Abu Hamza and the Supporters of Shariah
Text last updated 7 March 1999
THE KIDNAPPING of 16 western tourists in Abyan on 28 December 1998 and an alleged bomb plot in Aden have both been linked to an extreme Islamist organisation called Supporters of Shariah (SOS) which is run by Abu Hamza al-Masri, an imam at Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
According to the group's literature, SOS was formed in 1994, bringing together Muslims who had been working "under many other names in various parts of the world". It claims to have supported both mujahideen and refugees and Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kashmir, "as well as the frontline soldiers".
It aims "to remove the oppression created by man-made laws, so that the whole of mankind can enjoy the freedom, purity and justice of living under Allah's laws - the Shari'ah."
Abu Hamza, the leader of SOS, is said to have fought in the Afghan war and to have spent some time in Yemen afterwards as a refugee. He lost both hands and an eye in an accident. Little is known about his activities since he arrived in Britain. One press report claimed that he worked for a time as a night-club "bouncer".
The SOS website makes a point of encouraging Muslims to take up jihad, which it describes as "the forgotten obligation". It quotes the Qur'an and other sources to support this:
O you who believe! What is the matter with you, that when you are asked to march forth in the cause of Allah you cling heavily to the earth? Are you pleased with the life of this world rather than the Hereafter? But little is the enjoyment of the life of this world as compared to the Hereafter. (Sura 9:38)
If one of you stands in the cause of Allah (fighting) the reward gained would be better than if he prayed 70 years at home (Imaam Tirmidhi & Imaam Haakim)
Over Christmas 1998, from December 24 to 26, SOS held its fourth Islamic Camp at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. The list of activities included "military training for brothers". A picture of a hand grenade appeared on the publicity material. Admission was £20, with reduced prices for children and families.
The rejection of man-made laws in favour of God's law brings SOS into direct conflict with the governments of Muslim countries, which it regards as corrupt and deviating from the Islamic Way. The places that most interest Abu Hamza, judging by the articles on his website, are Afghanistan, Egypt, Kosovo and Yemen. There is no particular threat to non-Muslim countries, except where they become involved in the Muslim world and "pollute" it with western ideas and influences.
Initially, his interest in Yemen may have been aroused through coincidence. In Afghanistan, during the war, he met Abu Hassan al-Mihdar, the Yemeni who later established the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. He also reportedly took refuge in Yemen for a while after the war.
Through his friendship with Abu al-Hassan and his own knowledge of Yemen, Abu Hamza seems to have concluded that the country was a good place to gain experience of jihad before continuing the struggle elsewhere. He is alleged to have told one of the men on trial in Aden: "After Afghanistan, Yemen is the [most] suitable country for training mujahideen" because the nature of Afghanistan resembles that of Yemen.
But Yemen also holds a special significance in Abu Hamza's world view. It is the only country in the Arabian peninsula which has not yet "surrendered" to what he calls the "United Snakes of America", but is on the point of doing so. The remedy is for Muslims in Yemen to "explode in the faces of the Snakes … this will hopefully trigger a domino effect in the peninsula."
Yemen's "surrender", in Abu Hamza's view, seems to mean allowing western involvement in the country - oil companies and tourism, for example - but more particularly military involvement. Since the debacle of 1990, when Yemen was perceived as siding with Iraq (and heavily punished), the Sana'a government has been working hard to improve its relations with the west. Yemen needs good relations with the west mainly because of its fragile economy, but also as a safeguard in its long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia. Military co-operation with the United States is part of the price Yemen must pay for this. There were numerous military contacts during 1998, amid rumours that the Americans were hoping to set up a base in Yemen. In mid-December, during the air raids on Iraq, there were claims that Yemen had been used as a refuelling point. Islamists also claimed that some of the Americans in Yemen were working with the Yemeni authorities to root out mujahideen.
According to the Yemenis, Abu Hamza called a meeting in London in September 1998. A man called Amin, who had come from Yemen, gave a talk and produced some recruiting leaflets for the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan.
The following month, SOS issued a communique in Arabic on behalf of the Islamic Army, warning "unbelievers" to get out of the Arabian peninsula.
By this stage, according to a statement by the Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Salih, published on January 28, Abu Hamza's organisation was already involved in "planning and financing sabotage and bombings in Yemen." In this context, Salih specifically mentioned an incident on October 13 in al-Dali' when a military officer and a soldier accompanying him were injured by a bomb. The explosives were hidden under the donkey's saddle and the animal was blown to pieces.
SOS boasted - and joked - about this incident in its November newsletter, under the headline: "Yemeni Mujahids send a donkey to kill donkey officer". The article noted: "The government claims they have caught someone in connection with the killing," but it added: "We doubt very much that they caught anyone, the Mujahideen's donkey was too clever for them."
The Yemeni authorities claim that the ten men currently on trial in Aden were sent by Abu Hamza to help with a terrorist campaign in Yemen. The men have been 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." With one exception, all the accused deny all the charges.
According to the Yemeni authorities, it was in response to the arrest of six of these men (and three others arrested in a separate matter), that Abu al-Hassan and the Islamic Army kidnapped 16 western tourists on December 28 - hoping to exchange his hostages for the prisoners.
Barely an hour after kidnapping the tourists, Abu al-Hassan used his satellite phone to call Abu Hamza in London and tell him they had captured some "infidels". Abu Hamza later issued "Yemen Hostage Communique No 1", announcing the exploit.
Abu Hamza admits that he received the call. In an interview with al-Jazeera television on January 14, 1999, he said: "Abu al-Hassan called me to let me know after the kidnapping took place that he did not expect the Yemeni government to deal with this matter the same way it deals with other kidnappings. He wanted to convey a message and to clear his conscience if some of the hostages were killed because of the government's reckless behaviour."
According to an interview with Abu Hamza in al-Wasat magazine (11.1.99), Abu al-Hassan had been hoping the tourists would be mainly Americans, and seemed disappointed. Abu Hamza urged him not to harm the hostages and Abu al-Hassan agreed, saying that wanted to exchange them for nine Islamists who were under arrest. The nine prisoners consisted of two groups: Sheikh Salih Haidara al-Atawi and his two brothers who had been arrested at the beginning of December, and the six men (five British and an Algerian with a false French passport) who had been arrested on December 23/24.
On January 20, Abu Hamza held a press conference in London where he issued another communique (in English) warning all westerners to leave Yemen and calling for the overthrow of the Yemeni government.
On January 25, President Ali Abdullah Salih wrote a letter to Tony Blair, the British prime minister, seeking Abu Hamza's extradition to Yemen, "to be tried on charges of carrying out terrorist activities in Yemen and in several other Arab states".
On March 7, Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based imam, issued a new threat on behalf of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. It warned the British and American ambassadors to leave Yemen - "the land of Islam" - and said that if they stayed "the strike will be painful for the enemies of Islam". The handwritten statement (which was sent to al-Hayat newspaper) was signed by "Abu al-Muhsin", who is said to be the new commander of the Islamic Army following the arrest of Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar.
Following the death of King Hussein of Jordan, a new page was added to Abu Hamza's website under the heading "Another one bites the dust". It showed the king with horns on his head, surrounded by animated flames, apparently roasting in hell.