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Details have emerged of a private briefing between the government's most senior counter-terrorism official and MPs in which he warned of the dangers of radicalisation among Muslim prisoners and admitted that CIA agents were operating in the UK.

Charles Farr, the head of the Home Office's office of security and counter-terrorism, told MPs the 8,000 Muslim inmates in England and Wales represented "a very significant group".

"We know that once they get inside prison there is a danger that they will be radicalised ... there is an additional risk that, for entirely legitimate reasons, people can get converted in prison to Islam. We are very aware of the risks," he said.

On the issue of Islamist radicalisation in prison, he revealed his unit had to help a cash-strapped prison service find enough money to develop a counter-terrorist programme, including the creation of an intelligence infrastructure.

That unit, he said, had made some inroads in tackling extremism in prisons. "It is not yet a success story but it is a story of real progress," he said, and added: "When they get back into the community what are we going to do about that?"

During the in camera evidence session to a sub-committee of the Commons home affairs select committee, Farr also confirmed there were CIA agents operating in Britain and that Britain had a "very close" relationship with the US intelligence community.

Asked if CIA agents and other "outside organisations" were working in Britain, Farr replied: "Most certainly, yes. Are they declared? Yes. They are in regular dialogue with our agencies here. The cornerstone of this is the American relationship.

"Why? For two reasons, I think, above all: because of the huge American capability that can be brought to bear on counter-terrorism, and has been since 9/11.

"Secondly ... because people who pose a threat to this country are six hours away from the eastern seaboard, something which the Americans are acutely aware of, as are we, and therefore take a very close interest in."

Farr, who rarely appears publicly, also disclosed that last year's visa ban on the Islamist preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was not straightforward. He described Qaradawi as "one of the most articulate critics of al-Qaida in the Islamic world" despite his antisemitic and homophobic views. He said the ban was still a current issue.

The redacted transcript of the unannounced evidence session, which took place in February, was vetted by Farr before it was published as an obscure annexe to a Commons home affairs select committee report on counter-terrorism published over the summer.

On prisons Farr said that there was a "very large, complicated counter-terrorist programme" run by the National Offender Management Service under a strategic framework provided by his office.

"We are funding it. They do not have enough money so we have transferred some of our programme budget, and it is a good thing that we are able to do that, into the Ministry of Justice to enable them to get it off the ground," he said.

Farr said Muslim prisoners constituted 12% to 13% of the total prison population. He said that there was a direct relationship between criminality and radicalisation that "greatly interests us", with those with non-terrorist criminal records finding terrorist networks a refuge from the isolation and alienation that they face in the community as a result of their criminal activities. For this reason the group of 8,000-plus Muslim prisoners were more vulnerable to radicalisation than many others.

Farr also said the Home Office's research, communications and information unit, which advises on the nature of the terror threat, only has a staff of 35 from across government to challenge the output of 4,500 "incessant" Islamist terrorist websites around the world.

Pressing issues

The head of the office of security and counterterrorism on:

Challenging extremists Farr emphasised that he was not interested in criminalising those with extremist views that fell short of violence.

Muslim attitudes The Home Office, said Farr, had been too reliant on commercial polling to gauge changing attitudes in the Muslim communities."

The Olympics Anti-globalisation protest movements could yet prove to be a very big challenge for the �600m Olympic games security operation.

Qaradawi "I think for any government, and I really passionately believe this, this is a real problem," said Farr. "If we refuse him a visa people will come back to us and say, 'Hang on a moment. This person is coming here to speak against the organisation which most threatens you. Surely you need to operate within a degree of latitude which allows that.' I am not saying that is a compelling argument."

A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots.

A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian � a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver.

The short note scrawled on the card suggests his family changed its name to Ahmadinejad when they converted to embrace Islam after his birth.

The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad's birthplace, and the name derives from the Jewish for "weaver of the Sabour", the name for the Jewish Tallit shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran's Ministry of the Interior.

Experts last night suggested Mr Ahmadinejad's track record for hate-filled attacks on Jews could be an overcompensation to hide his past.

