'Work for us or we will say you are a terrorist'
Exclusive to The Independent, London
By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
Thursday, 21 May 2009
Five Muslim community workers have accused MI5 of waging a campaign of blackmail and harassment in an attempt to recruit them as informants.
The men claim they were given a choice of working for the Security Service or face detention and harassment in the UK and overseas.
They have made official complaints to the police, to the body which oversees the work of the Security Service and to their local MP Frank Dobson. Now they have decided to speak publicly about their experiences in the hope that publicity will stop similar tactics being used in the future.
Intelligence gathered by informers is crucial to stopping further terror outrages, but the men's allegations raise concerns about the coercion of young Muslim men by the Security Service and the damage this does to the gathering of information in the future.
Three of the men say they were detained at foreign airports on the orders of MI5 after leaving Britain on family holidays last year.
After they were sent back to the UK, they were interviewed by MI5 officers who, they say, falsely accused them of links to Islamic extremism. On each occasion the agents said they would lift the travel restrictions and threat of detention in return for their co-operation. When the men refused some of them received what they say were intimidating phone calls and threats.
Two other Muslim men say they were approached by MI5 at their homes after police officers posed as postmen. Each of the five men, aged between 19 and 25, was warned that if he did not help the security services he would be considered a terror suspect. A sixth man was held by MI5 for three hours after returning from his honeymoon in Saudi Arabia. He too claims he was threatened with travel restrictions if he tried to leave the UK.
An agent who gave her name as Katherine is alleged to have made direct threats to Adydarus Elmi, a 25-year-old cinema worker from north London. In one telephone call she rang him at 7am to congratulate him on the birth of his baby girl. His wife was still seven months' pregnant and the couple had expressly told the hospital that they did not want to know the sex of their child.
Mr Elmi further alleges: "Katherine tried to threaten me by saying, and it still runs through my mind now: 'Remember, this won't be the last time we ever meet.' And then during our last conversation she explained: 'If you do not want anything to happen to your family you will co-operate.'"
Madhi Hashi, a 19-year-old care worker from Camden, claims he was held for 16 hours in a cell in Djibouti airport on the orders of MI5. He alleges that when he was returned to the UK on 9 April this year he was met by an MI5 agent who told him his terror suspect status would remain until he agreed to work for the Security Service. He alleges that he was to be given the job of informing on his friends by encouraging them to talk about jihad.
Mohamed Nur, 25, a community youth worker from north London, claims he was threatened by the Security Service after an agent gained access to his home accompanied by a police officer posing as a postman.
"The MI5 agent said, 'Mohamed if you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist.'"
Mohamed Aden, 25, a community youth worker from Camden, was also approached by someone disguised as a postman in August last year. He alleges an agent told him: "We're going to make your travelling harder for you if you don't co-operate."
None of the six men, who work with disadvantaged youths at the Kentish Town Community Organisation (KTCO), has ever been arrested for terrorism or a terrorism-related offence.
They have repeatedly complained about their treatment to the police and to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which oversees the work of the Security Services.
In a letter to Lord Justice Mummery, who heads the tribunal, Sharhabeel Lone, the chairman of the KTCO, said: "The only thing these young people have in common is that they studied Arabic abroad and are of Somali origin. They are not involved in any terrorist activity whatsoever, nor have they ever been, and the security services are well aware of this."
Mr Sharhabeel added: "These incidents smack of racism, Islamophobia and all that undermines social cohesion. Threatening British citizens, harassing them in their own country, alienating young people who have committed no crime other than practising a particular faith and being a different colour is a recipe for disaster.
"These disgraceful incidents have undermined 10 years of hard work and severely impacted social cohesion in Camden. Targeting young people that are role models for all young people in our country in such a disparaging way demonstrates a total lack of understanding of on-the-ground reality and can only be counter-productive.
"When people are terrorised by the very same body that is meant to protect them, sowing fear, suspicion and division, we are on a slippery slope to an Orwellian society."
Frank Dobson said: "To identify real suspects from the Muslim communities MI5 must use informers. But it seems that from what I have seen some of their methods may be counter-productive."
Last night MI5 and the police refused to discuss the men's complaints with The Independent. But on its website, MI5 says it is untrue that the Security Service harasses Muslims.
The organisation says: "We do not investigate any individuals on the grounds of ethnicity or religious beliefs. Countering the threat from international terrorists, including those who claim to be acting for Islam, is the Security Service's highest priority.
"We know that attacks are being considered and planned for the UK by al-Qai'da and associated networks. International terrorists in this country threaten us directly through violence and indirectly through supporting violence overseas."
It adds: "Muslims are often themselves the victims of this violence – the series of terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 and Riyadh in May and November 2003 illustrate this.
"The service also employs staff of all religions, including Muslims. We are committed to recruiting a diverse range of staff from all backgrounds so that we can benefit from their different perspectives and experience."
