15/11/2012 13:13 GMT | Updated 15/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Abu Qatada: The Asset We Can't Get Rid of

The debate about Abu Qatada's untimely release from prison boils down to two, simplistic, polarised narratives. On the one hand, we have a pro-civil liberties, human rights perspective which lauds the government's inability to deport Qatada back to Jordan where he faces the prospect of torture and possibly death. On the other, we have a pro-state backed security perspective which lauds the government's efforts to do exactly this in the name of keeping a dangerous terrorist off British streets.

The debate seems to reinforce the idea of a zero-sum conflict between liberty and security - too much of one tends to undermine the other. Or does it?

The truth is, the debate overlooks a simple, obvious fact. If Abu Qatada is such a dangerous terrorist, how do we know this? And if we do know this, based on clear evidence, why is he not being prosecuted and jailed accordingly under UK jurisdiction in a British court of law?

The strange reluctance to deal with British terror suspects on British soil is nothing new. We've seen this in relation to the murky cases of Abu Hamza, Khalid Fawwaz, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan. Whereas there appears to be no meaningful evidence against either Babar or Talha, an abundance of damning evidence on UK-based terror plotting by Hamza, Fawwaz and Aswat has been simply ignored, in lieu of deporting them all wholesale to face US SuperMax 'justice'.

Abu Qatada's terror credentials should not be underestimated. Dubbed Osama bin Laden's right hand man in Europe and the "spiritual head of the mujahedin in Britain" by Spanish arch anti-terror judge Baltazar Garzon - and for good reason (see my book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry) - Qatada had a solid record of inciting to and facilitating terrorism, including active links with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Algeria and Spain, as well as providing religious counsel to 9/11 plotters, Zacarias Moussaoui and 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid.

But Qatada's burgeoning terror career was incubated directly by MI5. As Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian recalls: "Hours before a new anti-terrorism law allowing foreign terrorism suspects to be held without charge or trial, Qatada left his London home. Mysteriously, MI5 and the police could not find him anywhere. Several months later, he was discovered in a council house in Bermondsey, south London and incarcerated in Belmarsh jail."

But a Times investigation discovered from allied intelligence sources that it was Britain's very own security service that had helped Qatada escape the clutches of the law. "Al Qaeda cleric exposed as an MI5 double agent" read the headline. "Britain ignored warnings - which began before the September 11 attacks - from half a dozen friendly governments about Abu Qatada's links with terrorist groups and refused to arrest him." MI5 chiefs intended to "use the cleric as a key informer against Islamist militants in Britain."

French intelligence officials were particularly - and understandably - annoyed, accusing "MI5 of helping the cleric to abscond." While Qatada was on the run, one intelligence chief in Paris told the Times: "British intelligence is saying they have no idea where he is, but we know where he is and, if we know, I'm quite sure they do." A year later Qatada was found "hiding in a flat not far from Scotland Yard."

The report was corroborated by a separate investigation by TIME magazine, which cited "senior European intelligence officials" revealing that Qatada had been "tucked away in a safe house" where he and his family were "lodged, fed and clothed by British intelligence services."

No wonder Norton-Taylor concludes that the impetus to avoid properly putting Qatada on trial in the UK under more serious terrorism charges than he has been tried for, is his relationship to the security services - and potentially the role this played in severely undermining British national security. "Putting the terror suspect on trial would quite simply embarrass MI5", he wrote in the Guardian earlier this year. There is "far too much embarrassing information about MI5 and the Met police [that] would come out in court."

Instead of allowing such embarrassing information on MI5's long-term cooptation of a senior al-Qaeda extremist in the UK to emerge officially in the public domain through a domestic court process, the government would prefer either to waste hundreds of thousands of pounds more of taxpayers money on a costly legal effort to deport him to Jordan where his intelligence secrets can be put to rest (along with him, presumably); or to spend £5 million a year to monitor his "every movement... from space."

If the government is serious about Qatada's terrorist credentials - and it should be - they should be pursuing a solid legal effort to put the al-Qaeda puppet master behind bars for good, in this country, under specific charges that address the totality of his support for mass death. And if MI5 ends up in the firing line of that process, so be it - it would certainly be in the public interest to know how our security services' games with Islamist terrorists bred a hotbed of violent extremism in this country.