In this Telegraph article by Jake-Wallis Simons, Usama Hasan, Senoir Researcher in Islamic Studies, shares his relections on the case of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed.
The opinions expressed here reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Quilliam.
In many ways, it reads like an airport thriller.
One dull afternoon in late autumn, a 27-year-old British man of Somali origin, with uneven teeth and chubby cheeks, became the latest terror suspect to disappear, making a mockery of the UK security services, police and judiciary.
After spending several hours in the dilapidated An-Noor Masjid (mosque) and community centre on Church Road in Acton, west London, he sliced off his electronic tag, slipped on a burka and vanished.
The fugitive had been subject to a controversial Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure (Tpim) notice, which was supposed to restrict his movements.
The date was November 1; the time 3.15pm. That was the moment when Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed stepped out of the ranks of obscurity and became one of the most wanted men in Britain. On Friday, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
As any thriller writer knows, mounting an escape in a burka is one of the oldest tricks in the book. When the investigating officers watched CCTV footage of Mohamed’s escape, did they recall the case of Yassin Omar, the failed 21/7 bomber who evaded them by wearing a burka belonging to his mother-in-law?
Or that of Mustaf Jama, the Somali asylum seeker who killed PC Sharon Beshenivsky in 2005 before fleeing Britain dressed in a niqab, using his sister’s passport?
Either way, it would appear that the police failed to detect the signs that Mohamed was planning an escape.
On Monday, ITV aired an interview with Sunny Kapoor, a shopkeeper who runs a newsagent behind the mosque. He said Mohamed had purchased five mobile phone sim cards “in the last couple of weeks”.
On Thursday, frustrated police officers, who appeared to be playing catch-up, were seen openly attempting to interview Mr Kapoor as he tried to serve customers at his shop. Other officers are reportedly questioning local taxi companies in case Mohamed pre-booked a minicab to escape.
Moreover, on the very day he escaped, Mohamed was cleared of previously tampering with his security tag.
The police have refused to disclose the specific measures that were in place to monitor him; the resources that are being devoted to the manhunt; or how quickly they responded after his tag was cut, which would have automatically alerted them to his absconding. However, a spokesman was keen to deny the BBC’s story that a “special task force” had been set up to find Mohamed. “The systems are already in place, so it’s very much business as usual,” she told me.
Which isn’t immensely encouraging, as the last terror suspect to abscond while subject to a Tpim notice, an associate of Mohamed called Ibrahim Magag — who evaded police when he removed his tag and hailed a black cab in London on Boxing Day 2012 — remains at large.
But the catalogue of bungles does not end with the police. On Monday, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told Keith Vaz in the House of Commons that the police had Mohamed’s passport in their possession; three days later, she provoked outrage by asking for the parliamentary record to be corrected to say that “I do not have his passport”. It has since emerged that Mohamed may even possess a second British passport.
If this were indeed an airport thriller, the only missing element would be a misanthropic detective with a whisky habit, who would become obsessed with this slippery case and solve it. But it is real life, and as such is extremely concerning.
On Monday, the Commons reacted with incredulity to the Home Secretary’s assurances that “the police and Security Service [MI5] have confirmed that they do not believe that this man poses a direct threat to the public in the UK”.
Her claims certainly appear to contradict the 2012 assessment of those under Tpim notices by David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
He stated that the allegations against “CC” — the legal codename for Mohamed, as anonymity is given to those on Tpims — were at “the highest end of seriousness, even by the standards of international terrorism”. For despite his baby face and modest build, Mohamed is believed to be a battle-hardened terrorist.
Secret intelligence, examined in closed court but outlined in legal documents, demonstrated that “CC” was a lynchpin in the British-based network for terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
He procured weapons and equipment, arranged for British citizens to travel to Somalia to engage in acts of terror, and planned attacks both in Somalia and overseas, it said.
In 2006, “CC” and five other British nationals received terror training from two al-Qaeda leaders, Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan (the latter was killed by American navy Seals in 2009, in an operation similar to that which killed Osama bin Laden).
The group returned to Britain later that year and “evolved into a well-established and prolific extremist facilitation network”, with representatives in both Britain and east Africa.
