Terrorists or tourists?
In Yemen, eight young Britons are on trial. They are accused of being Islamic fighters, revolutionaries bent on sparking a holy war. Their families and supporters maintain that they are innocents, pawns caught up in a larger political game. And that's as simple as this chaotic case gets, because whatever the verdict, expected any day, it doesn't add up.
by Rory Carroll
HAD the white Daewoo not veered into the wrong lane on a deserted Yemeni highway last December, it might all have been very different. A traffic policeman called Ibrahim Fitini Salem might never have had a cameo role in unravelling an alleged international terrorist conspiracy. And eight British men - boys, according to those campaigning on their behalf - might not this month be waiting for a gravel-voiced judge to call his court to order and announce whether they are guilty of terrible crimes.
It was cool and cloudless on the night that Lt Salem flagged down the Daewoo. Behind it, squatting on the horizon, were the dark humps of the mountains of Abyan. In the other direction was a cluster of glimmering lights - Aden. The three silhouettes inside the vehicle sat motionless while the policeman approached. He saw that they were young Asian men. He demanded a driving licence. A crumpled piece of paper was offered. Then he demanded proof of ownership. The occupants exchanged glances. A hand shot out, ripped the licence from the policeman's grasp and the Daewoo roared away. The squad car raced in pursuit but couldn't overtake as it sped into Aden. The Daewoo slammed into a parked truck but ploughed on. The police thought they were closing in when they screeched around a corner on to a market street. The Daewoo sat at a crazy angle in the middle of the street, doors open, empty.
It did not matter. Aden was no town to be a fugitive with a Brummie accent. By dawn, five Britons had been hauled from two hotel rooms and arrested. Another three were being hunted in the desert and would be betrayed to police three weeks later by a tribal sheikh.
That was five months ago. Almost invisible to the British public, their chaotic trial has stumbled on, piecing together a jigsaw of holy war in Afghanistan, media manipulation, the identity crisis of second-generation British Muslims, confessions under torture and plots of mass murder.
Underlying the proceedings in Aden's primary courtroom number one, built to resemble the Old Bailey, are the unspoken interests of the British and Yemeni governments, of tribal leaders, of Islamic militants. So, when Judge Jamal Omar declares a verdict, justice may have nothing to do with it. The stakes are too high.
At the heart of the saga burns the question: did they do it? Did eight lads - students, a bus driver, a clerk, a security guard - reared on the streets of Birmingham, London and Luton, go to the Arabian state to ignite a holy war? To murder tourists in their beds by detonating mines in the Movenpick Hotel, to fire rockets into the city's only Christian church, to slaughter British diplomats at their consulate and homosexuals at the Al Shadhrawan nightclub? The actual charge is terrorism, but all these crimes have been laid at their door.
It seems incredible. But then Yemen itself can defy belief. A rectangular slab of desert and mountain clinging to the bottom of the Arabian peninsula, its imam rulers sustained medieval isolation until the cold war. This is an impoverished land where modernity's most visible contribution is the Kalashnikov, where the most famous export is qat, a mildly narcotic plant that keeps half the population chewing until dawn, where tribes have been known to shoot at strangers if they don't stop to accept their famed hospitality. And it is a land raked by religious, tribal and political divisions, mostly beyond the control of the government in the capital, Sana'a. Into this violent lawlessness last year entered eight Britons and their two Algerian friends.
Signs of past conflict are obvious as soon as you walk into the sweltering cacophony that is Aden airport. Raw concrete columns support the roof, damaged during the 1994 civil war. Another legacy - minefields - line the coast road of this southern port city, occupied by Britain until 1967. The men's families, mostly of Pakistani origin, say they came for a holiday and to study Arabic. The prosecution says different. It outlines an astonishing story. That these men, aged 17 to 33, were Islamic terrorists on a mission to murder fellow Britons. That they were trained and armed in the mountains of Abyan by an obscure terrorist group called the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA), which wants Yemen to become an Islamic state. That they were to support their Yemeni comrades by blitzing western targets in Aden over Christmas.
