This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
London in the 1990s was one of the world’s major centres for radical Islamic groups organising terrorism abroad. Organisations such as Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida itself (through its office, the Advice and Reformation Committee) all established bases in London. Al-Qaida considered London to be the ‘nerve centre’ of its operations in Europe, and many of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants operated from there. Millions of pounds were raised in Britain to fund terrorist causes and recruit militants to fight across the globe, from Afghanistan to Yemen.
Thousands of British-based individuals passed through al-Qaida training camps in the 1990s – by the time of the July 2005 London bombings, the number was around 3,000, according to Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police chief. The Home Office’s official enquiry into the bombings would later disingenuously state: ‘During the 1990s, it is now known that there was a flow of young Muslims, from the UK and elsewhere, travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for indoctrination or jihad.’ In fact, this was known at the time, and not only tolerated but may have been actively championed by the British authorities, as we have seen with the participation of British jihadists in the Bosnia and Kosovo wars.
A key feature of Londonistan was the operation of a so-called ‘covenant of security’ between radical Islamists in Britain and the security services. Crispin Black, a former Cabinet Office intelligence analyst, described the covenant as ‘the long-standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack us on these shores.’ A Special Branch officer said that ‘there was a deal with these guys. We told them that if you don’t cause us any problems, then we won’t bother you.’
A variety of Islamist figures have spoken about the existence of such an agreement. Abu Hamza, the former imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque, said at his trial at the Old Bailey that he believed a deal operated whereby his activities would be tolerated as long they targeted only foreign soil. He recalled how Scotland Yard’s intelligence wing, the Special Branch, assured him that ‘you don’t have anything to worry about as long as we don’t see blood on the streets’. Khaled al-Fawwaz, the head of Bin Laden’s London office in the mid-1990s, told Swiss journalist Richard Labeviere in April 1998 that ‘London is our association’s headquarters … The authorities are very tolerant, as long as one does not interfere in questions of internal politics.’ In August of the same year Omar Bakri Mohammed, who had established the militant al-Muhajiroun organisation, described how ‘I work here in accordance with the covenant of peace which I made with the British government when I got [political] asylum.’ Nine months later, he said in a further interview that ‘the British government knows who we are. MI5 has interrogated us many times. I think now we have something called public immunity.’
The ‘covenant’ can only be interpreted as utterly extraordinary, amounting to a ‘green light’ from Whitehall for groups to undertake terrorist activities overseas. The deadliness of this policy was revealed from the late 1980s onwards, as British-based groups, notably the GIA, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the ARC, began to be involved in atrocities around the world. It was only after 9/11 that the ‘covenant’ began to be put under strain as the Blair government began drafting stricter anti-terrorism legislation. In October 2001, al-Muhajiroun released a statement which explicitly mentioned the covenant and the dangers that faced it:
‘For the moment, Muslims in the UK have a covenant of security which prevents them from attacking the lives and wealth of anyone here … However … the Blair regime is today sitting on a box of dynamite and have only themselves to blame if after attacking the Islamic movements and the Islamic scholars, it all blows up in their face’.
The following month the government introduced new legislation in the Terrorism Act. Several organisations were declared illegal and banks were empowered to freeze the assets and accounts of organisations suspected of terrorism. In the three years after 9/11, 700 suspects were taken into British custody under the anti-terrorism law, though only seventeen had been convicted by mid-2005.
However, the covenant of security did not simply die with 9/11. For one thing, individual Islamic extremists such as Abu Hamza and (for a while at least) the Palestinian-born Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, were allowed to continue their activities, to which we come further below. Moreover, Whitehall’s ‘green light’ to terrorism overseas was not switched off either. In fact, it directly contributed to the London bombings over three years later. In 2004, for example, MI5 monitoring of some of the later London bombers discovered them ‘talking about jihadi activity in Pakistan and support for the Taliban’, but since they were not discussing terrorist attacks in Britain, MI5 left them alone; the standard policy that was a crucial part of the covenant. Had MI5 decided to act against these overseas activities, it is possible that 7/7 could have been prevented. Indeed, it was as much the militants themselves who tore up the covenant of security, especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Britain became even more of a target for their operations.
