Men jailed over killing of Syrian cleric after power struggle at mosque

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A prominent Muslim who claims he has links to MI5 is likely to die in jail for murdering a Syrian cleric who was executed in "cold blood" following a power struggle at a London mosque, it can now be reported.

Abdul Hadi Arwani, 48, from Acton, west London, was sprayed with bullets from a MAC-10 sub-machine gun by Iraq war veteran Leslie Cooper on the orders of Muslim convert Khalid Rashad on April 7 last year.

Jamaica-born Cooper, 38, was doing the "dirty work" for Rashad, 63, who had a long-running dispute with married father-of-six Mr Arwani over the running of the An Noor Cultural and Community Centre in Acton.

Rashad, of Monks Park Road, Wembley, and Cooper, of Nightingale Road, Harlesden, north west London, were found guilty of murder at Kingston Crown Court earlier this year and sentenced to life with a minimum term of 32 years.

Their convictions can only now be reported after Rashad was found guilty at the Old Bailey of hoarding a stick of plastic explosives and ammunition in his back garden, near Wembley Stadium, at the time of his arrest.

As part of his defence, Rashad told jurors that MI5 was "unhappy" that he had twice refused to act as a "secret agent" for them, spying on the Muslim community in west London, in 2012.

The Jamaican builder, who converted to Islam in 1993, told jurors there had been cultural "tensions" at the Islamic centre.

He claimed someone had planted 8oz (226g) of explosives, a 9mm cartridge and five 8mm rounds in his garage without his knowledge.

Judge Gerald Gordon sentenced Rashad to 10 years for the explosives charges and three and four years for the ammunition.

The sentences should run concurrently as it was not in the public interest to increase his minimum term, which would see him aged 94 before being eligible for parole, the judge said.

On the explosives, he said that no-one would have it without contemplating its use.

He said he bore in mind the lengths he had gone to to "eliminate" opposition in the form of Mr Arwani, co-owner of the Islamic centre.

Alphege Bell, mitigating for Rashad, said: "The defendant asked me to make clear to the court - and there is not really any suggestion - the defendant is not a supporter of Isis, al Qaida or any other variant.

"I make that clear for the record and it's something that the defendant is very concern about in terms of how the court might approach him, and others outside court."

The mosque in Acton hit the headlines in 2013 after 27-year-old terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed gave police the slip by donning a burka.

The murder trial had heard how Mr Arwani, who also owned a successful builders, had been lured to his death after a meeting was set up with a potential customer, "John", who was identified later as Cooper.

Outlining the murder, prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC had said: "This case concerns the execution of a middle-aged, Syrian-born cleric, who was shot dead with a MAC-10 sub-machine gun in a leafy residential street in Wembley earlier last year."

Just after 10.30am, a mother and daughter were walking along a road called Greenhill to a doctor's appointment.

They noticed the victim slumped in the driver's seat of a black VW Passat with its engine running.

At first, they thought Mr Arwani was sleeping but when they returned from the appointment, they noticed he had not moved.

Mr Rees said: "We allege that the first defendant, Leslie Cooper, was the gunman who executed the victim in cold blood.

"And we further allege that he was recruited to carry out this killing by Khalid Rashad, the second defendant, who wanted Mr Arwani dead because he and the victim were involved in a bitter dispute connected to the ownership and control of the An Noor Cultural and Community Centre in Acton, west London.

"This dispute had given rise to legal proceedings, and the first court hearing was due to take place at the end of July 2015. Of course, that hearing did not take place because one of the parties - the victim - had been shot dead."

When he was arrested days after the killing, Cooper denied having anything to do with it.

But a search of his home uncovered the MAC-10 with ammunition and silencer hidden inside a Marks & Spencer shopping bag in his wardrobe.

Rashad denied knowledge of the murder or speaking to his co-accused about his dispute with the victim.

Mr Arwani, of Wallflower Street, East Acton, was born in Syria and became a UK citizen in May 2002.

He was well-known and respected in his local community, having previously been an Imam at the An Noor Cultural and Community Centre.

Cooper served in the British Army between 2002 and 2007 in the First Battalion, Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment.

His platoon was involved in several fire fights during his tour of Iraq in 2004.

The jury in Rashad's explosives trial was told that the security services neither confirm nor deny claims of involvement with individuals.

 

Commander Mak Chishty, head of engagement with the Metropolitan Police, said: "We have lost a member of the community who was well loved and respected. His family are never going to get over that. Thirty-two years is a fitting sentence.

"You can see how evil the defendant was where he took extreme measures to kill a person over a property dispute.

"To kill anybody, especially over a dispute like that, beggars belief.

"The murder was brutal, it was callous and it's robbed a community and the family of a decent man."