According to the prosecution, they were returning from Abyan on December 23 to start their campaign when the driver, young and probably nervous, veered into the wrong lane and Lt Salem flagged them down. Cue a high-speed chase, arrests and the discovery - in their car, hotel rooms and rented villa - of wires, fuses, a global positioning system, mobile phones, two bazookas, TNT, Yemeni army uniforms, training videos, militant Islamic literature.
High up in his mountain camp, Abu Hassan, leader of the IAA, waited for explosions to rock Aden. Nothing happened. Word leaked out that the police had smashed the plot. Hassan, said one Yemeni detective, 'went ape'. Next day, December 27, a thunderclap rolled across the desert: Hassan and his men swooped into a valley and kidnapped 16 western tourists, mostly British.
Release our jailed friends, said Hassan, or else. Yemen's government froze.
This crisis was unprecedented. Never before had such a large group been taken. Worse, their abductors were not tribesmen seeking favours or ransoms. They were terrorists.
Phone lines burned between Sana'a, Aden and London, but Aden's security chief, General Mohammed Turaik, was not one to wait. Troops surrounded the camp. It is unclear who started shooting first, but, within minutes, Abyan echoed to a raging gun battle. The terrorists tried to flee.
Three were killed and three captured, including Hassan. For Yemen, the botched rescue was a catastrophe: four tourists - three Britons and an Australian - lay dead. Pictures of the survivors flashed around the world. They told of praying while being used as human shields, of executions. Overnight, a blossoming tourist industry withered and died. The hotels are still empty.
Investigators at Aden's security HQ continued trying to piece together a case showing how young British Muslims became footsoldiers for the Islamic Army of Aden. And then, in the first week of January, came a breakthrough: a confession, then another and another, until all five had signed damning admissions with inked thumbs. They admitted everything. The bombs, the targets, the training. And the missing link - an imam in London called Abu Hamza.
According to the prosecution, he was the one who sent them, the one who knew of Islamic warriors in Abyan. He was the linchpin of the conspiracy, masterminding terror from a mosque in Finsbury Park. Confronted by journalists, Hamza admitted that one of the arrested five was his godson and that one of the three still on the run was his son. Hamza had a website, adorned with a grenade, that urged spilling blood for Islam. Even more decisively, the cleric admitted he had been phoned by Hassan just after he had abducted the tourists. In this prosecution version of events, a connecting thread had become a noose.
Whoever these young Muslims were, they had transformed the diplomatic landscape. Britain was allegedly exporting Islamic terrorism to the middle east, not the other way round. Second-generation, football-loving, college-educated lads with Brummie accents were the new mujahedin.
Yemen unveiled its captives with a flourish. More than 200 soldiers armed with AK47s surrounded the courthouse for the first day of the trial, January 27. TV cameras and photographers focused on the mines, rockets and other evidence piled before the judge's bench. The packed courtroom grew hotter as diplomats, lawyers, relatives, journalists and soldiers squeezed in.
The three prosecutors wore black robes with blood-red sashes. From a cell beneath the courtroom suspects shuffled - ragged, blinking in the light of flashguns, handcuffed. Some screamed about torture, relatives wept, guards jostled. A translator mistakenly said the charges carried the death penalty.
Pandemonium, great copy and big news. For a day. Yemeni justice is not kind to news-desk budgets and attention spans. The case was adjourned for three days, then another three, and so on, until a frustrated press drifted away.
The suspects, after all, were not even white. The case has puttered along ever since, away from the gaze of the media, largely forgotten.
Abu Hamza is still in London, protected from extradition by the lack of a treaty between the UK and Yemen. The prosecution is finished, the defence winding down. All that remains is for Judge Omar to announce a verdict. That will be news, for a day.
Something stinks, be the verdict guilty or innocent. The investigation, the trial, the conspiracy don't add up. Shake it just a little and the official version starts to crumble. And at the heart of its weakness stands the diabolical bogeyman himself, Abu Hamza.
Rarely has Fleet Street been gifted a villain so sublime. Massive, bearded, one good eye darts in its socket, the other a milky imitation surrounded by scars. Blood-curdling threats are voiced softly while his iron claws rake the air. From his London mosque, Hamza runs the Sons of Shariah, an organisation dedicated to overthrowing apostate rulers of Muslim countries.
