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How a bungled terror case ruined the career of an outstanding headteacher

Abdullah Keekeebhai was held in limbo for years and government agencies made false claims about his school

Abdullah Keekeebhai was the headteacher of a successful independent Islamic school in London until July 2019, when he was wrongly accused by police of obstructing a counter-terrorism investigation.

Keekeebhai was forced to resign and given an interim ban from schools while he was investigated for misconduct by the UK’s teaching regulator. He was eventually cleared in December 2023, but by then he had lost his career and his reputation had been ruined.

“My career in education has literally stopped during this near-five-year trial period,” Keekeebhai told Middle East Eye.

In the course of clearing his name, it became apparent that multiple public bodies, including the police, the Department for Education (DfE), and the Charity Commission, had all played a role in the events which led to Keekeebhai losing his job.

Government agencies made false claims about Keekeebhai’s school, Lantern of Knowledge, which were repeated unchallenged in the media.

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The treatment of Keekeebhai has echoes of the so-called Trojan Horse affair, a now debunked episode in which Muslim teachers and governors were accused of plotting to take over and Islamicise state schools in Birmingham - which became a major media story in 2014.

In both incidents, successful Muslim teachers were wrongly targeted and smeared, with misconduct cases brought against Birmingham teachers over the Trojan Horse allegations collapsing in 2017.

According to John Holmwood, an emeritus professor of sociology and a defence witness for both Keekeebhai and the Trojan Horse teachers, these cases have formed “part of a worrying pattern of high profile cases used by lobby groups and government to promote policies that restrict the full participation of Muslims in public life”.

Once praised by inspectors for his delivery of the UK government’s “British values” agenda, Keekeebhai told MEE he now sees his own case as an example of a “systematic prejudice” he believes Muslim schools are facing.

A multicultural success story

Now in his mid-50s, Abdullah Keekeebhai has lived in London since he was a young child.

Giving testimony during the hearing, he appeared eloquent, confident and good-humoured.

One staff member at Lantern of Knowledge school, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, told MEE he remembered Keekeebhai as a hardworking, dedicated and passionate headteacher.

He was also a “kind, polite, bubbly chap, who went out of his way to help people in whatever way possible”.

But Keekeebhai told MEE of the devastating toll that fighting the case had taken on him.

“I couldn’t afford legal help so initially I was replying to the allegations on my own,” he said.

Searching “Lantern of Knowledge” online will still turn up a series of false reports and misrepresentations of the school, published by national newspapers.

Talking to MEE, Keekeebhai appeared keen to give his side of the story, but also understandably wary of the media. He is reluctant to pose for a photo for this story, eventually only agreeing to be photographed if his face cannot be seen.

Keekeebhai had joined the newly-opened Lantern of Knowledge, an all-boys secondary faith school, in 2006 as a helper.

Located in a row of terrace houses in Leyton, east London, the small school is currently attended by 113 pupils aged between 11 and 16.

The Lantern of Knowledge Islamic school, in Waltham Forest, northeast London (Google Streetview)
The Lantern of Knowledge Islamic school, in Waltham Forest, northeast London (Google Streetview)

In 2013 he became the headteacher of the school. Two years later, an Ofsted inspection judged the school "outstanding". Special praise was reserved for its teaching on "British values", a set of values including "democracy" and "mutual respect and tolerance" laid out in the 2011 Prevent counter-extremism strategy which schools were required to "actively promote".

Keekeebhai described managing the school, a charity with a limited budget and few resources, as stressful and challenging. The annual fee per pupil was then £3,000, compared to Britain’s independent school average of £12,153 (around $15,400) in 2013.

Despite this, when Ofsted inspectors visited in 2015, they found that pupils “make outstanding progress in nearly all subjects”.

The inspectors observed that the Islamic school had “forged a purposeful partnership with a local church, a Catholic boys’ school and a local community group”. 

They noted that pupils “speak with pride about their faith” and were "accepting and understanding of those with other beliefs and lifestyles”.

Keekeebhai said he wanted to make sure that the school’s pupils were exposed to, and able to engage with, as many different parts of British society as possible.

In October 2016, another Ofsted inspection concluded that Lantern of Knowledge encouraged its pupils to “become respected British citizens”.

MEE interviewed Koyrul Alam, a teacher at the school, who recalled Keekeebhai to be a “very supportive headteacher” who “always wanted to give more to the students".

By all measures, Lantern of Knowledge was a multicultural success story. The boys were taken on trips to parliament, and to museums. They learnt about the democratic process. Incidents of bullying were unheard of - and the headteacher held daily one-to-one discussions with teachers about the pupils.