“CC” also attended a terrorist training camp in Kamsuma, southern Somalia, in 2008, and then fought on the front line for al-Shabaab, the Somali cell of al-Qaeda.
When he was arrested and deported to Britain in March 2011, the High Court heard he had been “attack-planning” against “Western interests in Somaliland”.
His movements were restricted by a control order — the predecessor of Tpims — as soon as he landed in Britain.
However, he breached the order, and the subsequent Tpim, more than 20 times. He even launched an audacious appeal, demanding that the Tpim restrictions be loosened so that he could use his garden after 9pm and visit his local mosque by night.
His alleged comrade, a relatively junior member of the same terror network known by the codename “CF”, who breached his restrictions by visiting the Olympic Park on five occasions before the Games, even demanded to be allowed to use his iPod and Sony PSP, and complained that his electronic tag was causing him “embarrassment”. All of these appeals were thrown out.
“CC” also filed a civil damages claim against the Government, alleging that they were complicit in his arrest, detention and alleged torture in Somaliland and his forcible deportation to Britain. In a final flourish of irony, he was allocated £20,000 in legal aid to sue the Government.
Thus a picture emerges of a man who is ruthless, well-trained, and determined to abuse the humane checks and balances of the British liberalism that he seeks to destroy.
His exploitation of the burka — which lies at the epicentre of the civil liberty debate in this country — is emblematic of his apparent contempt for British tolerance.
Yet the fact remains that Mohamed has not been convicted of any crime.
According to the independent reviewer, this is not because insufficient evidence exists, or even that it was obtained via interception, which would have made it inadmissible in a British court.
Instead, it is because the case rests on secret intelligence. Making this information public might secure a conviction; but by revealing the sources and methods used by the intelligence services, it could jeopardise their operations and create a serious national security risk.
In the absence of any prosecution, the police force is required to enforce a regime that both upholds national security on the one hand, and respects civil liberties on the other. The absconding of Mohamed — the second Tpim subject to escape in 11 months, leaving only eight — raises the question of whether this is not an impossible task.
In 2011, under pressure from an alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Tories with libertarian leanings, including David Davis, the Government abolished Labour’s system of control orders and replaced it with the more lenient Tpims.
The most important changes were less rigorous curfews; increased access to mobile telephones and the internet; an end to police powers to search the subject’s property at any time; and the abolition of forced relocation.
In addition, whereas control orders could be enforced indefinitely, Tpims were designed to expire after two years. This is regardless of the subject’s conduct, and despite the fact that there is currently no “exit strategy” to rehabilitate them.
Save for the passing of an “enhanced Tpim bill”, all of the subjects under Tpims will be released from their restrictions in 2014.
Labour has attacked the Government’s record, arguing that the end to forced relocation allows subjects to live within a pre-existing network, and use it to escape. It also makes it possible for them to live in a major transport hub like London.
“We had around five years in which nobody absconded under the previous control orders because the powers had been strengthened,” said Yvette Cooper MP, the shadow home secretary. “The Home Secretary, I think, needs to provide some answers.”
Under Labour, seven people absconded in six years, out of 52 subjects. None of them were found.
In his report, Mr Anderson QC pointed out that the majority had been subject to “light-touch control orders”, but stopped short of drawing the conclusions that Tpims need to be tightened.
He has not commented on whether the disappearance of Mohamed has changed his mind. However, he does make it very clear that Tpims pose a far greater burden on the taxpayer, as in return for easing restrictions they require greater levels of surveillance. They are thought to cost a minimum of £50 million per year, and probably much more. Yet the conundrum remains: what would be the alternative?
This is a problem that is not going away any time soon. That fact is highlighted by the An-Noor mosque, which lies at the heart of Mohamed’s case and reveals some disturbing truths about some sections of the British Muslim community.
Court documents reveal that “CC” was required by his Tpim notice to present himself daily to the Acton police station, meaning Mohamed had been allowed to live in the heart of the Somali community in London, and thereby have open access to the mosque (so long as it was not by night).
A worker in a local café, which is fewer than 25 yards from the mosque, said that Mohamed was a regular worshipper there.