A key question is why the British authorities allowed the phenomenon of Londonistan to develop and be sustained. My view is that one reason is directly linked to the theme of this book, that collusion with radical Islamists was seen as having advantages for the promotion of British foreign policy, a continuation of the role that these groups had regularly played for Britain in the postwar world. Closely linked to this was the fact that the British security services saw the covenant as encouraging certain individuals to act as informants on the activities of Islamist groups, which would be useful in monitoring them; thus they were protected from prosecution as they engaged in terrorism abroad. The policy of recruiting individuals involved in terrorism has several precedents, as we have seen, for example, the apparent attempted British recruitment of Omar Saeed Sheikh in 1999; the recruitment in the 1980s of Leslie Aspin – the terrorist financier who continued his activities while on the payroll of MI6; and the British toleration of Abu Nidal, whose terrorist activities continued as Britain monitored his bank accounts.
Some other arguments put forward to explain Londonistan contain some truth, but do not, in my view, explain everything. These include the notions that British leaders and the police were worried about acting against religious leaders for fear of a backlash in the Muslim community; that the security services, configured to deal with Irish terrorism, failed to anticipate and understand the extent of the new threat from Islamic radicals; and that Britain’s ‘liberal’ human rights laws made it difficult for the government to clamp down on those associated with terrorism.
The argument that the police were reluctant to take action for fear of the effect on community relations is weak in, for example, the case of Abu Hamza, where Muslim community leaders went to the police at least seven times to complain about the extremism practised at the Finsbury Park Mosque during Hamza’s tenure there; it was the police that decided to take no action despite these pleas. Equally, it is barely believable that the British security services failed to understand the nature or extent of radical Islam during the 1990s, a period when bombs were going off around the world, with obvious links to groups based in London. Indeed, and as we have seen, the British government was bombarded with requests from foreign governments to take action against individuals and organisations based in Britain, including the extradition of leading terrorist suspects. In 1997–98, MI5 devoted nearly as many resources to countering international terrorism as Irish terrorism – 16 per cent of its budget as compared to 19 per cent.
As to whether the British legal system was responsible, it is certainly true that some legal cases against terrorist suspects have either been dragged out by lawyers or that extradition has sometimes been prevented by the ban under European human rights law from deporting subjects to countries where they risked being tortured. But, again, these legalities do not explain everything. In the 1990s the British government already had sweeping powers to deport suspected terrorists, at least to countries where torture was not practised. Under the 1971 Immigration Act the government could deport subjects if the home secretary ‘deems [their] deportation to be conducive to the public good’.
One case regularly cited as exemplifying how the extradition laws have benefited terrorists is that of Rachid Ramda, the Algerian involved in a bomb attack on the Paris underground in 1995 which killed eight people. Repeated French requests to have Ramda extradited from Britain, where he had earlier gained refugee status, were delayed and it took ten years before he was deported to France in December 2005. Ramda’s lawyers certainly made full use of the law to delay the process, and it was sometimes held up by the British courts – but as one MP, John Maples, has pointed out, it was also the home secretary who took over two years, before 9/11, to decide whether or not to deport him. This compares to the case brought in Britain against the former Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, which in 1998–2000 was dealt with in 15 months, including three appeals, showing that legal processes could move more quickly when serious political pressure was brought to bear. The government also failed to use the laws available to it after 9/11, when the Terrorism Act was passed into law, making it an offence to send someone abroad for terrorist training and instruction. As Times journalists Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory have written, ‘even after the new laws were introduced, Abu Hamza’s followers continued to disappear off to camps run by outlawed groups, and still nobody in authority laid a finger on him.’
Islamist groups have long performed a variety of key functions for British foreign policy, as we have seen earlier in the postwar period, notably as shock troops to promote unrest or coups, proxy covert forces to eliminate enemy leaders or conservative forces to help prop up pro-Western regimes. The hosting of these groups in London likely provided further advantages to British policy.
