Kidnappers' call to London imam

Kidnappers' call to London imam

Leader of Supporters of Shariah tells Arabic language magazine he was called an hour after 16 Western tourists were seized in Yemen

by Rory Carroll and Brian Whitaker

Originally published in The Guardian, 14 January 1999

NEWS of the kidnap of 16 Westerners was communicated to an imam in north London barely an hour after the tourists were seized in Yemen, it emerged yesterday as the trial of three men accused of the kidnapping opened.

The group's ringleader made the call to Abu Hamza al-Masri, who runs the London-based Supporters of Shariah (SOS) from a mosque in Finsbury Park. He told the imam he was disappointed there were no Americans.

Abu Hamza urged the kidnapper not to harm the hostages and to treat them well. According to an interview with Abu Hamza in the Arabic-language magazine, al-Wasat, the kidnappers' leader promised not to mistreat the foreigners and said he was seeking to exchange them for nine Islamists.

The prisoners who were to be bartered for the tourists included the five Britons and a Frenchman who had been arrested between December 23 and 24, and three Yemeni brothers - one of them a local sheikh - who had been arrested separately.

After consulting the imam, the kidnappers' chief, Abu al-Hassan, leader of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, sent a representative to tell the provincial authorities of his proposal to exchange hostages for prisoners. Almost as an afterthought, he added that UN sanctions against Iraq must also be lifted.

The authorities, according to al-Wasat magazine, replied that they were determined to free the hostages without releasing its Islamic detainees.

Abu al-Hassan and Abu Hamza have known each other since the war in Afghanistan, when they both fought against Soviet forces, and the London imam has issued a number of 'communiques' on behalf of Abu al-Hassan's Islamic Army.

The trial of of Abu al-Hassan, aged 32, and the other captured kidnappers - Ahmed Mohammad Ali Atef, aged 26, and his brother Saad Mohammad Ali Atef, aged 18, was adjourned for a week yesterday after prosecutors demanded the death sentence.

The three are charged with kidnapping, premeditated murder, highway robbery, sabotage and forming an armed group. The same charges were levelled in absentia against 11 others, including an Algerian.

The trial is being held at a heavily-guarded small court house in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. Abu al-Hassan condemned the United States and Britain and called for jihad (holy war) against 'the crusaders'.

'I am not guilty. I am a Mojahed (holy warrior) for God. We sacrifice ourselves for God,' he told the court.

Over the last few years the Yemeni authorities have cracked down on extreme Islamists, expelling many of non-Yemeni origin. But the Islamic Army, although small in number, is still capable of causing serious trouble.

Founded two years ago by Abu al-Hassan, it is one of the few Islamic groups not sucked into the mainstream by government conciliation. Abu al-Hassan, who considered the authorities infidels for not applying the sharia, spurned such approaches. At one point the government offered a reward of 1 million riyals (around pounds 5,000) for his capture.

The group supported the alleged Islamic terrorist Osama Bin Laden, based in Afghanistan, but it is not known if there was an organised link.

It has emerged that a second radical Muslim organisation had links with the Finsbury Park mosque. Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohamed is a former leader of the mosque, now led by Abu Hamza, and runs al-Muhajiroun, an organisation which believes in resistance by Muslims against the US and Britain.

Sheikh Bakri said he had taught four of the British men now being held in Yemen, adding that money raised at the mosque was used to fund Muslim resistance groups. The Britons were peaceful men, he said.

Yesterday, amid jubilation over the release of the British oil worker John Brooke - who had been held hostage since Saturday by a tribe in another part of Yemen - confusion reigned over whether the five Britons had been charged.

Hussein al-Amri, the Yemeni ambassador to London, said they had been charged with allegedly plotting to bomb a hotel and the British consulate in Aden and would receive an open trial.

Later, amid mounting panic from the men's relatives who feared a quick trial could lead to quick executions, Dr al-Amri told Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons that charges had not yet been laid, but would be brought soon.

However Badr Basunaid, the men's lawyer, complained he had been denied access. 'I have seen the prosecution files and there are no charge sheets, no accounts of sources, evidence or a list of witnesses.' Robin Cook repeated the Foreign Office's impatience. 'That is why I have twice spoken to the prime minister of Yemen urging him that these men either must be released or charged.' Muslims in Birmingham pledged reprisals if the men were executed.

Mohsin Ghalain, 18, from London, was arrested last month with Ghulam Hussein, 25, from Luton, Bedfordshire, and Shahid Butt, aged 33, Malik Nassar Harhra, 26, and Sarmad Ahmed, 21, all from Birmingham.

Yemen: the British links

Abu Hamza: The Egyptian-born Islamic fundamentalist lost his hands and an eye fighting in Afghanistan, before becoming a British citizen in 1985. He runs the Supporters of Shariah from a mosque in Finsbury Park, north London, which trains Muslim youths in combat and advocates holy war.

Omar Bakri Mohamed: Close associate of Hamza, the Syrian-born sheikh leads London-based extremist Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, or the Emigrants.

Abu al-Hassan al-Midhar: Born into a prominent Yemeni tribe, al-Midhar, aged 32, leads the Islamic Army of Aden, near-anarchic Islamic extremists urging holy war against the West.

Shahid Butt: Detained in Aden. Comes from Birmingham and studied finance at Birmingham university. Aged 33; married with four children.

Malik Nassar Harhara: Detained in Aden. Born in Yemen but brought up in Birmingham. Aged 26. IT graduate.

Sarmad Ahmed: Detained in Aden. From Birmingham. Studied computing at Kingston university. Aged 21.

Ghulam Hussein: Detained in Aden. A 25-year-old security guard from Luton.

Mohsin Ghailan: Detained in Aden. Aged 18, an engineering student of Moroccan origin, he lives in London. Abu Hamza refuses to say whether he is his stepson.

Mohammed Mustapha Kamil: Seventeen-year-old son of Abu Hamza. On the run from Yemeni authorities.

Abdharam James: Detained in Aden. Frenchman of Algerian origin. Engaged to Mohsin Ghailan's aunt. Aged 25.