parts of society and not just from Muslims. Divisive messages of the extreme right and extremists had to be neutralized.

He added: "Both networks feed off each other and they are both feeding off the same human resource: young vulnerable people."

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