One was that it enabled relations to be cultivated with possible future leaders. British officials have had few qualms about whom they court. For example, Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells told a parliamentary enquiry in March 2007 that:
‘At dinners at embassies around the world I have suddenly discovered that somebody happens to be sitting next to me who is from the respectable end of a death squad from somewhere. The ambassador has, with the best will in the world, invited that person along because he thinks that, under the new democracy, they will become the new government’.
The hosting of Saudi opposition groups in Britain, such as the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia and, moreover, Bin Laden’s Advice and Reformation Committee, is especially interesting in this respect. As noted in Chapter 10, the British may well have seen such hosting as providing an insurance policy for the fall of the House of Saud. Given the uncertain future of the regime, Whitehall has likely tried to play both it and the opposition.
A second advantage of the presence of Islamist groups in London was that it could help influence the domestic or foreign policies of key countries. Mahan Abadin, the editor of Jamestown University’s respected Terrorism Monitor, has noted that ‘the presence of these groups [in Britain] enables British intelligence to spy on their activities and effectively gain some form of leverage over the internal politics of their home countries.’ In this view, these groups are a useful tool, even a bargaining chip, for the British elite to increase its influence over, or put pressure on, Arab states. As the American journalist Steve Coll explains, also noted in Chapter 10, Britain tolerated Bin Laden’s office in London in the mid-1990s since it saw it as providing ‘a little outside pressure’ on the Saudi regime.
But with the Saudis, Britain has a difficult balance to strike. The former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who presided over the introduction of the 2001 Terrorism Act, has said that ‘the intelligence world did take the view that we should soft-pedal on these radicals in London because of our interests in the Arab world’, in particular British commercial interests with Saudi Arabia. This comment suggests that Britain needed to be placating the Saudis, who were promoting the extremist groups, to endear Whitehall even further to the fundamentalists in Riyadh and to protect Britain’s massive oil and arms exports interests. Given the Saudis’ role in the development of global terrorism, this point is surely highly significant. It is perfectly consistent with the long history of British support for the Saudis and their foreign policy.
There was, I believe, another major advantage of hosting radical Islamist groups in London, linked very closely to fundamental and current British foreign policy aims – the promotion of the policy of international divide and rule.
British support of Islamist forces has often aimed to foment unrest both within and between states. The policy of domestic divide and rule to maintain colonial power has been seen in, for example, the encouragement of Muslims against Hindu nationalists in India, and of Arabs or Jews against the other in Palestine under the British mandate. However, British policies have often gone further than nurturing tensions between communities, and have sometimes involved attempts to break up states – a strategy of Balkanisation. The clearest example is the Soviet Union, where Britain sought to promote unrest in the Muslim republics by supporting the Basmachi rebellion in the 1920s and the various mujahideen wars in the 1980s and 1990s. The covert operations in Indonesia in the late 1950s and in Kosovo in the late 1990s also sought to Balkanise states. It is not that Balkanisation has always been pursued by Britain: Whitehall’s interest in breaking up states depends on who controls them, and if they are ruled by dependable allies London will tend to favour strong central control.
But Britain has been very consistent about promoting division between states, at least in the Middle East. Whitehall has had a long-standing policy of keeping the Middle East divided, in separate states ideally under the control of pro-Western monarchs or dictators. The declassified British files are replete with these concerns, which were at the root of the policies carving up the Middle East during and after the First World War and have essentially remained so ever since. This book has documented some of the examples, from Lord Crewe’s view in the 1920s that ‘what we want is … a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty’ to the Foreign Office’s priority in 1958 of ‘maintaining the four principal oil producing areas [Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq] under separate political control’. Tony Blair’s proposal in 2006 for an ‘alliance of moderation’ (pro-Western states) against the ‘arc of extremism’ (official enemies) in the Middle East, to which we come later, and Bush’s ‘you are either with us or against us’ view after 9/11, are recent forms of the same strategy of international divide and rule. The overriding reason for keeping the Middle East divided has been to ensure that no single power dominates the region’s oil resources and so that a strong combination of powers cannot challenge Western hegemony.
