Abu Hamza and the Islamic Army

Dazed and confused

More than seven months after ten young men from Britain were arrested on bomb plot charges in Aden, the British are still unsure what to make of it ...

(Text last updated August 1999)

THE ADEN TEN: Or should they be "The Aden Eight" as the Daily Telegraph maintains? All ten were living in Britain but two were Algerian asylum-seekers so apparently their fate is of no concern to the Telegraph.

THE FOREIGN OFFICE: Stung in the early stages by accusations that it failed to look after the interests of the defendants as much as it would if they had been white and middle-class, the British Foreign Office has been bending over backwards to placate their supporters ever since. Even after the verdict was announced, it continued to refer to the defendants as "detainees" - a term usually applied to those held without trial. But the FO's Stiff Upper Lip Award should go to David Pearce, British consul general in Aden. After being informed that his own consulate had been one of the defendants' bombing targets, he then had to represent the defendants on behalf of Her Majesty's government - a job he did with total professionalism.

THE YEMENI GOVERNMENT: If the official version is true, the Yemeni authorities saved various British and American interests in Aden from attack - by a bunch of Britons. However, nobody thanked them for it because the Yemenis were slow to tell the British authorities about their achievement. In the meantime, supporters of the arrested Britons kidnapped 16 (mainly British) tourists in Yemen, hoping to exchange them for the arrested men. Yemeni security forces tried to free the hostages and, in the ensuing gun battle, four tourists died. Britain complained vigorously.

ABU HAMZA AL-MASRI: The wild imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London is a pivotal figure in the case. He's also a caricaturist's dream. His looks and words are everything that prejudice leads us to expect of an Islamic extremist. The Daily Mail hates him and relishes doing so; liberals feel uncomfortable even discussing him. Many Muslims refuse to take him seriously. Of course, there were lots of people who couldn't take Margaret Thatcher or Binyamin Netanyahu seriously - until it was too late.

THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY: Opinions range from "our boys are innocent" to "these people are giving Islam a bad name". The easy line is to claim victimisation by the British or Yemeni authorities. But more thoughtful voices suggest the community has a problem of alienation among its youth: instead of dismissing Abu Hamza's views as rubbish, perhaps they should be asking why some young Muslims find them so attractive.

TONY BLAIR: He's highly regarded by the Muslim community - especially after his efforts in Kosovo - and is wary of upsetting them by taking action against Abu Hamza. But he's also committed to being tough on the causes of crime, which means he really ought to do something about the wild Imam. So far, it's a truly British compromise: Abu Hamza has been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act but released on bail. Abu Hamza, incidentally, had his own solution for Kosovo which did not require Nato planes.

ISLAMIC LAW: Always assumed to be bad. Latent snobbery tells us that foreigners could never devised a legal system as fine as the one that convicted James Hanratty and the Birmingham Six and acquitted Ernest Saunders, chairman of Guinness. Abu Hamza and his followers, on the other hand, believe that Islamic law is good - except when the Yemenis use it against them.

THE DEFENDANTS: Still an enigma after seven months in the limelight. In the TV pictures at the start of the trial, they looked more like to sort of lads you would find at a disco - or in a scuffle outside it - than at a mosque. Prison guards were baffled by their un-Islamic behaviour. The first thing Islamic militants usually asked on being thrown into a cell was the direction of Mecca. But several in this bunch showed no interest in praying. By the end of the trial, though, they all looked different. They had smartened up and several had grown beards. As sentence was passed they shouted "Allahu Akbar". Have seven months in a Yemeni jail politicised them in a way that Abu Hamza's teaching failed to do?

ARE THEY GUILTY? Yes, the prevailing view is that the authorities in Aden are guilty of torture. But does that make the defendants innocent?