Umar Haque

The school’s trouble stemmed from its brief employment from April 2015 until January 2016 of a man named Umar Haque.

In March 2018, Haque was jailed for a minimum life sentence of 25 years after being convicted at the Old Bailey of multiple terrorism offences including plotting attacks on a number of London landmarks.

Haque, who prosecutors said was inspired by the Islamic State (IS) group, was also convicted of trying to recruit children to IS while teaching at the Ripple Road Mosque in Barking, east London, between December 2016 and April 2017.

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In a statement about Haque's conviction, the Crown Prosecution Service said he had sought to radicalise boys aged between 12 and 14 during their weekly lessons at the mosque.

"He said the boys should join Daesh [IS] because one day the terror group would rule Europe. Haque role-played mock attacks where the boys would pretend to be the police and attackers," the CPS said.

It emerged during Haque’s trial that the prosecution believed that he “had determined in 2016 and early 2017 to carry out a violent attack or attacks”.

At Lantern of Knowledge in 2015, Haque had been employed part-time to teach a supplementary Islamic studies class, and had passed through the school without leaving much of an impression, Keekeebhai said.

"Most of his responsibilities related to supervision duties in the presence of other staff members. He had an insignificant impact overall," he said.

Counter-terrorism police appear to have begun investigating Haque around three months after he left the school.

He had been stopped by police on his way to Istanbul, en route to Saudi Arabia, on 11 April 2016, and his passport was subsequently revoked by the Home Office, an apparent indication Haque had by then been identified as someone displaying concerning behaviour and beliefs, and a possible security threat.

“They might have referred him to Prevent,” John Holmwood told MEE. “But instead kept him under surveillance.”

The custody photograph of Umar Haque (AFP)
Umar Haque's photograph taken in the Metropolitan Police's custody (AFP)

The police began monitoring Haque’s communications on 17 February 2017. 

Over a week earlier, on 9 February 2017, two officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command had visited Lantern of Knowledge, looking for information about Haque. They gave the headteacher no indication of what their concerns were specifically about.

One of the officers, “Witness A”, would subsequently make a statement to the Department for Education in 2019 that would have profound consequences for Keekeebhai’s career.

Witness A referred to the headteacher in his notes from the school visit, which were included in documents presented at the TRA hearing, as a “male in his forties who was wearing Islamic dress”.

Keekeebhai told the officers there had been no concerns about Haque. He was relaxed throughout the police interview and had no reservations about talking - until Witness A asked him to sign a written record of what he had said. Keekeebhai found this unexpected and declined to sign.

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Witness A also asked for Haque’s personnel files, but Keekeebhai said he needed to seek legal advice and speak to the school’s trustees.

The school heard nothing further from the police until 17 May, when Haque was arrested. The two officers gave Keekeebhai a Data Protection Act form requesting the names and contact details of all pupils who had been at the “mosque” when Haque was working there, and of pupils who had had direct contact with Haque.

But Lantern of Knowledge was not a mosque. The form suggests that the officers were confusing the school with Ripple Road Mosque, where Haque had worked more recently.

It asked for information on Abuthaher Mamun, who had worked with Haque at the mosque and was convicted alongside him. But Mamun had no connection with the school. 

Keekeebhai sought legal guidance.

That same day he also called a local Prevent schools officer to affirm the school would “cooperate fully whilst bearing in mind data protection”, according to documents presented at the TRA hearing.

He also sent the Department for Education a letter clarifying this, and phoned Darren McAughtrie, a member of the local authority, the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

On 23 May - no more than four working days after the police visit - Keekeebhai handed over Haque’s employee records. But documents submitted to the TRA hearing show that by then, on 19 May, police officers from Counter Terrorism Command had already privately contacted officials at the Department for Education.

They suggested instigating a short-notice inspection of the school by Ofsted, the schools standards agency. 

The inspection, which focused on “safeguarding, pupils’ welfare, health and safety, and the promotion of fundamental British values”, took place on 15 June. One of the inspectors brought in was an ex-Prevent officer with special security clearance.

The resulting report was dramatically different from previous Ofsted reports and heavily criticised the school. But the inspectors did not find any justification for taking action against it.

An unreasonable delay?

The TRA would later allege that Keekeebhai had unreasonably delayed providing the police with information.

Documents presented at the TRA hearing told a different story. On 21 June a police officer had told Keekeebhai and the school's governors that “the police have been given all of the information they required at this stage”, and that they now wanted to “widen their enquiries”.

This crucial statement appeared to contradict the account of events later described by Witness A, and undermined the TRA’s allegations against Keekeebhai.