Leaflets, press releases and a website denounce infidels, nudity, western oppression and sell-out Muslim regimes, including Yemen. Muslims in Europe are expected to help their oppressed brothers. Violence is justified.
Hamza's credentials as a terrorist mastermind seem impeccable. He lost his arms to a mine in Afghanistan. MI5 watches him. And, astonishingly, almost uniquely in the secretive world of the mujahedin, Hamza is available for interview. Always. He gives his mobile and home numbers to any journalist who asks, takes every call, gives press conferences, whizzes around TV studios and poses for photographs.
He denies sending the suspects to Yemen, but endorses any action that would overthrow the infidels in Sana'a. The Yemeni government spits venom every time he turns up on BBC World or the Arabic satellite channel, Algeciras.
Amid the sound and fury, an awkward fact has been overlooked: Hamza is a nobody - a scary-looking, scary-sounding nobody. Genuine mujahedin I have spoken to are disbelieving that the man they mock as a wannabe is portrayed in Britain as a real threat. They have a name for people like Hamza: mediahedin.
Finsbury Park mosque is buzzing when I go to meet him, for, the next day, Hamza is to lead another one of his pounds 20-a-head 'training' weekends where, advertising posters promise, participants will learn about martial arts, weapons, parachuting, paintballing, escape and evasion, fitness, security, surveillance, mountaineering, map-reading and scuba diving. And home in time for Sunday tea. Not bad for pounds 20, and families get discounts. Serious terrorists? Strip away the hard sell and it sounds like the scouts.
Hamza pulls up in an ancient Mercedes stuffed with boxes of cheap toys, cutlery and knick-knacks to be sold in the mosque to raise funds. A grey smock billows around his ample frame. No hooks, just reddish stumps. He apologises for being (three minutes) late, offers tea or coffee, apologises when told the kitchen is shut and gives me Ribena. He has a wonderful smile. Fifteen years ago, when he was a nightclub bouncer yet to discover Islam, he would have been very handsome.
Inside his first-floor office sit two dusty computers, mouldy clothes and dozens of Islamic texts. He speaks in a soft, half- Egyptian, half-East End accent, all glottal stops and geezers. Two sons, aged nine and 10, hover shyly in the background. Yemen, he begins, is more vulnerable to Islamic takeover than other Arab states because of its divisive tribes and mountainous terrain. More than anything, Muslims need a state of their own, with Shariah law, he says. 'There are 1,400 million Muslims in the world. If we only lose one million (gaining a state) then it's not a big price.' More revealing is the answer he gives towards the end, when I ask him what it was like to be thrust into the limelight. 'Lots of people in the street started recognising me, yes, lots of people.' A long gurgle rattles in his throat. Abu Hamza is chuckling.
What is no laughing matter, however, is the possible jail sentence that awaits Hamza's 17-year-old son, Mohammed, and the other accued. 'I did not send them,' he says. 'If I did, I would have made sure they changed their names first. It's only pounds 25 by deed-poll. And I would have made sure they didn't check into cheap hotels. That's a very crude thing; it shows they didn't have any experience, no boss to tell them what to do. If I wanted to train them, I would have sent them to Afghanistan, it's much better there.
'My son didn't ask me if he could go. He knew I would've said no. There's enough people there already to do any kind of job Abu Hassan might have been planning. The boys went on their own, they're hot-blooded brothers, they've their own gangs. Some of them are new to the Islamic path. They put down the bottle not long ago. My son follows Mohsin (Hamza's godson) everywhere.' Mujahedin are usually respectful of each other when western journalists are around. For Hamza, they make an exception. Yasser al-Siri, supposedly Hamza's ally, is a militant wanted for the attempted assassination in 1993 of Egypt's prime minister; he now heads the London-based Islamic Observation Centre. He knows most of the players in Yemen, including Abu Hassan. When interviewed, he at first refuses to comment on Hamza. Later, it slips out: 'Hamza's a crazy man. He wants publicity, he wants to be known - that's all.