MI5 and me: Three statements
Mahdi Hashi: 'I told him: this is blackmail'
Last month, 19-year-old Mahdi Hashi arrived at Gatwick airport to take a plane to visit his sick grandmother in Djibouti, but as he was checking in he was stopped by two plainclothes officers. One of the officers identified himself as Richard and said he was working for MI5.
Mr Hashi said: "He warned me not to get on the flight. He said 'Whatever happens to you outside the UK is not our responsibility'. I was absolutely shocked." The agent handed Mr Hashi a piece of paper with his name and telephone contact details and asked him to call him.
"The whole time he tried to make it seem like he was looking after me. And just before I left them at my boarding gate I remember 'Richard' telling me 'It's your choice, mate, to get on that flight but I advise you not to,' and then he winked at me."
When Mr Hashi arrived at Djibouti airport he was stopped at passport control. He was then held in a room for 16 hours before being deported back to the UK. He claims the Somali security officers told him that their orders came from London. More than 24 hours after he first left the UK he arrived back at Heathrow and was detained again.
"I was taken to pick up my luggage and then into a very discreet room. 'Richard' walked in with a Costa bag with food which he said was for me, my breakfast. He said it was them who sent me back because I was a terror suspect." Mr Hashi, a volunteer youth leader at Kentish Town Community Organisation in north London, alleges that the officer made it clear that his "suspect" status and travel restrictions would only be lifted if he agreed to co-operate with MI5. "I told him 'This is blatant blackmail'; he said 'No, it's just proving your innocence. By co-operating with us we know you're not guilty.'
"He said I could go and that he'd like to meet me another time, preferably after [May] Monday Bank Holiday. I looked at him and said 'I don't ever want to see you or hear from you again. You've ruined my holiday, upset my family, and you nearly gave my sick grandmother in Somalia a heart attack'."
Adydarus Elmi: 'MI5 agent threatened my family'
When the 23-year-old cinema worker from north London arrived at Chicago's O'Hare airport with his pregnant wife, they were separated, questioned and deported back to Britain.
Three days later Mr Elmi was contacted on his mobile phone and asked to attend Charing Cross police station to discuss problems he was having with his travel documents. "I met a man and a woman," he said. "She said her name was Katherine and that she worked for MI5. I didn't know what MI5 was."
For two-and-a-half hours Mr Elmi faced questions. "I felt I was being lured into working for MI5." The contact did not stop there. Over the following weeks he claims "Katherine" harassed him with dozens of phone calls.
"She would regularly call my mother's home asking to speak to me," he said. "And she would constantly call my mobile."
In one disturbing call the agent telephoned his home at 7am to congratulate him on the birth of his baby girl. His wife was still seven months pregnant and the couple had expressly told the hospital that they did not want to know the sex of their child.
"Katherine tried to threaten me by saying – and it still runs through my mind now – 'Remember, this won't be the last time we ever meet", and then during our last conversation explained: 'If you do not want anything to happen to your family you will co-operate'."
Mohamed Nur, 25, first came into contact with MI5 early one morning in August 2008 when his doorbell rang. Looking through his spyhole in Camden, north London, he saw a man with a red bag who said he was a postman.
When Mr Nur opened the door the man told him that he was in fact a policeman and that he and his colleague wanted to talk to him. When they sat down the second man produced ID and said that he worked for MI5.
The agent told Mr Nur that they suspected him of being an Islamic extremist. "I immediately said 'And where did you get such an idea?' He replied, 'I am not permitted to discuss our sources'. I said that I have never done anything extreme."
Mr Nur claims he was then threatened by the officer. "The MI5 agent said, 'Mohamed, if you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist'."
They asked him what travel plans he had. Mr Nur said he might visit Sweden next year for a football tournament. The agent told him he would contact him within the next three days.
"I am not interested in meeting you ever." Mr Nur replied. As they left, the agent said to at least consider the approach, as it was in his best interests.
Pauline Neville-Jones: MI5 must use persuasion – not coercion
Thursday, 21 May 2009
When I read the Intelligence and Security Committee's report on the July 7 terrorist attacks that was published this week, two points struck me.
The first is that the Security Service did not give due attention to key indicators which would now flash red lights. For example, that two of the would-be attackers had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The second is the Security Service's assertion that they did not actually have sufficient resources to devote attention to these individuals and had to prioritise other investigations that were considered more pressing.
The Committee said that for the Service to achieve coverage of all targets, it would need "to be a very different organisation, both in terms of its size and how it operates, which would have huge ramifications for our society and the way we live". This is undoubtedly true.
But recruiting or using informants is unlikely to produce a sufficiently rich picture or provide full coverage. When recruiting informants and making use of the information they provide, we must bear in mind three potential problems.