The police had that day also asked Keebeebhai for a list of all current pupils at the school. Keekeebhai sent it to them the next day. In an email to him, an officer said: “Many thanks for your quick response with the list.”

On 27 July, the local Prevent coordinator asked Keekeebhai for details of the teachers at Lantern of Knowledge. Keekeebhai replied, correctly, that he would need the teachers’ agreement or a court order.

It was only on 15 November that the police gave him the relevant paperwork. Keekeebhai sent them the list of staff immediately. In the end, the police did not interview a single teacher.

Despite all of this, Keekeebhai would come to be accused of having obstructed the investigation.

The case collapses

In June and July, the police interviewed around 50 pupils who had been in direct contact with Haque. 

At Ripple Road Mosque, where Haque had taught after leaving Lantern of Knowledge, a number of children were deemed to have been radicalised and in need of long-term support.

By contrast, at Lantern of Knowledge, the police decided that no children had been at risk of radicalisation.

In June 2023, Haque - by then in prison - was banned from teaching by the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA). At his hearing, a TRA panel heard from the police that Haque had shown pupils an Islamic State (IS) video. Haque told the hearing he had showed pupils a video "so that they could see both sides".

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But there are significant discrepancies between different accounts of this incident, and police do not appear to have asked pupils any follow-up questions to address these.

According to police documents presented at Keekeebhai's TRA hearing, two of the children interviewed in 2017 told police that Haque showed them a violent IS video. Another pupil said Haque had shown the class a non-violent video relating to IS.

Significantly, the police concluded that none of them needed Prevent support.

Instead, the prosecution against Haque decided to rely at his trial on the witness statement of one child who said that he had shown the class a violent IS video.

During the court proceedings, which began in January 2018, the child took the prosecution by surprise by withdrawing his witness statement and saying he had provided it under pressure.

In late March 2018, the court found Haque guilty of multiple terrorism offences, including the charge that he had sought to recruit and radicalise children at Ripple Road Mosque. 

Because of the pupil’s withdrawn statement, however, the specific case that involved Lantern of Knowledge could not proceed to verdict.

Attacked in the press - and by officials

The school nonetheless faced scrutiny in the media following Haque’s conviction.

The Guardian reported that Ofsted “faces questions over how it was able to rate the Lantern of Knowledge school as outstanding after an inspection held at a time when Haque was allegedly preaching hate to the children".

Several news reports lumped the school together with Ripple Road Mosque. The Mirror, for example, reported that “Haque had access to 250 children while working at the mosque and two schools in east London - 110 of whom he tried to radicalise and 'prepare for martyrdom'.”

An article in Reuters said Haque groomed “110 children into becoming militants at the Lantern of Knowledge, a small private Islamic school, and at a madrassa connected to the Ripple Road Mosque in east London.”

A report in The Telegraph about Lantern of Knowledge school on 2 March 2018 (Screengrab)
A report in The Telegraph about Umar Haque's trial on 2 March 2018 (Screengrab)

Most significantly, Commander Dean Haydon - then head of the Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command - told the media: "[Lantern of Knowledge] is a fee-paying school. Parents are paying a significant amount of money to send their children to a school where they would expect them to be safe and be taught by fully qualified teachers. In this case, they weren't."

He said the police had faced a "wall of silence" when they tried to investigate. The evidence presented at Keekeebhai's TRA hearing would later show that this was not the case. But it was publicised at the time in several news reports.

MEE put it to the Metropolitan Police that Haydon had issued a false statement. A spokesperson told MEE that the police force "will not be commenting on this matter any further at this time as it is for the relevant education authorities to comment on their misconduct processes, which are not police or criminal matters".

Also heavily publicised at the time of Haque's conviction was a statement by Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s deputy chief inspector. Coffey said: “It is of deep regret that [Haque] was able to work within the independent school system and expose his warped ideology to children.”

But this had not been proven in the trial, since the charge that Haque had shown an IS video to pupils at Lantern of Knowledge had not proceeded to a verdict following the pupil's withdrawal of his statement.

In January 2019, Lantern of Knowledge faced another Ofsted inspection. An earlier inspection in December 2017, before the trial, had downgraded the school’s status to “requires improvement” - but praised the school’s safeguarding arrangements.

By contrast, the 2019 inspection found the school “inadequate”; inspectors judged that it failed to meet all the standards required of independent schools. Yet again, though, the report found no safeguarding issues.

And when inspectors returned in July 2019, they judged that the school had returned to meeting independent school standards.

