Located on the outskirts of Buckinghamshire, Fulmer is your typically affluent English village. Locals enjoy privacy behind manicured grounds and the only destinations nearby are the pub and Pinewood film studios a mile or so away.
Nor is Fulmer a place people snoop around or gossip. But if it was, they may have noticed an unusual neighbour living among them for the past decade. Draped in black cloth and a white turban wrapped around his head, Fulmer is also home to Kuwaiti Shia cleric Yasser Al-Habib and his radical organisation, the Mahdi Servants Union (MSU, Ittihad Khoddam al-Mahdi in Arabic).
Beyond the gates of a £2 million compound – also known as the Minor Land of Fadak - Yasser Al-Habib directs MSU’s global operations and broadcasts its dedicated channel Fadak TV. Meanwhile, men in faux-military uniforms parade around the compound’s courtyard clutching swords.
"The Mahdi Servants Union is not as moderate or mainstream as their TV appearances suggest. Its satellite channel, Fadak TV...is currently under investigation by Ofcom for the incitement of crime and disorder"
Rewind to June 2022 and UK news report crowds of mostly Sunni Muslims protesting outside a screening of a film. The film in question, The Lady of Heaven, is said to depict the Prophet Muhammad – generally forbidden in Islam - and defame his companions, sparking sectarian fears and raising communal tension.
Under pressure, Cineworld - the cinema chain responsible - pulls the film from its schedule. But instead of burying the issue, the incident quickly escalates into a media frenzy.
Crying ‘culture war’, the UK’s free speech brigade whirred into action: they blamed the protesters for opposing ‘liberal British values’ and jumped to the defence of Abdul-Malik Shlibak, one of The Lady of Heaven’s executive producers and the public face of the film. Shlibak, an articulate, and seemingly well-mannered millennial, was then interviewed by the BBC and GB News about the film’s release and he justified its content on free speech grounds.
On each occasion, however, little mention was given to Abdul-Malik Shlibak’s affiliation with the Mahdi Servants Union, Sheikh Yasser Al-Habib’s role as The Lady of Heaven’s screenwriter or the MSU’s history of violent rhetoric and paramilitary posturing.
The New Arab (TNA) visited the MSU compound in Fulmer on April 4 but was told interviews were not possible without prior authorisation. MSU officials were not available to comment on the content of this investigation by the time of publication.
On 4 August 2022, just over a month after Shlibak’s final media appearance for The Lady of Heaven, the Mahdi Servants Union stormed the Azerbaijani Embassy in London. And despite links tying the two events together, media coverage was limited and none of the English-language news outlets that interviewed Shlibak chose to cover the attack.
The Mahdi Servants Union is not as moderate or mainstream as their TV appearances suggest. Its satellite channel, Fadak TV – run by Abdul-Malik Shlibak – is currently under investigation by the UK's communications regulator (Ofcom) for “incitement of crime and disorder”, The New Arab can reveal based on leaked documents.
The attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in London was not their first rodeo either. Followers of the MSU have attacked two other embassies in the past: the Iranian Embassy on 9 March 2018 and the Saudi Arabian Embassy on 11 May 2022, less than three months before their most recent raid on Baku's diplomatic outpost.
Yet, despite countless run-ins with the British authorities, the MSU has never faced any major consequences.
The New Arab spoke with Hamid Dhaif-Allah Al-Tahir, former CEO of Fadak TV, who believes that “the Charity Commission and Scotland Yard have turned a blind eye to the MSU. They [the Mahdi Servants Union] have breached their red lines but somehow aren’t considered a national security threat.”
The clerical error
MSU’s charismatic leader Yasser Al-Habib is no stranger to controversy or ‘blasphemy’. He first made headlines in his native Kuwait in 2003 after being convicted of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, abusing a religious sect and distributing an audiotape without a licence”.
Al-Habib was meant to serve a year in prison but, according to a report by Amnesty International, was accidentally released after a few months as part of a mass pardon by the country’s Emir to celebrate Kuwait’s national day.
A 2004 State Department Cable, sourced from the US Embassy in Kuwait and released by Wikileaks, explains that Al-Habib’s release was “apparently by mistake”. The cleric instead claimed it was an act of God in a 2010 interview with the Pan-Arab newspaper Elaph. Many remain sceptical of both explanations, leading to speculation that it was an intervention by the British state.
Al-Habib soon fled the country and was sentenced to ten years in prison in absentia. His exile took him to Iraq, then Iran, and finally to the UK in 2005. That year he established the Mahdi Servants Union, which, after two changes of location, eventually settled in the up-market Buckinghamshire village of Fulmer in 2012.