Radical Islamic forces have come in useful not only in promoting domestic unrest to bring about internal change but in keeping the region divided and in stoking tensions between states. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, with Western support, undermined moves by the nationalist regimes in Egypt and Syria to forge a closer regional alliance and helped shore up the conservative regimes, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, against the rising force of secular nationalism across the region. When it came to the Arab–Israeli conflict, Britain was not only been prepared to collude with the Islamists against the Jews, but also with Israel against the Arabs, as when the then head of MI6, George Young, said that Israel in the 1950s had ‘slipped into the role at one time played by British forces – that of armed watcher ready to strike – the best guarantee of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian conduct’. Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 to counter Iran-backed Hezbollah – to which Britain gave de facto backing – suggests that this Israeli function has not disappeared.
Selling arms to both sides in conflicts – a long-standing British policy – is certainly likely to keep tensions going between states. Just to take the Blair years (1997–2007), billions of pounds worth of arms flowed to the Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia, but Israel also received more than £110 million of military equipment, including a range of supplies critical for offensive operations, such as components for combat aircraft and combat helicopters, components for tanks and military utility helicopters and armoured all-wheel drive vehicles. Both Pakistan and India, regional enemies who have recently come to the brink of all-out war, have been heavily armed by Britain – India to the tune of nearly £900 million worth in the Blair years, and Pakistan with over £150 million worth. British supplies continued to flow as the two countries were on the verge of war in 2002, for example, and significantly increased in the two years following. Similar military equipment was provided to both sides that could have aided combat operations, such as air-to-air missiles and components for combat aircraft, frigates and military communications equipment.
My speculation is that the hosting of a variety of militant groups in London during the 1990s would have been seen by some, at least, in the intelligence community, even if not a formal policy of the government, as helping to further the long-standing interest in international divide and rule. Terrorist activities could raise tensions, put pressure on states by undermining their leaderships or divide states from each other – functions all seen as useful by British elites at certain times in the postwar world.
Then there is the security services’ direct collaboration with certain individuals.
Other British agents?
We have already met some Islamists who may have acted as British intelligence agents or informers. However, the highest profile example is probably Abu Hamza, a case which shows how far the British security services were prepared to go in turning a blind eye to terrorism overseas in order to retain their informant.
As we saw in Chapter 12, the Egyptian-born Hamza had founded the organisation, the Supporters of Shariah, in 1994, and in 1995 made three trips to the war in Bosnia, ostensibly as an aid worker but also, he claims, as an adviser to Algerian fighters there. The same year, the Egyptian government requested Hamza’s extradition to face terrorism charges, on suspicion of his involvement with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Algerian GIA; in 1999 Whitehall rejected this, along with another extradition request, this time from Yemen, for reasons which remain unclear.
Evidence in the public domain suggests that in early 1997 Special Branch began talking to Hamza, when he was the preacher at the mosque in Luton, to act as an informant on other jihadists, and he was ascribed a codename: Damson Berry. Unknown to the police, MI5 also began meeting Hamza at the behest of French intelligence, which was seeking information on GIA activists; Hamza is said to have recruited and coordinated fundraising for the GIA, as well as publishing their newsletter, which was edited by the cleric Abu Qatada. MI5 held seven meetings with Hamza between 1997 and 2000. Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory note in their book on Hamza that he had ‘a friendly relationship’ with MI5 and Special Branch in the late 1990s: ‘They called him regularly, invited him for meetings and were generally on cordial terms.’ This eventually exasperated French officials investigating terror cases in which Hamza was believed to be involved, since ‘to French eyes, the British were protecting Abu Hamza and many more dangerous men in the mosque’, O’Neill and McGrory write. They also conclude that the information passed on by Hamza to MI5 was limited to the odd name or general information on other Islamist groups, and that his cooperation with the security services was a sham.