The British media should have been more objective.' If the demon of Finsbury Park had done something actually illegal, it is unlikely he would still be free. Despite huge pressure to take action, the best the anti-terrorist branch could do was lift him for four days in March. He was released without charge on police bail. 'When the police arrived he was giggly,' says Rashad Yaqoob, a London-based campaigner for the Aden eight. 'He was disappointed that they didn't hold him for longer. It would have looked better.' Attempts to follow Hamza's money trail have led nowhere, probably because he doesn't have much money. No evidence of largesse from his supposed chum, the billionaire terrorist Osama bin Laden. No hint of secret bank accounts, just a shabby terraced house in Shepherds Bush and tacky trinkets to raise funds.
Hamza was, and is, press officer for disparate groups, including the Islamic Army of Aden, but to suggest that he pulls the strings seems fanciful. He knew some of the defendants; it is possible he ordered them to bomb Aden; and it is possible he asked Hassan to arm them. But it is unlikely.
Whispering to the media, fuelling the myth that here was a terrorist godfather, was an unlikely source: the Yemeni government. Publicly, it howled every time Hamza branded it an apostate regime; it denounced Britain for not gagging him. Yet it planted stories in London and Yemen, leaked bits of evidence, took journalists aside for private briefings about Hamza's web, which duly became next day's headlines. Some had my byline. The truth was that Sana'a needed Hamza. He got them off the hook.
Rewind to 1994. The four-year old merger between the Marxist south, capital Aden, and the conservative north, capital Sana'a, is crumbling into civil war. The north has more tanks, planes and soldiers, but is impatient for victory. It turns to thousands of well-armed warriors kicking their heels in the desert: the mujahedin, fundamentalists from all over the Muslim world back from savaging the Russians in the Afghan war. Sana'a offers them a chance to overthrow the left-wingers in Aden and promises, privately, that the reunified Yemen will become an Islamic state. The mujahedin accept and the south falls. Triumphant Muslims smash Aden's brewery, but they are in for a surprise. Sana'a reneges on its promise to adopt a Taliban-type regime. President Ali Abdullah Saleh soothes their frustration by offering land, money and jobs in government. Many accept, but some hold out - hardliners such as Abu Hassan. A crack-down on them is out of the question, since the government includes those who helped mobilise the mujahedin in the first place. So Hassan and others are allowed to remain in their camps. Egypt says they export terror, and Sana'a does nothing.
Fast-forward to 1998, when Islamic extremists blow up two US embassies in Africa. Three men are arrested in Kenya: a Yemeni national and two with forged Yemeni passports. The FBI beams a light into those desert camps and Sana'a comes under pressure to move on them. It cannot afford to lose US support, as that would put its hopes of reviving Aden's port in jeopardy, would undermine the oil companies' confidence, and lessen its chances of persuading the US to set up a base.
So, when, a few months later, four kidnapped western tourists end up in bodybags, it looks very, very bad. No Americans are killed, yet the FBI returns. The captain of the USS Klakring, the first US warship to dock at Aden in decades, won't risk allowing sailors ashore. Yemen is on the brink of becoming a pariah. And then some Britons in an Aden jail are linked to the kidnappers and the terrorism turns out not to be Yemen's fault at all. Attention shifts to a terrorist mastermind in London called Abu Hamza. Britain is to blame instead.
'They identified Hamza as the root of all evil. He provided them with a story to blunt criticism,' says Simeon Kerr, a Yemeni analyst for the British firm Control Risk, paid to give investors impartial advice.
This does not make Hamza or the suspects innocent, but it does put a question mark over the motives of Sana'a. It is in its interests to connect Hamza to the Aden eight and to have them convicted. The independence of the court is in doubt.
It is a cause for concern, and certainly one that could be bellowed from rooftops by the men's supporters in this country. After all, their strategy was to galvanise public opinion and put pressure on the foreign office by ramming home the message that the trial is unfair, that eight Muslim boys from poor families are being scapegoated by a dodgy government. It was said that their plight, and accusations that a racist foreign office was not doing enough, would trigger the most serious ethnic tensions among Britain's two million Muslims since the Rushdie fatwah.
Yet now the case reaches its climax - and what? Nothing. No rallies, no marches to Whitehall, no press conferences, no interviews, no ethnic tension. The campaign's wheels have fallen off.