No reliable figures are available on the number of MSU followers worldwide.
The Mahdi Servants Union professes service to Imam al-Mahdi – the twelfth and final Imam of Shia Islam and a messianic figure in its eschatology – and is made of practitioners of the Twelver branch of Shiism.
An elementary understanding of the difference between Islam’s two major sects, Sunni and Shia Islam, revolves around the succession to Prophet Muhammad after his death. Each sect posits a history and follows a certain order of characters.
For a young Yasser Al-Habib, his education under the Shirazi school of Shiism was formative. Based alongside a number of Shia Muslim clerical families headquartered in Qom, Iran, the Shirazi family are considered to be among the most influential Shia thinkers.
"Al-Habib pits the fervour of his followers against other religious and political groups: the greater the opposition, the greater the rejection, and the closer they are to the ‘true’ form of Shia faith"
In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the Shirazi family, who also hold offices in Iraq and Kuwait, were one of many Shia scholarly powers to oppose Ruhollah Khomeini’s one-cleric rule. Instead, their position of creating a council of clerics to rule Iran meant ostracisation from the country’s political field.
Mainstream Shiism also views the Shirazi teachings as a danger to society. For instance, Shirazi scholarship often encourages Shia Muslims to openly declare the faith’s opposition to characters revered by Sunni Islam.
Yasser Al-Habib’s belief in Shirazi teachings has since morphed into his own, even more problematic, version. Part charisma, part fire and brimstone, Al-Habib’s cultish appeal is reflected in his bombastic lectures. Using a centuries-old mantra central to Shiism, Yasser Al-Habib refers to his school – the rejectionists (Rafida in Arabic) – as the truest form of Shia Islam.
As the name suggests, Al-Habib pits the fervour of his followers against other religious and political groups: the greater the opposition, the greater the rejection, and the closer they are to the ‘true’ form of Shia faith.
This idea of Rafida is a differentiating marker from the mainstream Shia discourse he often criticises. While Al-Habib’s attacks tend to focus on Sunnis, the Sheikh’s divisiveness has apparently “strained his relationship with the Shirazis, despite continuing to receive untraceable donations”, according to the former director of Fadak TV, Hamid Al-Tahir.
As Oliver Scharbrodt, Professor of the History of Religions and Religious Behavioural Science at Lund University, explained to TNA, Al-Habib is “a fringe phenomenon within the Shirazi community […]. Most people in London and the Middle East disagree with his methods of deliberately trying to cause scandal. To see him as a typical representative of the Shirazi movement does the [...] movement injustice.”
Fadak TV and Ofcom investigations
If scandal is the Mahdi Servants Union’s formula for fame, The Lady of Heaven was its most audacious, fire-fanning stunt to date.
Released to a limited number of UK cinemas on 3 June 2022, the film follows a dual storyline. The first takes place in the battle-strewn city of Mosul in Iraq, where a young boy turned orphan, Laith, is caught up in the violence of the Islamic State (IS) after the murder of his mother. Laith is adopted by a soldier from Baghdad, and the soldier’s mother comforts him by telling him the story of Fatima, Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
The second storyline catapults the viewer back to mid-seventh-century Arabia and depicts a Shia version of the succession to Prophet Muhammad.
Through the film’s dual narrative, Yasser Al-Habib’s script invokes one of MSU’s prevailing ideas: that contemporary manifestations of Sunni extremism - such as Al-Qaeda and IS - can be traced back to Abu Bakr and Omar’s supposed involvement in Fatima’s death.
For Sunni Muslims, Abu Bakr and Omar are highly venerated as two of the four 'rightly guided’ successors (caliphs) to the Prophet Muhammad after his death.
The link between the founders of Sunni Islam and Islamic State jihadists forms the not-so-subtle subtext of The Lady of Heaven and the basis for the furore surrounding the film. But for regular viewers of MSU’s Fadak TV, this comparison is nothing out of the ordinary.
"Fadak TV’s fifth investigation by Ofcom is currently ongoing"
According to Hamid Al-Tahir, Fadak TV was reportedly established in 2010 after a successful donation drive following Yasser Al-Habib’s ‘death day’ stunt for Prophet Muhammad’s third wife, Aisha.
Shia Muslims believe Aisha, alongside Abu Bakr and Omar, conspired against Prophet Muhammad’s family after his death.