First, there is always a risk that human sources might be unreliable. Secondly, there is always a risk that they might have ulterior motives. Thirdly, it is unlikely that they will reflect all the complexities and diversities of the communities from which they come.
At worst, if known, people might resent the fact that the Security Service is recruiting informants specifically from their community. It could create a perception that they are all being stigmatised and spied on, and this could in turn create a culture of mistrust.
This is not to say that traditional intelligence methods have no place. But I would suggest that the aim should be to reach a situation in which people come of their own accord to the authorities – to the police, local councils, schools – with any concerns about those in their neighbourhoods. In this situation there would be less need for informants. Why is this point important? Changes in behaviour and in attitudes can be subtle and gradual, and communities and families are best placed to notice early on any behaviour that is out of the ordinary.
They can, for instance, help the authorities understand the significance of a recent visit to Pakistan. Information forthcoming in this way would fill intelligence gaps and provide context.
It would help with the early identification and intervention of individuals at risk. It would also help the security services better prioritise resources and investigations.
To get to this point, great attention will need to be paid over the coming years to integrate counter-terrorism work into an effective system of community policing. It also follows from all this that counter-terrorism programmes and tactics must be assessed against their likely effect on community relations.
Today's Independent contains allegations from young Muslim men that they have been harassed by the Security Service to become informants. I have no knowledge of the validity of these complaints but it is clear that promising initiatives can be easily wrecked in their implementation, resulting in the reverse effect from the one desired and intended – a reduction in trust and communication between communities and police.
In what is without question a delicate and difficult challenge for our security services, great skill will be need to be shown over the coming years to effectively integrate counter-terrorism work into successful community policing.
The author is the shadow Security minister and former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee
Bombings spooked security services
By Robert Verkaik, Home Affairs Editor
Thursday, 21 May 2009
Al-Qa'ida's attacks on London in the summer of 2005 exposed Britain's vulnerability to a new kind of terrorism.
The discovery that the July bombers and their accomplices were home-grown meant the police and the Security Service needed to rethink their counter-terrorism tactics. The subsequent hunt for groups of British-born men who might be planning similar attacks was given the highest priority.
Key to the new approach would be deeper penetration of Muslim communities. The police worked to gain the confidence of Muslim leaders; the Security Service stepped up its recruitment of informers.
Some of the intelligence obtained was key to foiling major terrorist attacks but there were also mistakes. The raid on the home of two brothers in Forest Gate, London, resulted in one of them being shot and both being exonerated. This year, the arrests of 11 Pakistani students and one British student ended in embarrassment when the raids were brought forward and the men were all released without charge.
Undaunted by the errors and damaging impact these tactics were having on Muslim communities, MI5 has pressed on with its recruitment drive.
While a few of these "spies" will be crucial to counter-terrorism operations, many will be of little or no intelligence value while others targeted will be hostile to the crude approaches of MI5 officers. The six north London men who say they have been targeted allege they have been blackmailed and intimidated by the Security Service.
For months, the men kept their contact with MI5 secret and did not even confide in their families. "No one wants to be accused of spying on their own community, people would never trust you," said Mohamed Nur, one of the men that MI5 approached. "I would not be able to work or live here again."
Only when Abshir Mohamed decided to tell the chairman of a north London community centre about his MI5 encounters did the scale of the intimidation and harassment emerge.
Shaharbeen Lone, a Kentish Town Community Organisation leader, said: "Abshir called me when he reached home [from Heathrow, where he was quizzed], extremely worried and very anxious. His mother and wife, who has just had heart surgery, had been travelling with him and had to wait throughout his ordeal. Abshir is a senior youth leader who works hard to stop young Muslims getting involved in crime."
Mr Lone called a youth leader meeting to see if others had similar experiences. What he heard appalled him. Two men said they had been detained abroad and interviewed by MI5 upon their return to the UK. Another was questioned when he returned from his honeymoon to Saudi Arabia. Two more were visited by MI5 agents at home.
MI5 wanted to use the men as informers. Those who refused to co-operate received threatening phone calls.
Born in Somalia, the men had all come to Britain as children. Growing up in north London, they had overcome troubled backgrounds, which had occasionally brought some of them to the attention of the police. To escape these influences, their families sent them to study Arabic in Cairo. But none of them, says Mr Lone, who has known them for years, has held extremist views or had links to terrorism. Today they lead exemplary lives. The organisation's chairman complained to the local MP, Frank Dobson and to police. The police told him they would tell MI5 of his concerns.
Mr Lone says by the end of last year the message seemed to have got through and the intimidation ended. Then last month, MI5 agents questioned Mahdi Hashi at Gatwick and told him if he didn't spy on his friends, he could expect to be locked up at airports for hours. "It has started again. There seems to be nothing we can do to stop them ruining these young men's lives," says Mr Lone.