Paul Maley & Chip Le Grand, in The Australian, 27 August 2015, where the title is “Brotherhood put lost boy on path to jihad“
The day Australia’s most wanted terrorist became a Muslim he knew almost nothing about Islam. Neil Prakash neither read nor spoke Arabic. His understanding of the Koran was drawn from YouTube clips and a handful of conversations he’d had with a couple of friends. Yet once he stood to recount the solemn lines of the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief, he was immediately embraced by his new brothers — the motley members of a fringe group known as Al Furqan.
“You knew he had some sort of self-confidence issues,’’ recalled Joseph Almatrah, a family friend of Prakash who took him to Al Furqan and witnessed his conversion. “You could tell that, the way he jumped from group to group. He was lost, really lost.No matter what mosque it is, wherever you convert there is a sense of brotherhood. Everybody gets up, they hug you. It is like they have just accepted a new family member.’’
The man who converted Prakash was Harun Mehicevic, the leader of the Al Furqan group. The setting was a small meeting room within the Springvale Leisure Centre in Melbourne’s southeast. It was August 17, 2012, the last Friday of Ramadan. Within a year, Prakash would be bound for Syria and his new life as an Islamic State recruiter.
Mehicevic had not met Prakash before that day. According to Almatrah and another witness to Prakash’s conversion, it was a fluke they met at all. The plan had been to head for the local mosque, but they were late and missed afternoon prayers. When they arrived, there were about 35 people in the room. Many appeared to be converts. Some wore army fatigues. Mehicevic was dressed in flowing robes and brandished a long staff.
In keeping with Friday prayer custom, Mehicevic first delivered a sermon. Those who’ve heard his sermons say they are as political as they are religious and that Friday’s seems to have been no exception. As Prakash and his friends waited, the Bosnian emigre thundered about the struggles of Muslims around the world.
A prayer followed. Then came Prakash’s moment. Following Mehicevic’s lead, he repeated the Shahada. Before one of Australia’s most radical Islamic groups, he professed his new-found faith. “After that they did not leave him alone,’’ says a witness to the ceremony.
Prakash had always been an outsider. The only child of Cambodian and Fijian migrants, he was spurned by members of his own extended family and bullies at school for the darkness of his skin. He spent his later teenage years roaming the hard streets of Melbourne’s industrial west with a local youth gang, 3LK. They fought rivals gangs, sometimes with fists, other times with knives. It wasn’t Prakash’s fight — it wasn’t even his neighbourhood — but he yearned to belong to something.
The rest of his life was spent aimlessly, smoking dope, souping up old cars and laying down violent, misogynistic hip-hop tracks in the garage of one of his old childhood friends, James.
About six months before his conversion, he was dropped by his girlfriend of two years. A former friend of Prakash, who for security reasons asked not to be named, said Prakash, or Chris as he was known, took the break-up hard. “That twisted him,’’ said the friend, who The Australian will call Ahmad. “He was very depressed. He started to get a bit more aggressive after that.’’
The road from gang life to radical Islam is a well-trod one. One of Prakash’s old gang mates, a reformed local hood known as “Monster’’ Essen, appears to have been pivotal in piquing Prakash’s interest. Monster was the leader of Footscray’s 3LK gang. He served a six-month stint in jail for assaulting a man on the street. Not long after he was paroled, he converted to Islam.
Prakash was raised by his mother as a Buddhist but a trip to Cambodia, the county of his mother’s birth, left Prakash disillusioned with his native faith. He despised the idolatry and what he saw as the commercial corruption of Buddhism. He and Monster started talking regularly about religion.
Almatrah also spoke of Prakash’s spiritual curiosity. He said when Prakash first told him he wanted to become a Muslim he was sceptical. “I said, ‘Look mate, I don’t need any more friends, if you want to convert to Islam, before you convert, come to my house and just start learning the Arabic language’. You could just tell from the kid that he was just looking for a group, something to belong to.’’
Prakash did as he was told. He turned up at Almatrah’s house and let his Syrian friend show him the rudiments of the Arabic language. Then, one day, Prakash told Almatrah he wanted to take the Shahada. Almatrah thought it was unnecessary. “I said: ‘You already have, you’ve said it in front of all of us. You’re already a Muslim.’ ’’
But Prakash was insistent. So on a Friday afternoon, Prakash, Almatrah and a few others bundled themselves into a car and headed for the local mosque. According to Almatrah, the plan had been for Prakash to repeat the Shahada at the Dandenong mosque. But the group was running late so instead they headed for the Springvale Leisure Centre, where they had heard a congregation of brothers held late Friday prayers. There they found Mehicevic, the Bosnian national who had arrived in Australia in the mid-1990s.
A month later, when ASIO and Australian Federal Police agents raided the Al Furqan bookstore in Springvale South, Mehicevic rose to national prominence as the leader of a group suspected by counter-terrorism authorities of being a hub for Islamic extremists.
Mehicevic denies that. He says he is no extremist. He confirms he knew Prakash but declined to answer The Australian’s questions about Prakash’s conversion.
Almatrah said he never went back to Al Furqan after that Friday afternoon. But Prakash did. In the months that followed, the brothers from Al Furqan took an intense interest in their new convert.
Mehicevic’s prayer group included names such as Jake Bilardi, the articulate, teenage jihadist who drove a truck bomb into a checkpoint in Syria; Tahmid Mirza, the Islamic State sympathiser who celebrated his birthday with a Twin Towers cake; and Numan Haider, a young man shot dead by police after attacking them with a knife. Prakash was encouraged to become a regular at prayers and other events.
Those close to Prakash say he was initially uneasy about the attention lavished upon him by the Al Furqan crew. “In the beginning he didn’t like them,’’ said Ahmad. “(But) they were real persistent with him. They wouldn’t leave him alone.’’
Not long before he left Australia for Syria, Prakash dined at an Ascot Vale restaurant, in Melbourne’s inner northwest. At the table was Musa Cerantonio, at that time considered a firebrand preacher and very much on the radar of authorities. Cerantonio, when contacted by The Australian, confirmed the encounter, but claims they only talked about the food. He says that was the only time he met Prakash.
After Prakash left Australia, but before he surfaced in Syria as Abu Khaled al-Cambodi, an Islamic State propagandist whose preferred battle ground is Twitter and encrypted chat rooms, his Melbourne family asked Almatrah to help them find him. A Facebook message from the kid he once knew convinced him Prakash wasn’t coming home. “I felt like someone was in his ear, telling him what to type.’’