Every year since, the Mahdi Servants Union has broadcast celebrations of her death on Fadak TV. The 2023 edition of Aisha’s ‘death day’ had, for instance, children recite the phrase - “Aisha is in hell” (Aisha fin-naar) between shots of them playing on an inflatable slide and riding a pony.
Stunts like this demonstrate however how the MSU differs from most mainstream Shia. In response to Al-Habib, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader of Iran, declared insults levelled at Aisha to be "offensive" and banned them through a decree (fatwa) issued in 2010. To celebrate the death of Aisha is far from mainstream, and would be seen by most as deliberately provocative.
In 2012, Yasser Al-Habib said on Fadak TV that all non-Shia men are homosexual and all non-Shia women are prostitutes. The sermon also includes the sentence: “If the newborn is not one of our Shiites, the devil inserts his index finger into the anus of the newborn.”
This lecture resulted in the first of five referrals to Ofcom. And whilst four of these have been judged to clear Ofcom’s “generally accepted standards”, the regulator has also issued “guidance” to Fadak TV. Ofcom has declined to share this guidance with The New Arab.
Fadak TV’s fifth investigation by Ofcom is currently ongoing, but TNA has obtained leaked documents that reveal the content of the potentially offending broadcast.
On 25 June 2022, three weeks after Abdul-Malik Shlibak was interviewed by anti-immigrant British politician Nigel Farage on GB News, Fadak TV broadcast a lecture from Yasser Al-Habib titled “After the Policy of Slippers and Pounds…the Policy of Hitting the Back!”
The sermon details how “malicious” and “cancerous” elements of society should be removed. Al-Habib remarks: “Someone who knows not the difference between right and wrong, has no morals, is obscene and has no respect for life [...]. He deserves to be [...] cast out and harmed and shamed publicly to make him repent for his sins or to be ashamed of himself.”
The MSU leader goes on to recommend the methods of the Jordanian and Egyptian secret services, specifically smacking the back of the neck with shoes, to humiliate those who transgress.
The leaked document from Ofcom says the material “raises potential issues” under two rules of the broadcasting code: “Material likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime and disorder” (3.1) and “generally accepted standards” (2.3). Ofcom has declined to comment on either case or TNA’s findings as their investigation is ongoing.
The Mahdi Servants Union’s deep pockets
The Mahdi Servants Union has apparently been able to finance the broadcast and production of Fadak TV, purchase their £2 million property in Fulmer and spend a reported £10 million on The Lady of Heaven film, exclusively through donations.
According to information provided to TNA by Al-Tahir, the former director of Fadak TV, and reflected in the accounts of MSU-associated firm “Companies for BV Projects Limited”, the Mahdi Servants Union also spent £4 million on a failed film project in 2017.
Yet, the MSU has historically found it difficult to manage large sums of money. Al-Tahir told TNA that their accounts had been mistakenly flagged for financial mismanagement, as the group lacked a financial filing system, resulting in two Charity Commission investigations.
The first investigation was launched in 2014 after the Charity Commission learnt that the fund-raising organisation that bought MSU’s Fulmer headquarters had been dissolved a year before. In a written response to The New Arab, the commission declined to comment on what led them to close the inquiry. Al-Tahir, whose name was on the property’s title deed, maintains this was a mistake and says the investigation resulted in an order to sign over the property to a new charitable organisation, Al-Muhassin Mosque.
The New Arab contacted the Land Registry, which corroborated Al-Tahir’s version of the events.
In August 2017 a second investigation was launched into Fadak Media Broadcasts after the body’s trustees had informed the commission that one of their directors was embezzling funds. The rogue director was alleged to be Hamid al-Tahir.
The Charity Commission and Scotland Yard cleared Hamid al-Tahir of fraud and forgery. Instead, they found that “the trustees were not meeting their legal obligation under charity law to maintain adequate records,” and that the Mahdi Servants Union had "used overseas representatives to collect cash donations on behalf of the charity, from anonymous donors, who travelled to the UK to hand over the cash.”
Al-Tahir says he left the Mahdi Servants Union in 2017, after the failure of their first attempt at filmmaking, A Beautiful Voice. He told TNA that he had also had a personal falling out with Yasser Al-Habib, who was his brother-in-law at the time. It was after this dispute that allegations of fraud were reportedly made against him.
It is therefore possible for some of Al-Tahir’s statements on MSU to be motivated by personal resentment against Yasser Al-Habib.
Besides The Mahdi Servants Union’s screen-based exploits, the other way MSU has gained a troubled reputation is by storming embassies in London.
