Abu Hamza and the Islamic Army

The Aden 'bomb plot', December 1998

IT BEGAN two nights before Christmas. Around midnight, a white Daewoo car with three people inside drove into Aden from Abyan. Arriving at a traffic roundabout, the car went round in a clockwise direction – a bizarre mistake for a Yemeni driver but one that a British driver, accustomed to travelling on the left, could easily make.

A traffic policeman stopped the car and asked the driver for his licence. But instead of handing the officer a few riyals to forget about it, as most Yemenis would do, the driver suddenly accelerated away and a chase ensued.

Had it not been for this small traffic incident, events would have turned out very differently. If the Yemeni authorities' claim is correct, Christmas Day would have brought bombings and slaughter to Aden on a huge scale. Several of the places where western Christians would gather for their festivities were targeted: the Anglican church, a restaurant popular with foreigners, and the Moevenpick hotel. The British consulate, a UN office and a hotel used by American forces helping to clear land-mines were also allegedly on the list.

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But the plot – if that's what it was – failed. The Daewoo car, allegedly with Malik Nasser Harhara from Birmingham at the wheel, sped on for a few minutes until it collided with another vehicle near a petrol station and its occupants ran off. Police arrived and opened the car boot, where they say they found explosives and guns. Shortly after that five Britons were arrested, along with an Algerian who had arrived from Britain with a false French passport.

On January 27, following a siege in Abyan, three more Britons were arrested, along with a second Algerian who had arrived from Britain with a false French passport (and also two other men who were wanted in connection with the tourists' kidnapping).

The ten were put on trial in Aden, charged with "membership of an armed group and possession of weapons, explosives and unauthorised international communications devices, as well as starting to commit acts of sabotage against Yemeni and foreign interests in Aden." Nine of the men denied all the charges. One admitted membership of an armed group but denied the other charges. Their families said they had simply gone to Yemen for holidays or to improve their Arabic.

Aden police said that up to 14 people from Britain used a two-storey, three-bedroom suburban villa as a terrorist safe house. It was built for RAF officers before the British withdrawal from Aden1967. Muhsin Ghailan allegedly paid £1,250 in cash to rent it for six months and asked for a 10-foot stone wall to be built around it. He said it would be used to accommodate British Muslims who wanted to study Arabic.

A lawyer who drew up the rental contract said Ghailan, Harhara and the Algerian visited his office in early December. Neighbours identified Abu Hamza's son, Mustapha Kamil, as being in a rented Daewoo which shuttled to and from the villa. Hours after his arrest police drove Ghailan around Aden until he identified the villa. Police say the villa contained Yemeni army uniforms. They say Ghailan also rented a house in Sana'a.

The arrested men were linked to two key figures: Abu Hamza al-Masri, an imam at Finsbury Park mosque in London, who was also leader of a group called Supporters of Shariah (SOS), and Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, self-styled commander and founder of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan.

The Britons allegedly went to Yemen at the behest of Abu Hamza, where they made contact with Abu al-Hassan. Four days after the Britons were arrested, Abu al-Hassan and his supporters kidnapped 16 mainly British tourists in Abyan, in the hope of exchanging his hostages for the arrested men.

Evidence linking the suspects to Abu Hamza and the Islamic Army:

  • Abu Hamza admitted discussing the kidnapping with Abu al-Hassan by satellite phone, barely an hour after it took place. He confirmed that Abu al-Hassan intended to exchange his tourist hostages for the arrested men.

  • One of the arrested Britons, 17-year-old Mustapha Kamil, was Abu Hamza's son. In court, he admitted membership of an armed group.

  • One of the arrested Britons, Muhsin Ghailan, was Abu Hamza's stepson.

  • Another of the arrested Britons was called Sarmad Ahmad. The mobile phone number of a man named Sarmad was given on the Internet as the contact for SOS military training at Finsbury Park mosque. A subsequent user of the phone said he bought it from a man named Sarmad who was leaving Britain for Yemen.

  • Yet another man under arrest was linked to Abu Hamza's family. The aunt of Muhsin Ghailan (Abu Hamza's stepson, who was also under arrest) says she was engaged to this man. He was an Algerian who had been living in Britain but arrived in Yemen on a French passport which did not belong to him.

  • A number of "training videos" produced by Abu Hamza's SOS group were allegedly found (along with other equipment) in the hotel room where some of the arrested men were staying.

  • Abu Hamza issued "communiqués" on behalf of Abu al-Hassan and the Islamic Army. Both Abu Hamza and Abu al-Hassan made public threats to foreigners in Yemen (especially Americans and Britons) and called for the overthrow of the Yemeni government.