Back in January it was very different. Relatives and supporters realised the battle was as much propaganda as legal. A committee was formed at speed. Gareth Peirce, the best miscarriage-of-justice solicitor around, signed up.
'First, it was the Irish,' she said. 'Now, it's the Muslims.' Offices were set up in Manchester, Birmingham and London. Their message: the boys were innocent, they had been tortured, the Yemenis were lying. Students mobilised. Fundraisers stalked streets and boardrooms. A backlash from a smeared Muslim community seemed in motion. Amnesty International called for urgent action. Its choice of lawyer in Aden, Badr Basunaid, accepted the brief and built a five-strong team. Demos were held and delegations flew to Yemen. A letter from the UN High Commission for Refugees landed on the interior minister's desk.
Yet somewhere, something went wrong. The case disappeared from the headlines. The Muslim business community stopped contributing. Charities refused to help. The fighting fund stalled at pounds 26,000. The campaign offices were closed. Three of the Aden lawyers were let go because they could not be paid. Chaos in the trial - incomprehensible translators, shouting matches, prosecution ambushes, witnesses appearing and disappearing, a walk-out by defence lawyers - went largely unreported.
Judge Omar announced a two-week adjournment, then resumed the trial the next day. Pleas for a medical examination by independent doctors were accepted, rescinded, accepted, rescinded. Family visits were banned because a prosecutor said he'd been called 'a donkey-faced ass'. An attempted sit-down protest in their cell beneath the court ended in the prisoners being jabbed into court at gunpoint amid wailing relatives. Back in Britain, no one seemed to care.
'The families were gutted,' says Yaqoob. 'It was quite sad. It almost became taboo to be associated with the trial.' Relatives who visited Aden returned to work to hard stares from colleagues, even demotion. Yaqoob himself, a 27-year-old lawyer with a City investment bank who got involved after putting his name on an Amnesty list of volunteers, has been on indefinite notice without pay for four months. His employers did not like his extra-curricular work. So now he sits at home every day, with his wife and newborn daughter, watching his career and savings drain away.
The campaign's collapse is easily explained: Sana'a won the propaganda battle. Suspicion that the suspects had been tortured into confessing gave way to a feeling that they were guilty. Mines, rockets and TNT looked more persuasive on TV than bruises. Britain's Muslim leaders recoiled from a quagmire that reinforced every stereotype they were working to banish.
Little stir was caused last month, when Abu Hassan, in a separate trial, was sentenced to death for kidnapping. Most expect his appeal will end in a jail sentence. For the Britons, 10 years is the maximum penalty on the charges of membership of an armed group, possession of weapons, explosives and unauthorised international communications devices, as well as initiating acts of sabotage against Yemeni and foreign interests in Yemen. Diplomats believe they will be found guilty, but given light sentences to repair relations with Britain.
Which means no reliable answer to the central question: did they do it? Were these eight men a terrorist cell indoctrinated by Hamza, armed by Hassan? Or were they innocents abroad, lads out for a good time who got snagged into a churning damage-limitation machine? Gulam Hussain, 25, a security guard from Luton, makes the prosecution look bad. He sits in court bewildered and rarely speaks to the others, probably because he does not know them. On the first day of the trial, wearing the same striped shirt he was arrested in four weeks earlier, he stood within touching distance of his weeping wife, Monica Davis, but seemed too dazed to move. Take away a dubious confession and nothing links Hussain to Hamza.
He arrived alone on December 18, allegedly to see if the country he saw in a brochure would make a good holiday destination for his wife and 20-month-old daughter. He rang home on December 23 to say it was fine for them to join him. At the phone exchange he met some Britons and ended up sharing a hotel room. An instant recruit to terrorism, or a guy who wanted to save money? Judge Omar will decide.
Malik Nasser, 26, makes the prosecution look good. He was the first to arrive, on July 3, 1998. He was the one who rented the Daewoo and the villa. He was the one behind the wheel when stopped by Lt Salem. And he confessed to meeting Abu Hamza in London and Abu Hassan in Abyan.