The records of the Hamza–MI5 meetings show that MI5 and Special Branch were perfectly aware that Britain was ‘seen as a place to fundraise and to propagate Islam’. Hamza’s security service contacts reportedly warned him not to be involved in ‘incitement … to commit terrorism and violence overseas’. But they appear to have been going through the motions, since no steps were taken at this time to rein him in. After taking over as preacher at the Finsbury Park Mosque in March 1997 Hamza was involved in recruiting, funding and motivating hundreds of jihadists to be sent around the world, including to training camps in Afghanistan. One estimate is that 50 men from the Finsbury Park Mosque died in terror operations and insurgent attacks in a dozen or more conflicts abroad. Weapons training with assault rifles also took place inside the mosque.
It is known from the account of an Algerian journalist, Reda Hassaine, that the British security services were aware of many of Hamza’s activities at the mosque. From late 1998 until 2000 Hassaine worked for MI5, gathering information on Abu Hamza. He later recalled how: ‘I told them [MI5] Hamza was brainwashing people and sending them to al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, that he was preaching jihad and murder and that he was involved in the provision of false passports. I told them he was a chief terrorist’; however, Hassaine’s MI5 handler did not appear unduly worried. A stream of would-be jihadists continued to visit the mosque to hear Hamza preach, including Richard Reid, the ‘shoe bomber’, and Mohammed Siddique Khan, the 7/7 bomber, who went there in 2002.
From the late 1990s, Hamza had also begun organising military training for members of his Supporters of Shariah organisation at country retreats in Kent in England, Wales and Scotland, where they were taught how to strip down AK-47s and handguns. The Observer reported that at one training session in Wales in 1998, around ten jihadists were trained by British ex-soldiers, some of whom had fought in Bosnia. ‘But the British security services were either unconcerned or ignorant about Hamza’s activities,’ the paper noted. O’Neill and McGrory write that this training was provided by British army veterans whom Hamza had recruited from the back pages of a combat magazine, and that some of these training sessions were also monitored by the British authorities. One of the teams being monitored was among those sent to Yemen in December 1998 to kidnap sixteen Western tourists, of whom three Britons and one Australian died during a Yemeni government rescue attempt. Hamza was in contact with these kidnappers, but when the Yemeni government handed over their 137-page dossier on Hamza to the British government in early 1999 it was initially ignored. The following March, Hamza was arrested and questioned about the Yemen kidnappings but then released without charge. Meanwhile, when the government was later questioned in parliament about the Scottish and Welsh training camps, the Home Office minister, John Denham, gave a short, noncommittal response: ‘I understand that the police have made enquiries: they have advised me that there is no evidence to show that any criminal offences have been committed at either location.’
This was two months after 9/11. It was only later that the authorities moved against Hamza. In September 2002, the police launched an investigation into terrorist fundraising linked to the Finsbury Park Mosque and raided it the following January. In April 2003 the Home Office ordered that Hamza be stripped of his British citizenship and in a hearing that began in April 2004 the government, for the first time, accused Hamza of involvement with terrorist groups; he was arrested the following month, following a US government extradition request. A senior official in the US Department of Justice told O’Neill and McGrory: ‘We wondered to ourselves whether he was an MI5 informer, or was there some secret the British government were not trusting us with? He seemed untouchable.’ The British government, not wanting to be seen to be handing over a British citizen to the US without trying him in Britain, then cobbled together a case accusing him of incitement to murder and racial hatred; after a trial in February 2006, Hamza was sentenced to seven years in prison. However, even then, Hamza got off very lightly – the US authorities wanted to put him on trial for recruiting, financing and directing terrorism, but British prosecutors had accused Hamza of much lesser offences, so the trial did not even probe his connections to terrorist groups.
Hamza’s case shows that the British security services were prepared to allow their informant to continue promoting terrorism overseas while gaining information on extremist groups’ activities inside the Finsbury Park Mosque. This policy extended to protecting him from prosecution for years, not only for the period 1997–2000, when he met the security services, but also for a time after 9/11. It is possible that some kind of deal was done to prevent Hamza divulging more about his relationship with the security services.
