Yemen: the British link

Britons in the firing line plead innocence: Brian Whitaker, Burhan Wazir and Martin Bright on how a search for history and traditional culture ended in tragedy

Originally published in The Observer, 19 January 1999

LATE LAST YEAR two very different groups of Britons set out for Yemen. One comprised middle-class professionals in search of history and a traditional culture. The other devout young Muslims from working-class families in Birmingham who were hoping - say relatives - to improve their Arabic.

The trips became intertwined and both ended in disaster. Three tourists from the first group are now dead. And the five Muslims are in jail awaiting trial. If convicted they may be executed.

Unravelling the truth has been made no easier by a public row between the British and Yemeni governments.

The story, according to the Yemeni authorities, began around midnight on December 23 when a traffic policeman in Aden noticed a car negotiating a roundabout in a clockwise direction: 'the British way', as the press put it.

The policeman stopped the car, which contained three people, and asked the driver for his licence. While he was talking the car sped off. Shortly afterwards it collided with another car and the occupants escaped. Police found explosives and guns in the wreckage.

A few hours later, in a hotel room, men were allegedly caught stuffing plastic explosives into metal pipes.

Among those subsequently arrested were five Britons of Yemeni and Pakistani origin.

The Yemeni authorities say that the arrested Britons, the Jihad group who kidnapped 16 western tourists on December 28, and the militant Islamic group Supporters of Shariah (SOS) in north London are connected. They claim that:

* The Britons were involved in a bomb plot aimed at the most luxurious hotel in Aden, two restaurants, the British consulate, the British-built church, United Nations offices and the homes of US mine-clearance experts in the city. The explosions were planned to take place on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

* SOS video cassettes were found in the hotel room used by some of the Britons in Aden.

* The Britons confessed under questioning that their leader was the man known as Abu Hassan, who also led the subsequent kidnapping of tourists and telephoned the SOS to announce it.

* The main goal of the kidnappers was to secure the release of the arrested Britons (and possibly other prisoners).

A senior government source in Yemen told The Observer last night that the Britons were thought to be training Yemenis in sabotage, including making sophisticated booby traps for door locks and light switches. He said a training video had been recovered which would be shown to British investigators shortly.

There is no independent evidence to confirm these claims.

IT IS THIS that is fuelling the anger and bafflement in Birmingham, where the men described by the Yemenis are unrecognisable to their families, who believe their relatives have been caught in a dangerous tit-for-tat diplomatic wrangle over the Yemenis' bungled attempt to rescue the British hostages.

As the daily Ramadan fast ended at the central mosque in Birgmingham, bowls of fresh dates and orange slices were passed around the worshippers. Among a cross-section of the community the conversation was about the arrested men.

And tempers were strained.

'There's just no unity among Muslims,' yelled one old man. 'We should have people here from everywhere, ready to free those boys. But if we can't even mobilise ourselves, how can we expect others to follow us?' 'It's too late for that, uncle,' muttered a teenager.

Rashad Yaqoob, solicitor and spokesman for the five arrested Britons, admitted his confusion at their ordeal. 'If those boys are terrorists, then the Yemeni authorities should show us proof,' he argued. 'They haven't done that yet.' A huddle of twenty-somethings animatedly debated the week's proceedings. Few of them personally knew the men - Mohsin Ghalain, Shahid Butt, Malik Harhra, Samad Ahmed and Ghulam Hussein - but said two of them were known locally for their charity work.

Hours later Monica Davis, the wife of Hussein, comes to the door of the house where she is staying. She says her husband left for Yemen on a holiday. 'I was meant to join him afterwards; I've got an exam to resit. But then his phone calls just stopped.

'My husband is quite a shy person,' she says. 'Since he turned back to religion, we have spent a lot of time just studying the Koran. That's actually why we were going to Yemen - the locals there speak the closest thing to classical Arabic you can get. It's like if you're at college and you do French, you're lecturers will always recommend time in France.' Earlier in the evening, one of the priests spoke of the two students arrested in Yemen. Samad Ahmed, 21, was studying for an accountancy degree at Kingston University in Surrey, while Malik Nassar Harhra, 26, was studying computing science at the University of Westminster in London.

'They're religious kids,' he said, 'from good families. People are saying that they went there to be naughty, to cause trouble. But then, those people don't understand Islam and those that study it.'

BETWEEN THE arrests of the Birmingham men and the kidnapping of the tourists, a rather different event occurred at Finsbury Park mosque in north London. From December 24 to 26 the SOS was holding its fourth Islamic Camp, with activities including religious studies, martial arts and 'military training for brothers'. A picture of a hand grenade appeared on the publicity material.

The SOS 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 Shariah', says the group's literature.

At the centre of the SOS is Abu Hamza, who has publicly supported the bombings of the US embassies. Last October, on behalf of the kidnap group, known as the Jihad Group or the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, the SOS issued a communique warning foreigners to leave the area. He told The Observer he believed the kidnappings were justified because due warning had been given.