Yemen kidnap "linked with London group"

Yemen kidnap "linked with London group"

by Brian Whitaker, Martin Bright and Alan George

Originally published in The Observer, 10 January 1999

AN EXTREME Islamist group based in London is emerging as the key to both the kidnapping of British tourists in Yemen and the arrest of five Britons accused of involvement in a bomb plot there.

Senior Yemeni officials say the group, called Supporters of Shariah (SOS), is linked to both the kidnap gang and the five Britons from Birmingham who were arrested in Aden just days before the the Explore Worldwide group was seized on December 28.

The claim came as the crisis over western hostages in Yemen deepened last night, with the kidnapping of another Briton, John Brooke, 46, an oil worker with a United States company. He was apparently snatched from a compound near Marib, in north Yemen. His wife Katherine said the kidnappers cut a hole in the compound fence to take him.

SOS is led by 'Abu Hamza', a handless imam at Finsbury Park mosque, north London. His son Mustapha is being sought by the Yemeni authorities. They claim Mustapha was part of the bomb plot but heard about the arrests and fled.

Hamza - who was disabled during the Afghan war - admitted that the kidnappers' leader had called him by satellite phone on the day the Explore Worldwide tourists were seized. Yesterday he conceded that his son was missing. He had last seen him two-and-a-half weeks ago. Mustapha told him he was leaving Britain to study Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Although the families of the Birmingham men insist their sons are innocent Arabic scholars from religious families, senior Yemeni government officials say they were 'involved in training Yemenis how to make bombs', and had brought a training video 'showing how to booby-trap door locks and light switches'.

They also claim that the men had videos in their baggage produced by SOS.

SOS - which backed the bombing of the US embassies in Africa last year and other terrorist actions - is alleged by the Yemeni authorities to have been involved in funding terrorism in Yemen.

Hamza denied that the group funded bomb-making activities, and said he was not sure whether the young men arrested in Yemen were among his 'students'.

While there is no independent evidence to corroborate the claimed link between the Birmingham men and the kidnappings - or indeed to Hamza's group - the allegations about SOS will fuel the diplomatic row between Britain and Yemen over the death of the British hostages in a gun-fight and the arrest of the Birmingham men.

For their part, the Yemenis have accused Britain of harbouring terrorists.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook intervened in the row yesterday by telephoning Yemeni Prime Minister Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani to 'underline the seriousness' with which the affair is regarded here.

The five arrested Britons were named yesterday as Mohsin Ghalain, 18, Shahid Butt, 33, Malik Nassar Harhra, 26, Sanad Ahmad, 21, and Ghulam Hussein, 25. Their families demonstrated yesterday outside the Yemeni embassy in London.

An innocent explanation of their plight may be that, through their interest in Islam, they made contact accidentally with extremists. Such a thing has happened before.

SOS literature says the group was formed in 1994, uniting Muslims working 'under many other names in various parts of the world'.

Further questions about Hamza's role in the UK will be raised by the disclosure that SOS organised a camp at Finsbury Park Mosque over Christmas.

This included 'military training for brothers'.