The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that five British terror suspects, the most notorious of which is the self-styled ex-Finsbury Park mosque cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, can be extradited to the United States to be tried on terrorism charges.
While the usual cheerleaders and critics have been out in force, lost in the debate are serious questions about the repercussions of this move not just for habeas corpus and the prosecution of terrorism in British jurisdiction, but more importantly for the dubious role of the British intelligence services in secretly facilitating the activities of Islamist extremists on UK soil.
On the one hand, assumptions of guilt concerning at least two of the alleged terror suspects, Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, appear pre-emptive in the extreme. On 19th July 2006, Talha was suddenly arrested by British police at his home. That very week, he had several job interviews scheduled to train as a librarian - although diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, Talha is an extraordinarily bright young man, who had recently graduated with first class honours from the School of Oriental and African Studies. For the last six and a half years since then, Talha has been imprisoned without charge.
Talha's arrest was made at the request of US authorities under the 2003 Extradition Act, in relation to evidence supposedly obtained during the original arrest of Babar Ahmad. Babar's home was searched by police on 2nd December 2003 on the basis that since 2000 he was operating websites hosted in the US promoting al-Qaeda jihad. Less than a week later, the Crown Prosecution Service determined that there was no evidence to justify charging Babar for this offense, and he was released without charge. In July 2004, the police passed a further file onto the CPS based on an eight-month investigation, which resulted in the same conclusion. This very file, rejected by the CPS, was passed on by British police to US authorities and provided the basis of an extradition request the following month. On cue, Babar was arrested on 5th August that year, and has been imprisoned without charge ever since.
So both Babar and Talha have been detained without charge or trial for nearly a decade on the basis of a file, never tested in court, that British prosecutors had already thrown out - simply because US authorities said so. This is not simply a gross affront to civil liberties. It is a slap in the face to British rule of law.
But on the other hand, the cases of the other three, Abu Hamza, Khaled al Fawwaz and Adel Abdul Bari, raise even more disturbing questions about the political games being played behind-the-scenes by US and British intelligence agencies. For while Abu Hamza is being extradited for involvement in terrorist activities from 1998 through to 2001, his role in fostering domestic terrorism has never been tried. To be sure, Hamza has been jailed for simple incitement offences relating to his former role at Finsbury Park mosque.
But four years before Hamza's belated conviction for incitement based on evidence that had been in possession of the authorities for seven years, sources at the Finsbury mosque confirmed how he had hosted "British Islamist extremists" involved in "weapons training with assault rifles." Worshippers at the mosque recruited by MI5 to monitor extremist activities reported that "several groups had been taught to strip and reassemble Kalashnikovs in the mosque's basement" and that "scores of young men were being sent from the mosque for training at camps in Afghanistan. They reported that consignments of supplies including radio and telecommunications equipment were dispatched to Pakistan for eventual distribution in the Afghan training camps allied to or run by al-Qaeda. They also revealed a complex operation run by some men attending the mosque to provide volunteers with false documents."
And that wasn't all that Hamza did under the watchful eye of MI5. As early as 1997, Hamza was running a terror training network across the UK, including at Tunbridge Wells and Brecon Beacons. His followers were taught to use guns, strip and clean weapons, and were given endurance and surveillance training by British ex-soldiers who had fought in Bosnia.
Much of this material was known to British authorities. Special Branch agent and MI5 informant Reda Hassaine gave his handlers "scores of documents" linked to Hamza, containing "communications from GIA [al-Qaeda affiliated Armed Islamic Group] activists in Algeria" and "cells planning terrorist attacks in Britain." Yet none of the preceding evidence ever made it to court. No wonder Hassaine concludes that "terrorist recruitment and fundraising by Islamic militants" under Hamza's tutelage "were ignored for years by the British security services."
But he wasn't just ignored. During this period of terrorist training extensively monitored by MI5 informants, as journalists Sean O'Neill and Daniel McGrory document in their seminal book, The Suicide Factory (p. 229), Hamza was courted by the security services:
"Special Branch, the intelligence-gathering arm of Scotland Yard, had been talking to Abu Hamza since early 1997, when he was still preaching in Luton. In the classified records of the meetings he is referred to by the codename 'damson berry'. Unknown to the police, MI5 had also begun meeting Abu Hamza at the behest of French intelligence; he was given the MI5 code number 910... Confidential memos of meetings between the imam of Finsbury Park and his MI5 and Special Branch contacts reveal a respectful, polite and often cooperative relationship. There were at least seven meetings between Abu Hamza and MI5 officers between 1997 and 2000."
Amongst the extraditees, Hamza was not the only violent extremist being handled by MI5 for reasons obscure - even while they were complicit in grotesque terrorist plots in the US, Europe and elsewhere. And it gets worse. According to former Army intelligence officer and US Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus, Hamza, along with his colleagues Omar Bakri Mohammed and Haroon Rashid Aswat, had been on the MI6 payroll since 1996 to facilitate Islamist-activities in the Balkans.
As for Aswat, he was arrested shortly after the 7th July bombings by British police on suspicion of masterminding the attacks, based on extensive National Security Agency telephone intercepts between him and Mohamed Sidique Khan in the weeks prior. After Loftus' startling revelations, the allegations against Aswat were inexplicably withdrawn, and instead he was slated for extradition to the US on separate charges similar to that faced by Hamza - until the case was adjourned on mental health grounds.
Hamza's extradition thus raises disturbing questions about continued efforts by the authorities to conceal the role of these violent extremists as assets of the security services in pursuit of narrow geostrategic interests abroad, a function which appears to have facilitated their capacity to support terrorist activity from British soil - including the 7/7 attacks.
This is not a problem that has disappeared. Across the Middle East, US and British security agencies continue to facilitate the activities of al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups as part of a regional covert anti-Iran offensive - a policy rooted in several decades of manipulating Islamist terrorist networks for geopolitical and geoeconomic purposes.
Extradition, in other words, does nothing for the fight against terrorism. On the contrary, it is a self-serving red-herring designed to conceal the dubious systemic failures of British and American security agencies from public knowledge, while vindicating their unaccountable powers to override the rule of law. If we want to win the 'war on terror', we should wonder why so many UK-based Islamist violent extremists have failed to be properly prosecuted in the UK - and we would do well to demand that light be cast on how the very agencies we trust to keep us safe have, and continue to, flagrantly foster the enemy we are supposed to be fighting.