Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Doubting British intelligence

Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian News Service, London

A question that has obsessed investigators and the media since Sept. 11 is whether Osama bin Laden used Britain as a base for his al-Qaeda network. Was Britain a hub for terrorists at the time of the atrocities? Had it been before? Only now, after nearly three months of wild allegations, are answers emerging.

After Sept. 11, an extensive inquiry involving Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch, MI5 and the FBI, gathered a huge amount of intelligence. A number of people were arrested. Outspoken UK- based Muslim clerics with a taste for self-publicity (such as Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed) were subjected to special scrutiny.

After examining the evidence, the answer to whether al-Qaeda treated the UK as a home-from-home is a resounding no. Al-Qaeda is a loose network, it has no cells as do classic terrorist groups.

Some here have expressed varying degrees of sympathy with Osama bin Laden, some have had contacts with him, some have passed through Britain on their way to the U.S. and some have gone to fight in Chechnya and Afghanistan. But they do not amount to a base.

Only one person has been arrested in Britain in connection with Sept. 11, the Algerian pilot, Lotfi Raissi. Despite being described by the FBI as a key figure who trained one of the terrorist ringleaders, a judge at high-security court in southeast London said on Tuesday that the evidence linking him to the attacks was "tenuous".

The first thing Scotland Yard knew about him was when the FBI placed his name on the Internet. Security sources say that if he is extradited the U.S. authorities will struggle to get a conviction at trial because there is no evidence that he knew anything about the plot.

Evidence for the second question is currently being tested in the UK's highest court, its House of Lords. Was there an al-Qaeda cell operating in the UK in the 1990s, in the run-up to the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi?

The U.S. government says there is no doubt. Three men from north London who were involved in an organization called the Advice and Reformation Committee have been accused by the Americans of being bin Laden's henchmen here.

Khalid al-Fawwaz, Ibrahim Eidarous and Adel Abdelbary are fighting extradition from jail and in the current climate it would be surprising if the law lords decided to free them.

The evidence against them is far from conclusive.

The evidence aside, the case raises a number of issues about intelligence gathering, the role of the security services and the willingness of the British authorities to kowtow to the Americans in times of crisis.

Before the U.S. embassy bombings, the three men were not considered a threat or threatening. This is not conjecture. No doubt the security services were aware of what they were doing.

Al-Fawwaz made no secret of his support for the overthrow of the Saudi regime, or his support for bin Laden, which he publicly renounced in 1996 following his fatwa (ruling) against the U.S. Al-Fawwaz's lawyers have shown that from the time their client came to Britain in 1994 until his arrest four years later, he was in regular contact with the security services.

Summoned to Room 030 of the old war office building in Whitehall, central London, al-Fawwaz would tell his handlers, one of whom he names, what he was up to. The meetings often lasted three hours or more, he says. MI5 would have made its own discreet checks.

Al-Fawwaz's lawyers argue that MI5 patently did not regard their client as a risk to British security, or that of any other country. If the agency had concerns, the al-Fawwaz file would have gone to the police and he would have been arrested.

Lack of concern about the danger posed by al-Fawwaz might also be deduced by a curious letter sent to bin Laden by the Home Office on Jan. 3, 1996. "Dear Sir", it states. "This is to certify that the home secretary has given his personal direction that you be excluded from the United Kingdom on the grounds that your presence here would not be conducive to the public good. Under section 13(5) of the Immigration Act, there is no right of appeal against this decision. Yours Faithfully, B3 Division."

Why the letter was sent from the UK's Immigration and Nationality Department to bin Laden's then home in the al Riyad quarter of Khatoum is something of a mystery. Had bin Laden applied to come here? Probably not. There is a more likely scenario.

Concerned about bin Laden's growing popularity in Saudi Arabia and the wider Muslim world in the mid-1990s, the CIA elevated him quite suddenly to the status of international terrorist and one of the world's most wanted men.

The CIA would have approached friendly countries, such as the UK, and briefed them on the danger posed by him. The UK's Home Office would then have sent the letter to warn him off. That would have been the point at which al-Fawwaz, at the time a known supporter of bin Laden, would have been under most scrutiny and at most risk of being taken in by the police. But he was left alone.

Perhaps MI5 thought it was better to monitor al-Fawwaz and the two others for intelligence. His lawyers are not convinced. If he was a prime source of information, why were the U.S. embassy bombings not anticipated? Al-Fawwaz cannot have been "in the loop", they say -- another indication that he was, at most, a peripheral figure.