Row with Britain
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 15 January 1999
THE KIDNAPPING of 16 western tourists - 12 of them British - inYemen on December 28 sparked a full-scale diplomatic row between London and Sana'a.
Britain complained that it was not informed in advance of a rescue by security forces in which four of the hostages died. The British media then accused the Yemeni army of a "botched" rescue.
Yemen also, apparently, failed to inform Britain that a few days earlier it had foiled a bomb plot aimed at the British consulate and the British-built church in Aden, among other targets. Worse still, it emerged later that five of the suspects arrested in connection with the plot were young British Muslims.
Yemeni officials responded by claiming that both the kidnapping and the alleged bomb plot were linked to an extreme Islamist group in London, and accusing Britain of harbouring terrorists.
There is now little doubt that the tourists were kidnapped by Jihad, or a section of it known as the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. Jihad has many international connections dating back to the Afghan war, including Osama bin Laden. It runs a military training camp at Huttat, in the Maraqisha mountains of southern Yemen, which the authorities have been attempting to close for some time.
Initially, there were suggestions that the kidnap was a reprisal for the American and British bombing of Iraq earlier in December. That is still a possibility, but another explanation now seems more likely.
Although FBI and Scotland Yard detectives have joined the investigations in Yemen, most of what has been published so far comes from the Yemeni authorities and has not been independently corroborated.
The Yemenis claim that both the kidnapping and the alleged bomb plot have a connection with an organisation called Supporters of Shariah (SOS) which is run by "Abu Hamza al-Masri" and based at Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
Abu Hamza fought in the Afghan war, where he lost both hands and an eye while moving ammunition. He had been in touch for some time with Abu Hassan al-Mehdar, self-styled commander of the "Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan" (or Jihad), who was arrested during the shoot-out with the kidnappers. Last October, SOS issued a communique in Arabic on behalf of the Islamic Army, warning "unbelievers" to get out of the Arabian peninsula.
The Yemeni authorities claim that late last year Abu Hamza sent some of his British "students" to help with a terrorist campaign in Yemen. According to a high government source, their role was to be mainly training, especially in the use of booby traps for door locks and light switches. However, no independent evidence is available for this.
Five Britons were arrested in Yemen on or about December 23. Their families maintain that they are innocent and they had simply gone to Yemen to improve their Arabic. They have not, so far, been charged with any offence but Yemeni sources say a decision on charges will be made before the end of Ramadan and their trial, if any, will take place after Ramadan.
The Yemenis also claim that a sixth Briton was tipped off about the arrests and escaped, though his passport was recovered. They named him as Mustapha Kamil, aged 17, and they say he is Abu Hamza's son. Abu Hamza concedes that he has not seen his son for some time. He says that the last time they met, the boy said he was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia.
A further Yemeni claim is that a number of SOS video cassettes were found in the possession of the arrested Britons. Abu Hamza says that without seeing their photographs he cannot tell whether the Britons concerned are among his "students".
The 16 western tourists, according to the Yemenis, were kidnapped on December 28 by the Islamic Army in the hope of securing the release of the Britons who had been arrested earlier.
During the kidnap, Abu Hassan, the leader of the gang, used his satellite phone to Abu Hamza of SOS in London and tell him they had captured some "infidels". Abu Hamza then issued "Yemen Hostage Communique No 1", announcing the exploit. Abu Hamza admits that he received the call, and western intelligence intercepts confirm it.
On January 7, the Yemeni the armed forces newspaper, "26 September", claimed that the Islamic Army had received large amounts of money from SOS, to be passed on to the alleged bomb-plotters in Aden. According to the paper, they were each to receive $1,000 a week, plus $10,000 on completion of the "operation". Abu Hamza denies this.
SOS claims to be an international organisation but its address is a post office box in central London. It also has an Internet web site (www.ummah.net/sos) which gives mobile phone numbers for Abu Hamza and another man known as Sarmad.
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 in 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."
Over Christmas, from December 24 to 26, SOS held its fourth Islamic Camp at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. The list of activities included religious studies but also martial arts and "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.
Meanwhile, on January 10, another Briton - an oil worker - was kidnapped in Marib province. The incident was apparently unconnected and was thought to be the work of a tribe seeking the release of one of its members from jail.