Nonsense, say relatives. A Yemeni proverb says a camel left long enough in a cell will say it's a donkey. Nasser's confession was beaten out of him, as were all the confessions. Lt Salem's testimony proves nothing because no fingerprints were taken. The police simply unveiled the mines and rockets at court and said they were found in the car.
The truth, say relatives, is that Nasser was a good-time boy. His Westminster University BSc in information systems had failed to land a job, so he went with his mother for a holiday and to rediscover family roots.
Privately, Mum hoped to find him a wife. She returned on August 20, but Nasser extended his stay with relatives in Yafi village. The villa was to relieve pressure on his aunt who was putting up the increasing number of mates enticed by promises that Yemen was cheap and fun. The Daewoo was damaged in an innocent accident. And what sort of Islamic fundamentalist, ask relatives, is known to college friends as a boozer? Yet the defence case creaks, too. The villa's owner was asked to build a 10ft wall around the compound. Why? No details have been given of the innocent accident.
Campaigners paint a similar picture of Samad Ahmed, 22, a friend of Nasser's younger brother. A student and part-time security guard, he liked beer, had an ear pierced and heeded Nasser's call to party, arriving for a four-week visit on December 18. To party? At the bottom of a Sons of Shariah press release, dated December, is a name, 'Sarmad', and mobile phone number. When I rang the number, a voice answered saying that Samad Ahmed had sold him the mobile before leaving the country. SoS leaflets and tapes were displayed in court.
Shahid Butt, 33, a clerical worker from Birmingham, joined Nasser and Ahmed in the last week of November, intending to return to his wife, Ruby, and their four children on January 18. A voluntary worker at Birmingham's central mosque and co-ordinator for the Convoy of Mercy charity, he has no knowns links to SoS.
Then come the prosecution's prize specimens: Mohsin Ghalain, 18, and Mohammed Mustafa Kamal, 17, respectively godson and son of Abu Hamza. They are thought to have arrived in mid-November. Interesting baggage: a video of them and an Algerian co-defendant, Pierik James, toting guns in Albania, recorded the previous summer. Training to be terrorists, say prosectors. Lads who joined an aid convoy to Albania, playing Rambo to the camera, say campaigners.
There are oddities. Ghalain, who dyes his hair red, is no serious Muslim, say guards. He didn't know how many times a day Muslims should pray, nor cared which wall of his cell faced Mecca.
Which leaves Shazad Nabi, 20, a bus driver, and Ayaz Hussain, 26, a computer studies graduate, both Brummies. Fun-lovers with little interest in Islam, say relatives. Yet it was they who, with Kamal and the second Algerian, Ali Moshin, survived on the run for four weeks. They might have made it to Saudi Arabia were it not for the betrayal of a mountain sheikh. Impressive improvisation for party animals.
Guilty or not guilty? That Hamza is linked is beyond doubt. That some are highly-politicised and behaved suspiciously, no question. Eight innocents abroad does not stand up. Too many coincidences, too many unexplained twists. The Yemenis could not have planted the SoS literature and tapes.
Almost certainly, the confessions were made under duress, yet there is enough circumstantial evidence to believe at least five of the men did indeed meet and befriend Abu Hassan. But hardened terrorists? One Aden detective described Gulam Hussein as the virgin in the brothel, yet the evidence against the others is also thin. No fingerprints and, in most cases, no witnesses.
The defendants almost certainly went out not for murder but youthful adventure; to blast Kalashnikovs in the desert. Diplomats and campaigners privately agree that a hard core got caught up in something more, that Malik Nasser and Mohsin Ghalain regularly met Abu Hassan. At that stage, he was no kidnapper and the Islamic Army of Aden had done little except issue press releases. Maybe their arrival coincided with Hassan stepping up a gear - yet he was not charged with the alleged bomb plot. The Yemenis found a thread and made it a rope to bind a convenient conspiracy. It contains shreds of truth, degrees of guilt. The rest is politics.
Judge Omar knows that the fate of the 10 accused is important to his country. He knows the British diplomats who peer back at him from the public gallery are negotiating with his government, that calculations are being made that owe little to the weight of evidence. He knows guilt or innocence, severity or leniency, are not his decision. And when they shuffle into his courtroom for the last time, he will know what he must do.
© Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999. Reproduced with permission