There is also the case of apparent British protection of Abu Qatada, who has become known as ‘al-Qaida’s spiritual leader in Europe’ and was described by the judge reviewing his immigration status in 2004 as a ‘truly dangerous individual … at the centre in the United Kingdom of terrorist activities associated with al-Qaida’. Yet it has been reported that Qatada was ‘a double agent working for MI5’ and that Britain ignored warnings before 9/11 from half a dozen friendly governments about Qatada’s links with terrorist groups, refusing to arrest him. Instead, it has been said that the intelligence services were intending ‘to use the cleric as a key informer against Islamic militants in Britain.’ Many militants are said to have visited him, including the shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Qatada had been in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where it is claimed that he had known Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later became al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq. Qatada came to Britain in 1993 on a forged United Arab Emirates passport, claimed asylum and in 1994 gained indefinite leave to remain in Britain until June 1998. During this period, it is alleged that he agitated and recruited for, among others, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Algerian GIA, and had contacts with Abu Doha, an Algerian extremist whose followers later plotted to bomb Strasbourg Market. Qatada has denied claims that he was al-Qaida’s European ambassador and insists he never met Bin Laden.
Qatada’s lawyers have said that he was monitored by the security services from the mid-1990s and that ‘his actions had a large degree of tacit approval’. They claim that:
‘He had not been led by the police to believe that any of the activities which he was carrying on up to 2001 were illegal, quite the reverse; he had carried them on openly … the security service knew the sort of views which he was expressing and took no steps to stop or warn him, to prosecute him or to prevent his fundraising for groups which are regarded as terrorist groups, notably the former Khattab faction fighting in Chechnya, or for training in Afghanistan’.
It emerged in later legal proceedings to decide Qatada’s immigration status that MI5 had three meetings with Abu Qatada, in June and December 1996 and in February 1997. In the first meeting, Qatada recorded ‘his passionate exposition of jihad and the spread of Islam to take over the world.’ He also claimed ‘powerful, spiritual influence over the Algerian community in London’ and, according to the MI5 witness in the proceedings, ‘agreed to use his influence to minimise the risk of a violent response to the possible extradition of [Rachid] Ramda, the UK leader of the GIA’; MI5 ‘had been asking him to act as a restraint on the GIA, and more generally Algerian refugee activities in the UK.’ In the second meeting, the MI5 officer noted that Qatada ‘came the closest he had to offering to assist me in any investigation of Islamic extremism.’ By the third meeting the officer was saying that ‘I fully expected him to use that influence, wherever he could, to control the hotheads and ensure terrorism remained off the streets of London and throughout the United Kingdom.’ The judge considering Qatada’s immigration status concluded that during this time, 1996–97, ‘he may well have regarded the United Kingdom as a safe haven and believed that it was far more useful to be able to operate here.’
While Qatada appeared to pose as being able to prevent terrorist attacks and expose dangerous militants, all along he continued activities in support of extremists, which was surely known to MI5. In March 1995 Qatada had issued a fatwa justifying the killing of wives and children of ‘apostates’ in order to stop the oppression of Muslim women and ‘brothers’ in Algeria; it provided a religious justification for the slaughter by terrorists of women and children. Yet MI5 later claimed that in 1997 it reached an assessment of Qatada to the effect that he was not a jihadist; it also claimed that his views towards global jihad ‘hardened’ in the years following his meetings with MI5. This reasoning is now very convenient.
In 1998, Qatada was sentenced in absentia in Jordan for inciting a series of bomb attacks in the country, and his extradition was requested by Amman. His period of indefinite leave to remain in Britain came up for review that year, at the same time as Britain was being warned by several countries of Qatada’s links with terrorism – but he was allowed to remain in the country and not arrested. In 1999, Reda Hassaine, the Algerian spy for MI5 working inside the Finsbury Park Mosque, was instructed by his MI5 handler to meet Qatada twice a month. After this point, MI5 continued to be aware that Qatada was said to be raising money for terrorist activities abroad, since Hassaine told them so.