This was what they had found in inspections in 2015 and 2016 - before Counter Terrorism Command had contacted the Department for Education.

Ofsted's most recent inspection in September 2023 rated the school "good" and judged its safeguarding arrangements "effective".

Banned from teaching

Following the conviction of Umar Haque and the flurry of media coverage that accompanied it, Keekeebhai was hopeful that he and his colleagues at Lantern of Knowledge could put the episode behind them and focus on teaching.

But there was another problem heading in the head teacher’s direction.

After the trial, the judge kept the charges relating to Lantern of Knowledge on file. That allowed the police to look for better evidence with which to retry the case.

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“When none could be found," Holmwood said, "it appears the police decided to approach the Department for Education to bring proceedings of professional misconduct against Keekeebhai.”

In June 2019, Witness A made a statement accusing Keekeebhai of having obstructed the police investigation.

On that basis, in July the Department for Education informed Keekeebhai it was “minded” to bar him from the management of any independent school.

In September 2019, the Teaching Regulation Agency notified Keekeebhai that it had received a referral from the police in pursuit of banning him from teaching. In February 2020, the TRA gave Keekeebhai an interim ban. 

The Department for Education also barred Keekeebhai from managing any independent school.

One Lantern of Knowledge staff member, speaking anonymously, told MEE he was “shocked and baffled” by the decision.

“I knew what he was accused of was false,” another teacher, Koyrul Alam, recalled. “Mr Keekeebhai’s priority was to protect the privacy and confidentiality of all pupils and staff.”

At that point, the school was in the headlines again.

On 21 August 2020, the Charity Commission had given Lantern of Knowledge’s trustees a formal warning, stating that they were responsible for “misconduct and/or mismanagement”.

Tim Hopkins, the Charity Commission’s assistant director for investigations, told the press that: “[Umar] Haque’s action at this charity was appalling.

“It is completely unacceptable for any charity to be associated with terrorism and we are concerned by the corrosive effect this might have on public confidence in this and other charities.”

This triggered another series of media reports about the school.

'I knew what he was accused of was false. Mr Keekeebhai’s priority was to protect the privacy and confidentiality of all pupils and staff'

- Koyrul Alam, teacher

A Daily Mail headline, for example, described Lantern of Knowledge as the “private Islamic school that allowed teacher now jailed for life for terrorism to show children a pro-ISIS video”. 

Keekeebhai has been unable to work in education since July 2019. The TRA took over two and a half years after receiving the police referral to bring allegations against him in April 2022.

Keekeebhai told MEE he felt such a long delay was “completely unfair” and “totally unacceptable”.

The TRA has come under heavy criticism for its practices.

This past April, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, accused the regulator of "vying to hold the mantle of bully in chief".

He argued that the TRA's operation had lasting and immensely damaging consequences: "Teachers left in limbo. Careers on hold and teachers blacklisted… untold damage is being caused to teachers' personal and family lives."

The hearing was eventually set for February 2023, but was postponed and finally held in September last year. 

The allegations against Keekeebhai were wide-ranging. The TRA accused him of “unacceptable professional misconduct”, of unreasonable delays in providing the police information, and of having “misled and/or attempted to mislead the police and/or the local authority”.

Lantern of Knowledge pupils taking part in a local street clean (London Borough of Waltham Forest)
Lantern of Knowledge pupils taking part in a local street clean (London Borough of Waltham Forest)

The TRA also alleged that Keekeebhai failed to safeguard pupils, fulfil his duty under Prevent and follow Prevent guidance.

“The case was entirely based on one police officer’s narrative and I was worried it would end up being my word against the authorities’,” Keekeebhai said. “Thankfully, as the case developed to a final hearing, Prevent Watch assisted with expert help and legal funding.”

Prevent Watch is a non-profit that says it “supports and advises people impacted by the Prevent strategy of the UK's counter-extremism policy”.

It has typically supported people - including school children and their families - referred to Prevent, rather than those tasked with enforcing it in schools and other public bodies.

By the time the hearing started, Keekeebhai had begun to hope he could clear his name.

Found innocent

During the hearing, the TRA panel heard from the local council’s Darren McAughtrie, a witness for the prosecution.

It emerged that McAughtrie had accused Keekeebhai of being dishonest on the basis of what the police had told him - not his own personal dealings with the headteacher. He described Keekeebhai as a “pleasant gentleman to engage with”.

MEE contacted McAughtrie to see if he would comment on Keekeebhai being found innocent. He declined.

Witness A, the counter-terrorism officer whose statement had triggered the whole case, testified in closed session and asked successfully for his name to be struck from the record.

