The Egyptian-born London imam who was extradited to the U.S. on terrorism charges was a typical beneficiary of the covert links between British intelligence agencies and foreign extremists
The extradition of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the convicted rabble-rouser, to the United States after a marathon legal battle — one of the longest cat-and-mouse games in Britain’s legal history — has caused an outbreak of celebration and backslapping. Even Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t resist a shot at grandstanding: he was “absolutely delighted that Hamza is now out of this country.”
“Like the rest of the public, I’m sick to the back teeth of people who come here, threaten our country, who stay at vast expense to the taxpayer and we can't get rid of them,” he said.’
Facts were, of course, not allowed to spoil a good party. So nobody bothered to ask how come a one-time bouncer in a London nightclub and mocked by Sunday papers as a “cartoon character” got to assume such Frankenstein proportions in the first place?
Egyptian-born Hamza (real name: Mustafa Kamel Mustafa) and his Jordanian mentor Abu Qatada, who Britain is still struggling to deport, are typical beneficiaries of the British security agencies’ covert links with foreign extremists — Kashmiri and Sikh separatists, LTTE activists, boys from the Muslim Brotherhood, militants from Yemen and Chechnya — who flocked to Britain in the 1980s and 1990s claiming to flee persecution at home.
Despite the serious allegations of terrorism against them in their own countries they were allowed to settle in Britain and carry on their activities. Some, such as Qatada, had even been convicted back home and were the subject of extradition requests. The British Government’s softly-softly approach to them has been put down to a covert “covenant of security” in which fugitive foreign extremists were left alone in exchange for an assurance they would not harm Britain’s national security.
So, the security agencies looked the other way when Hamza and his goons forcibly seized control of a major London mosque — the Finsbury Park mosque in north London founded by Muslim immigrants from India — from its traditionally moderate management and turned it into a base for his militant activities targeting “enemies” abroad.
Muslim protests were summarily dismissed. MI5 famously described him as “just a noisy trouble-maker.” It was to emerge later that Hamza had been using the mosque not just to brainwash vulnerable young Muslims but to raise funds to send potential jihadis to terror training camps abroad.
In 2003, when the police finally raided the mosque as part of the post-9/11 crackdown on terror, they found a large cache of arms, forged passports and a pile of inflammatory material. Hamza seemed to have been running a terror cell under the very noses of Scotland Yard and MI5. Even after the mosque was temporarily closed, Hamza continued to lead prayers and preach inflammatory sermons on the streets outside in full view of the security forces. It took another year before he was jailed for inciting hatred and soliciting murder. By then, he had already been implicated in a series of alleged terror acts in Yemen and the U.S. — the reason why the Americans wanted him.
There is a cynical view that security agencies may have continued to ignore Hamza had he not started to bite the very hand that had been feeding him — i.e. not launched a campaign against the British state — a move interpreted as a breach of the supposed “covenant of security.” The joke is that the last straw was his description of Britain as a “toilet.”
Reda Hassaine, a left-wing Algerian journalist who was drawn into the shadowy world of intelligence in the wake of the civil war in his country and later worked as an undercover agent at the Finsbury Park mosque, is on record as saying that Scotland Yard and MI5 ignored his detailed reports about Hamza and Qatada’s activities. In newspaper interviews, he has said he personally saw them collect “thousands of pounds” from their congregations to pay for young British Muslims to go abroad to train as suicide bombers. He calls it “astounding” that the duo who between them offered the most ugly face of Islamist extremism in Britain were left untouched for more than a decade after he blew the whistle on them.
“I told MI5 and Scotland Yard time and again how Qatada and his followers laugh behind their backs. They hate Britain and want to turn this country into an Islamic state,” he said.
Hassaine was attacked and beaten up by Qatada’s men after they found out he was spying on him. He wants to sue MI5 for £1million for dropping him “like a hot stone” and failing in its “duty of care” to him after his cover was blown. More significant, however, is why he thinks MI5 dumped him: because it did not want to prosecute Qatada.
“I gave the British authorities everything they could possibly want about Abu Qatada — and for what?” he asked in a newspaper interview.
Hamza and Qatada are not the only ones with whom MI5 had cosy links. Two other alleged extremists — Khaled al-Fawwaz and Adel Abdul Bary — extradited to the U.S. along with Hamza have also revealed their contacts with the agency. One analyst wrote that the two men “benefited from the reluctance of the British authorities to clamp down on the growing number of Islamist extremists who were using London as a base to advocate violent confrontation with the West.”
Khaled al-Fawwaz’s lawyer told the High Court during a hearing on his appeal against extradition that he was in regular contact with MI5 in the mid-1990s. He said when his client asked MI5 if he would be breaking the law by remaining in contact with Osama bin Laden after his 1996 declaration of war on the U.S., he was told it would be okay so long as the two did not discuss any criminal conduct.
The cloak-and-dagger world of spooks has always fascinated writers and film-makers. British novelist Ian McEwan’s new book, Sweet Tooth, is a brilliant spoof on the workings of MI5 — the cynical ploys it gets up to, the ruses it is capable of pulling off, the webs of deceit it can weave — and how for all the bluster and swagger it can often get it disastrously wrong. While McEwan’s story is about MI5’s Cold War shenanigans, perhaps one day someone would offer a literary take on its Hamza project. Suggested title: Sour Taste.
*This article has been corrected for a factual error.