In February 2001 anti-terrorism police officers did arrest Qatada for his suspected involvement in the planned attack in Strasbourg, but it was decided that there was insufficient evidence against him and no charges were brought. Following 9/11, he was identified by the US as a ‘specially designated global terrorist’. The British authorities did not move against him, however, and in October 2001 he gave an interview to the Observer claiming that MI5 had approached him through intermediaries ‘to offer him a passport and an Iranian visa so he could leave the country’ and escape to Afghanistan. The report noted that the authorities believed that ‘there was not enough hard evidence to bring charges against him’ while he could not be deported to Jordan since the country retains the death penalty. However, there is also the suspicion that MI5 sought to protect their informer and did not want Qatada to reveal details of his relationship with them. Qatada reportedly refused the offer.
In December 2001, when parliament was about to pass new anti-terror legislation after 9/11, Qatada disappeared. ‘French anti-terrorist officers in Paris believe that their British counterparts at MI5 colluded in his disappearance,’ the Telegraph reported. Another informer for MI5 close to Qatada, Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi who had lived in Britain for nineteen years, later told a US military panel at Guantanamo Bay that: ‘I am positive the British intelligence knew where he was, because I told them.’ He said he visited Qatada numerous times in the summer of 2002 with MI5’s knowledge. It later transpired that for nearly a year Qatada was in ‘hiding’ in a flat in Bermondsey, south London, where he was regularly visited by his wife and children, and also by contacts from abroad. Time magazine reported senior European intelligence officials saying that ‘Abu Qatada is tucked away in a safe house in the north of England, where he and his family are being lodged, fed and clothed by [the] British intelligence services.’ The sources say that ‘the deal is that Abu Qatada is deprived of contact with extremists in London and Europe but can’t be arrested or expelled because no one officially knows where he is. The British win because the last thing they want is a hot potato they can’t extradite for fear of al-Qaida reprisals but whose presence contradicts London’s support of the War on Terror.’
Qatada was finally ‘found’ in October 2002, after releasing a 10-page document justifying the 9/11 attacks. He was detained by the British authorities a few days later on suspicion of undertaking ‘a range of support activities, including fundraising, on behalf of various international terrorist organisations’ and of making ‘public statements of support for the violent activities of these groups’. Qatada was subsequently held without charge in Belmarsh high security prison until being released, subject to a control order, in March 2005, when the Law Lords struck down an emergency anti-terror law that allowed his indefinite detention without trial. However, the authorities detained him again five months later, soon after Britain signed an extradition agreement with Jordan; but Qatada was again released from prison in June 2008, subject to strict bail conditions and a 22-hour curfew, after the High Court upheld his appeal against deportation to Jordan, on the grounds that he was likely to face a terrorism trial based on evidence from witnesses who had been tortured. In February 2009, however, the Law Lords ruled that Qatada could be deported to Jordan, since when he has been fighting extradition from prison in Britain.
MI5 recruited other people close to Qatada, such as Bisher al-Rawi, who was contacted soon after the 9/11 attacks to act as a go-between with MI5 and Qatada and to inform on the latter. However, in 2002 MI5 passed on information to the CIA to the effect that al-Rawi was an Islamist terrorist – a completely false accusation, according to his lawyers. The US promptly seized him in the Gambia and locked him up in Guantanamo Bay for five years, where he claims he was constantly subjected to abuse and psychological torture; he was released in early 2007.
Finally, there is the case of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the Syrian-born head of al-Muhajiroun. Bakri’s case is especially interesting in light of his possible cooperation with British intelligence in sending jihadists to Kosovo in the late 1990s, alongside MI6’s covert operation to help train Kosovo Liberation Army fighters in secret camps in Albania. At this time, Bakri was being described in the British media as the ‘head of the political wing of the International Islamic Front’ founded by Osama Bin Laden. It is also interesting given al-Muhajiroun’s connections to the July 2005 London bombings.