Witness A’s testimony was based on his contemporary notes, a statement drafted years later and his recollections.

'Once again, the government is proposing to double down on extremism. It is likely that such cases will recur'

- John Holmwood

But the minutes of police planning meetings and emails about the case were also disclosed. As reported in this article, they contradicted Witness A’s accusation that Keekeebhai was obstructive.

John Holmwood then appeared for the defence, arguing to the panel that Keekeebhai’s actions were in line with the Prevent duty.

Speaking to MEE afterwards, he said that because Keekeebhai’s was a civil case and the prosecution required a lower standard of proof than in a criminal case, it had been “more likely that the testimony of a serving police officer would be accepted".

It was thus, Holmwood said, “a measure of Mr Keekeebhai’s integrity and his punctilious character that he was able to clear his name".

In her closing statement, barrister Althea Brown - representing Keekeebhai - argued that the fact that no Lantern of Knowledge pupil had been radicalised reflected well on Keekeebhai and the school's staff. 

“That these young people had had contact with somebody who may have tried to radicalise them [Haque]," she said, "isn’t the same as saying there was a concern that young people had been [radicalised]. Exposure to material is not the same thing.

“It is to the credit of Mr Keekeebhai and his staff - their tremendous hard work, as evidenced in the school’s newsletters and Ofsted reports - that their children were resilient.”

In December, Keekeebhai’s name was finally cleared. The panel announced that it had found none of the allegations against him to be proven.

Keekeebhai said he had felt “relieved and grateful to Allah”. 

But the ordeal is not over yet. His next step is to have his ban on managing independent schools lifted by the Department for Education. He has applied to the department but has yet to hear anything back. 

'Such cases will recur'

Keekeebhai told MEE that before the affair, he had held a positive view of the police and public bodies.

But, he said, he now believes that the “Department for Education and Ofsted are systematically prejudiced against Muslim schools".

Ofsted told MEE that this was "patently untrue".

It pointed out that average ratings for Muslim independent schools were on a par with other independent schools, and that ratings for Muslim schools in the state sector were better than the national average.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: "In fact, 77 percent of non-association independent schools that have a Muslim faith ethos are currently rated good or outstanding, compared with 76 percent of all non-association independent schools, meaning outcomes are right in line with averages.

'While the number of [state] Muslim faith schools is relatively small, 94 percent are currently rated good or outstanding, compared with 89 percent of all state schools'

- Ofsted spokesperson

"And in the state schools sector, while the number of Muslim faith schools is relatively small, 94 percent are currently rated good or outstanding, compared with 89 percent of all state schools nationally."

Lantern of Knowledge was one of those schools that had been rated "outstanding" - before the police contacted the Department for Education in May 2017.

The TRA told MEE it did not comment on individual cases.

Keekeebhai reserved particular criticism for the police, noting that they “had access to their own internal minutes which contradicted [Witness A]’s statement, yet they supported his false claims".

The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on this.

The destruction of Abdullah Keekeebhai’s career and livelihood - and the hounding of Lantern of Knowledge in the press - was the result of interventions in the case by a number of public bodies.

But the case has also been used to bolster arguments in support of the government's controversial counter-extremism agenda.

In February 2020, Policy Exchange, the neoconservative think tank which helped expand Britain's counter-extremism programme, published a report on Ofsted, Britain's school inspection agency.

Policy Exchange strongly criticised Ofsted for having not detected “either of the two most prominent cases of extremism and radicalisation in schools to have occurred in recent years in the UK". 

One of those, the report explained, was the "Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham". The other was the case of Lantern of Knowledge.

The Trojan Horse affair has been definitively proven to have been non-existent. 

It is thus noteworthy that neither of Policy Exchange’s “two most prominent cases of extremism and radicalisation in schools”, Trojan Horse and Lantern of Knowledge, were cases of extremism and radicalisation at all.

There are other similarities between the two cases. Both involved inaccurate media coverage. Both saw teachers losing their livelihoods - and both involved Ofsted inspections whose findings were dramatically different from previous “outstanding” judgements.

Holmwood sees another, particularly tragic, similarity: with Keekeebhai as headteacher, Lantern of Knowledge was the very exemplification of successful multiculturalism.

So were the so-called Trojan Horse schools.

“Tragically, just as was the case in the Trojan Horse affair, so-called British values and so-called Islamic values were perfectly aligned. In each case, those responsible for outstanding educational achievements were pilloried," said Holmwood.

“Once again, the government is proposing to double down on extremism. It is likely that such cases will recur.”

Photo: Abdullah Keekeebhai did not want to show his face in a photo for this story (MEE)

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