Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

'If I was a terrorist, I'd be hiding'

Imam denies he helped train young Islamic pair to fight in Syria

Sheikh Abu Abdulla says he is not a terrorist and will co- operate with police over his mosque ban. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sheikh Abu Abdulla says he is not a terrorist and will co- operate with police over his mosque ban. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A Salafist imam who taught two men who were stopped from leaving New Zealand to join the war in Syria says he is no terrorist.

Sheikh Abu Abdulla, 50, was last week accused of being a preacher of extreme Islam and trespassed for a second time in two years from the Avondale Islamic Centre where he has been the leader since 2010.

In an interview with the Herald yesterday, Mr Abdulla said the men - one a local-born New Zealand Muslim and another of Somalian descent - were just two of his many students at the mosque. But he denied that he had prepared them to fight in the conflict.

The two would-be fighters, who are in their early 20s, had their New Zealand passports cancelled before they could board the plane for Syria last year.

Prime Minister John Key said in February that a small number of New Zealanders had been stopped from joining the Syrian conflict, while those who have made it to Syria are being tracked.

"We can cancel someone's passport if we believe someone is going into a warzone, for instance, to fight in a way we don't think is a sensible step for them to take," Mr Key said. He did not go into details about individuals, but said they are fighting against the Bashar al-Assad led government.

Legal expert Andrew Geddis, a professor of law at the University of Otago, said the Government could only revoke a person's passport if it could specifically link them to known terrorist groups.

"How would I train them, or where can I train them, do these people have my picture?" Mr Abdulla asked.

But Mr Abdulla said he had nothing to do with the two men other than being their Islamic religious teacher. "Why don't I send my kids or why don't I send myself?" he said. "Why should I send the boys, it just doesn't make sense."

Mr Abdulla said he was away in Egypt at the time which made it "impossible" for him to have played a role in sending the men into the Syrian war zone.

He rejected accusations that he was a terrorist, jihadist or a teacher of extreme Islam.

Some of his supporters were seeking the help of the police to mediate in a bid to get him back as leader of the mosque, Mr Abdulla said. He said police knew "everything there is to know" about him, including his daily movements and what he preached at the mosque.

"I have been here 16 years, if I am doing anything wrong they would have got me by now," he said.

"If I was a terrorist, I would be hiding from the police and not going for a mediation meeting run by them."

Mr Abdulla said he provided shelter at the mosque for the homeless and destitute and shared the Islamic faith with them, but denied using materials such as DVDs on jihad, or holy war, in his classes.

"I don't know how to use the DVD player, in fact I don't even know how to use the cellphone to text," he said.

Mr Abdulla said the problems with the NZ Muslim Association, which managed the mosque, were due to a clash of differences in ideologies and ethnicities.

"All the mosques in New Zealand are being run by Indian Muslims, so some people don't like it when an Arab has too much power."

- NZ Herald

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