Bakri had fled Syria after joining the Muslim Brotherhood in the revolt against the Assad regime, which brutally crushed the organisation in 1982. He went first to Saudi Arabia, but was expelled in 1985 and arrived in Britain in January 1986, where he was later given indefinite leave to remain. Bakri was arrested in 1991 after saying that Prime Minister John Major was a legitimate target for assassination due to Britain’s involvement in the Gulf War against Iraq. He became leader of the first British branch of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but split with its international leaders and formed his own organisation, al-Muhajiroun, in January 1996. In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper, al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bakri boasted that, in the late 1990s–early 2000s, he was sending 300–400 militants a year on military training and guerrilla warfare courses in Michigan and the Missouri desert in the US, some of whom went on to fight in Kashmir, Chechnya and Kosovo. Russia was by then calling on the British government to close down al-Muhajiroun, saying that it was one of a number of organisations in Britain which had sent several dozen fighters to Chechnya. A memo written by an FBI agent just prior to 9/11 also noted a connection between Bakri and several suspects attending US flight training schools, including one that was used by one of the hijackers. But it was only in July 2003 that Britain’s terrorism legislation was enforced against al-Muhajiroun. After its website appeared to contain an overt threat of terrorist attacks against government targets, al-Muhajiroun’s offices were raided and Bakri was taken into custody and questioned, before being released without charge.
It remains unclear whether Bakri was collaborating with the security services after the end of the Kosovo War in June 1999; his interviews noted earlier in this chapter suggest he believed he had ‘public immunity’ until at least mid-1999. The possibility of his collusion with the authorities was apparently picked up by some in the jihadist community. In November 2001, for example, the London-based Azzam publications, known for its support of Bin Laden, posted a notice appearing to warn jihadists away from Bakri and al-Muhajiroun, saying: ‘As part of a plan to reinforce the “sincerity” of the leader [Bakri] of this organisation [al-Muhajiroun] in the eyes of British Muslims, we expect the British authorities to arrest him in the near future, but for him to be subsequently released.’ Bakri was indeed questioned many times by the police or security services – ‘on at least sixteen occasions’, he said himself – but always escaped arrest.
Most intriguingly, after the 2005 London bombings, Bakri was not even interrogated by the security services as a possible suspect; instead he was allowed to leave the country. A month after 7/7, Bakri voluntarily left Britain for Lebanon, and a year later, in July 2006, the home secretary, Charles Clarke, announced that Bakri would not be permitted to return to Britain since ‘his presence is not conducive to the public good’. These decisions raise further suspicions about Whitehall’s relationship with Bakri, given the jihadist activities Bakri had been involved in, and also the well-publicised connections between the 7/7 bombers, and other would-be British bombers, and the al-Muhajiroun organisation. For example, Mohammed Babar – an American who pleaded guilty to a series of terrorist plots and who gave evidence against a group of other British bomb plotters – was a former member of al-Muharijoun, and liaised with their members in London during terrorist plotting in the two years after 9/11. Babar personally met Bakri and later communicated with him by email and telephone, while setting up an al-Muhajiroun office in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Also, Omar Khyam, the leader of the ‘fertiliser bomb plot’ gang convicted in April 2007, had also attended al-Muhajiroun meetings. Omar Khan Sharif, the would-be bomber of the Tel Aviv bar in 2003, also had links with al-Muhajiroun and was a follower of Bakri. By the time Bakri travelled to Lebanon, al-Muhajiroun had formed 81 separate front organisations in six countries, according to a New York police investigation, and had 600–1,500 members in Britain. It would have perhaps been rather useful for the security services to have questioned Bakri about his connections. Perhaps the British offered the same deal to Bakri as to Qatada, to leave the country and escape being brought to trial, given what this might reveal about his relationship to the intelligence services.
In conclusion, it is possible that the covenant of security deterred Islamist attacks from occurring in Britain in the 1990s, but at the huge cost of the ‘green light’ to terrorism overseas. In the years after 9/11, however, both before and after the invasion of Iraq, a number of bomb plots in Britain began to be planned. The recruitment of Islamic radicals may have produced some intelligence on their overseas activities, but it is impossible to judge how useful this was or how much the British authorities tipped off their foreign counterparts. It is possible that the security services were just naïve in believing that their informants could control the ‘hotheads’. But it is also possible that parts of the British security establishment were motivated not only by gaining information and restraining extremists but also by the perceived advantages to British foreign policy of hosting these individuals in London. This assertion is not proven, since further evidence is lacking, but is consistent with Britain’s long-standing use of Islamists for foreign policy purposes. British policies had clearly become downright dangerous to the British and world public.