Ali Nourizadeh, of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies, said: "This aspect of Mr Ahmadinejad's background explains a lot about him.

"Every family that converts into a different religion takes a new identity by condemning their old faith.

"By making anti-Israeli statements he is trying to shed any suspicions about his Jewish connections. He feels vulnerable in a radical Shia society."

A London-based expert on Iranian Jewry said that "jian" ending to the name specifically showed the family had been practising Jews.

"He has changed his name for religious reasons, or at least his parents had," said the Iranian-born Jew living in London. "Sabourjian is well known Jewish name in Iran."

A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in London said it would not be drawn on Mr Ahmadinejad's background. "It's not something we'd talk about," said Ron Gidor, a spokesman.

The Iranian leader has not denied his name was changed when his family moved to Tehran in the 1950s. But he has never revealed what it was change from or directly addressed the reason for the switch.

Relatives have previously said a mixture of religious reasons and economic pressures forced his blacksmith father Ahmad to change when Mr Ahmadinejad was aged four.

The Iranian president grew up to be a qualified engineer with a doctorate in traffic management. He served in the Revolutionary Guards militia before going on to make his name in hardline politics in the capital.

During this year's presidential debate on television he was goaded to admit that his name had changed but he ignored the jibe.

However Mehdi Khazali, an internet blogger, who called for an investigation of Mr Ahmadinejad's roots was arrested this summer.

Mr Ahmadinejad has regularly levelled bitter criticism at Israel, questioned its right to exist and denied the Holocaust. British diplomats walked out of a UN meeting last month after the Iranian president denounced Israel's 'genocide, barbarism and racism.'

Benjamin Netanyahu made an impassioned denunciation of the Iranian leader at the same UN summit. "Yesterday, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium," he said. "A mere six decades after the Holocaust, you give legitimacy to a man who denies the murder of six million Jews while promising to wipe out the State of Israel, the State of the Jews. What a disgrace. What a mockery of the charter of the United Nations."

Mr Ahmadinejad has been consistently outspoken about the Nazi attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. "They have created a myth today that they call the massacre of Jews and they consider it a principle above God, religions and the prophets," he declared at a conference on the holocaust staged in Tehran in 2006.

This article first appeared in the Telegraph on the 3rd October 2009.

A new report on what it means to be a Muslim in Britain says that a secular British state allows Islam to be practised freely in an atmosphere of respect, security and dignity.

The report exploring the philosophical and theological perspectives of the issue is titled 'Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives', and is the outcome of a nine-month project hosted by the University of Cambridge. A total of 26 Muslim scholars, academics and activists representing a diverse spectrum of views from Muslim communities in the UK took part in discussions about what it means to live as a Muslim in modern Britain.

The report covers a wide range of issues including secularism, democracy, Sharia, human rights and citizenship.

The group agreed that Muslims should assert and teach what they see to be the truth of their faith, but also recognise the existence of different religions and the right of others to do the same.

The study urges Muslims to identify shared values between Islam and other world views, pointing out the Holy Qu'ran's emphasis on qualities such as good neighbourliness, charity, hospitality and non-aggression.

The report also redefines a number of terms which the authors believe have been misinterpreted. It notes, for example, that both Muslims and non-Muslims often have "skewed understanding of the term Sharia, which conjures up images of floggings and beheadings."

"The process has already succeeded in bringing together Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds who, in spite of those different backgrounds, have been prepared to work together. What we want to do now is stimulate further dialogue with a wider group of Muslim leaders and communities," said Suleiman.

Minister for Communities Shahid Malik said: "This is a ground-breaking report from a wide cross-section of British Muslim scholars, academics and community leaders. I hope that this report by Cambridge will inspire wider debate from communities across the country on the values that we all share".

He added: "Following the terrorist attacks in New York and London, many Muslim leaders expressed concern that their religion was being misrepresented and misinterpreted. The silent majority of Muslims have since fought hard to restate their religion as they see it and this report is an important contribution to that."

This article first appeared on Zee News on 27th October 2009.