The "jihad experience"

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,20 August, 1999

TEN young men from Britain accused of plotting to bomb British and American interests in Aden were given prison sentences ranging up to seven years by a Yemeni court on August 9. Both sides - defence and prosecution - promptly appealed. The prosecution complained that the sentences were not severe enough, though this may simply be a tactic to counter sympathetic publicity generated by the men's supporters. One effect of the appeals is that three of the defendants, who were merely sentenced to time served since their arrests, will have to remain in Yemen (two of them possibly in jail) while the appeal is heard.

Meanwhile the British prime minister, Tony Blair, has written to President Ali Abdullah Salih expressing concern about aspects of the men's detention and trial. The move was partly aimed at placating the Muslim community in Britain following accusations that the British government has done too little to help the defendants, and the government stressed that it was not seeking to interfere in Yemen's judicial process.

During the trial, the men's principal defence was that their confessions were obtained through torture. Although virtually impossible to substantiate, the claim is widely believed - such allegations are frequent in Yemen. In July, for the first time, a case was actually proved when a policeman and two soldiers were jailed for torturing to death a man held on theft charges in Mahwit province.

However, it is difficult to accept the defendants' other claim: that they were merely in Yemen for a holiday, to learn Arabic or attend a wedding. Ordinary tourists do not make contact with terrorist groups such as the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan and, only a few months before their arrest in Yemen, four of the defendants had been on another "holiday" in Albania where they had filmed themselves toting automatic weapons.

What exactly the Aden Ten were doing (or intending to do) in Yemen will probably never be established to everyone's satisfaction. The authorities insist that they were part of a serious - and potentially horrific - bomb plot. Alternative explanations might be that they went in search of excitement - a "jihad experience" - and became too deeply involved, or that they went for weapons training with a view to joining armed struggles elsewhere.

The pivotal figure in the case, although not one of the defendants, is Abu Hamza al-Masri, the imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London, who also serves as a mouthpiece for the "Islamic Army" which kidnapped 16 western tourists in Yemen last December. Through his organisation, Supporters of Shariah, Abu Hamza promotes jihad as "the forgotten obligation" of Muslims. He regards Yemen as an ideal training-ground for jihad and believes the country has a strategic position in global Islamic politics.

According to the confession statements, all of the Aden Ten admitted to working for Abu Hamza - though they now deny it. However, four have well-established connections with the London imam: one (Muhammad Kamil Mustapha) is his son and one (Muhsin Ghailan) is his stepson. Another - an Algerian who was living in Britain - was due to be married into his family, and the fourth (Sarmad Ahmad) was advertised as the contact for a "military training camp" organised by Abu Hamza in London.

Five more are linked to the group by the circumstances of their arrests. Two were with Sarmad Ahmad in a hotel room where the authorities say they found explosives and other equipment. Three were arrested in a mountain hideout along with Abu Hamza's son after he went on the run. However, there is less evidence against the tenth man, Ghulam Hussein. It may be significant that he was released on bail for health reasons towards the end of the trial.

Late last December, the Islamic Army kidnapped 16 western tourists, hoping to exchange them for the arrested Britons. Four tourists died in the ensuing shoot-out with security forces and Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, "commander" of the Islamic Army and two kidnappers were eventually sentenced to death. On August 4, the appeal court upheld the sentences against Abu al-Hassan and another man, though the third man's sentence was commuted to imprisonment.

Throughout the legal process, the Islamic Army had been threatening reprisals if anyone was executed. The threat appeared to be fulfilled a few hours after the appeal verdict, when a man set off a grenade and opened fire in the old salt market of Sana'a, killing six people and wounding more than 40.

At first the authorities denied that the attack had any political motive. Later, the official Saba news agency described the culprit as a "corrupt extremist" and a police spokesman claimed that six more suspects had been caught, "posted on rooftops carrying weapons". Later still, on August 7, the interior minister said the attack was non-political and had arisen from an argument about the sale of a watch worth $31.

Ten days after the grenade attack, a military helicopter crashed in Hadramaut province, killing 17 people, including a number of very senior army officers. The crash was variously attributed to a technical fault or bad weather.

However, a hand-written statement from the Islamic Army, circulated by Abu Hamza al-Masri from London, claimed responsibility for both the grenade attack in the market and the helicopter crash. It said that a member of the Islamic Army, Ali Mohammad Abu Abdulrahman, had "martyred" himself by blowing up the helicopter. For good measure, the statement added that President Salih was on its list of future targets.

Possibly the statement was just an opportunistic attempt to spread fear and confusion. But even so, the Yemeni government may have a difficult time convincing the public that the Islamic Army's claims are untrue.