MSU’s first attack on the Iranian Embassy in 2018 was in reaction to the arrest of Hussain Al-Shirazi, the son of Ayatollah Sadeq Al-Shirazi in Qom, Iran. A Shia scholar in his own right, Hussain Al-Shirazi’s arrest was due to allegedly comparing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to a “pharaoh” in one of his lectures.
In response, four MSU militants climbed up onto the embassy’s balcony. All were released without charge.
Four years later MSU attacked the Saudi Embassy. Only one person, Hussain Azawi, breached the embassy’s perimeter. Azawi was arrested peacefully on the lawn and released without charge.
The MSU's attack on the Azerbaijani embassy on 4 August 2022 was by far the most destructive. The group motivated its raid as a response to the alleged arrest of a woman for writing “Shia slogans” on the wall of her house in Azerbaijan. Images and videos show crowds of MSU militants vandalising property. In a statement, the Azerbaijani Embassy described the Mahdi Servants Union as a "radical religious group".
Eight men were found to be guilty of diplomatic trespass. They were put on trial at Westminster Magistrates Court and all received three-month suspended sentences and fines ranging from £100 to £199.
The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on whether they had been in contact with MSU and measures had been taken to prevent future incidents.
[First image: MSU Spokesman Hicham Lachkar posts a video on Twitter, documenting the group's attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in London on 4 August 2022. Second image: Yasser al-Habib issues a statement on Twitter one day ahead of the raid, calling on his followers to act against the "secular Azeri regime".]
Scenes of balaclava-clad youth aren't only found outside London’s embassies. Back in Fulmer, the Elite Guard (Shurtat Al-Khamis) prepares for one of its processions.
Dressed in dark military fatigues, they parade around the MSU headquarters, led by their commander Mustafa Younis, who often brandishes a sword. The Lady of Heaven producer Abdul-Malik Shlibak tags along, filming the brigade with steeled expression.
Named after the Elite Guard of Imam Ali, the first Imam of Shia Islam whose death in 661 AD caused the Sunni-Shia split, the taskforce is entrusted with the “security of the official headquarters” and “organising honorary ceremonies during important MSU events”.
The extent to which the Elite Guard is operational, however, remains up for debate. In 2016, the MSU claimed a detachment of their paramilitary organisation was fighting IS in Iraq as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Formed in 2014 after the fall of Mosul into the hands of IS, the PMF is a collection of Iran-backed Shia-majority militias that fought the Islamic State. Officially, they are part of the Iraqi armed forces, however many groups operate with a level of autonomy.
In 2016 Fadak TV broadcast a clip of unarmed men carrying an MSU flag at a meeting with PMF Commander Hamed Hussein Al-Araji in Karbala. But a spokesperson from the PMF Media Directorate's official Facebook page told TNA that there are no records of any Elite Guard in their database. There are no reliable estimates on the number of Elite Guard fighters.
Security services asset?
Al-Habib’s good fortune, deep pockets, anti-Iranian agenda, and the light touch MSU seems to receive from UK authorities, has led many to believe that he is an asset of Western security services. Social media threads are awash with speculation as to how and why the cleric is protected.
In fact, rumours go beyond social media and are openly shared by key decision-makers in the Shia political sphere. Iran-backed Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has gone on record calling Al-Habib a British agent, an accusation Al-Habib mockingly addressed in a recent video.
Al-Habib’s sectarianism is believed to tie into a Western strategy of promoting instability in the Middle East through proxies. “He is not being backed but he is [being] used. They use him as a point of contention,” ex-MSU insider Hamid al-Tahir told The New Arab.
In any case, accusing Al-Habib of being a state-sponsored puppet suggests a forfeiture of agency, and that ‘other’ forces feed his followers. These are far from being mainstream, but they still enjoy a base of support in the region.
British double standards on deradicalisation
As this TNA investigation reveals, the group led by Sheikh Yasser al-Habib continues to endanger the social fabric of British Islam and to be platformed, almost without disruption.
Under the UK authorities’ watchful eye, the treatment of the Mahdi Servants Union raises a number of questions. Despite a history of violent rhetoric and sectarianism, MSU’s activities have failed to warrant serious investigation. This contradicts the UK’s emphasis on national security and the strategies in place to prevent extremism and radicalisation.
Anas Ambri and Sami Hadaya contributed to this investigation.
Questions, comments or complaints related to this investigation can be sent to thenewarab[at]tutanota[dot]com . Please resort to encryption for sensitive content.