“He would come here often before going to prayers at An-Noor, sit in the corner and drink one cup of tea,” he said.
“He would never eat anything, and never spoke to anyone apart from a few friends in their twenties. I was very surprised when I saw him on TV.”
He added that the An-Noor mosque was known to attract extremists as well as relative moderates. “If you look for good people there, you can find them,” he explained. “But if you look for bad people, you can find them.”
One of the worshippers was Ali Almanasfi, a British ex-convict of Syrian origin, who was reportedly killed fighting for al-Qaeda in Syria in May.
His friend Tam Hussein — a writer who claims that Mr Almanasfi was fighting for other rebel groups, and indeed that he is still alive — confirmed that before travelling to Syria, he frequented the An-Noor mosque. The mosque, surrounded by barbed wire, preaches a conservative, hardline version of Islam
“An-Noor is a very popular place with young people,” Mr Hussein told me. “It offers boxing and football, and was the sort of place kids would just sit around, hang out and play pool. I know that’s why Ali went there.”
An-Noor is located in the shadow of the green dome of the local Acton Masjid Sufi mosque, a well-established place of worship on the adjacent road, which is run by moderate Pakistanis.
Like many similar mosques around the country, An-Noor was set up to provide an accessible alternative to the relatively stuffy atmosphere of the Acton Masjid. It preaches Salafism, a conservative version of Islam that is seen as relatively hardline but is not necessarily extremist.
In a pattern that is found all over the country, while the Acton Masjid has modest attendance rates, An-Noor, which has a capacity of up to 1,500, is often packed.
At An-Noor, converts are especially celebrated and sermons are delivered in English, unlike at the Sufi mosque.
The administration is also far looser, and an “open door policy” means that no checks are kept on the people who move in and out.
The mosque’s leaders claim to have had no knowledge of the hardliners active there. Yet Abu Hamza’s second-youngest son, Uthman Mustafa Kamal, who is thought to have been spreading extremist ideology, regularly led prayers.
Moreover, footage of a sermon delivered at the mosque in September 2012, which is available on the internet, provides clear evidence that extremist views were preached there. In the video, Ustadh Mustafa Omar, a young preacher, says that when “Jews, Zionists, all of those people” seek to mock the prophet Mohammad, his name should be “defended”.
“The sword, the open sword, against anyone who tries to degrade the Prophet,” he said.
“Something that is very good news for anyone who believes in Allah and his messenger [is that] one of the signs that the enemy is close to defeat is when they start insulting the Prophet. This is an indication in itself that victory is close at hand.”
Dr Usama Hasan, a senior theological researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, which seeks to challenge extremism — and himself a previous leader of a Salafist group, who fought for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan before reforming his views — said An-Noor is not a hardline anomaly, but is typical of many mosques around the country.
“It is impossible to walk into a British mosque wearing a poppy,” he said. “The liberal Left might say this is Islamophobia, but it is simply a statement of fact. People need to know that. The idea that those who mock the Prophet should be killed is commonplace in the vast majority of mosques.
“An-Noor is like a number of places around the country where jihadis recruit. But it is certainly possible that the mosque authorities had no idea that this specifically was going on, and wouldn’t condone it. The way jihadis recruit is underground, on a one-to-one basis.”
It is striking that Mohamed chose to make his escape now, only months away from the end of his Tpim.
“There are three possibilities,” said Dr Hasan. “First, he could be intending to leave the country to fight abroad. Second, he may be planning an attack on this country. And third, he could just be fed up of all the restrictions and plans to go into hiding, like Abu Qatada did after 9/11.”
But the stakes are too high to gamble. According to Charlie Edwards, director of national security and resilience studies at the Royal United Services Institute, Somalia has become the “theatre of choice for would-be jihadis”, second only to Syria. And it has a direct impact on British national security.
There are between 40 and 60 British citizens engaged in terror activities in Somalia, he said, which is a disproportionately high number compared to other European countries.
“In some cases, UK Somalis are motivated by the desire to fight only in Somalia and protect their homeland against foreign invaders,” he said.
“In others they may link with al-Shabaab and train, either to fight in another conflict or to return to the UK, where they might radicalise others and plan to attack the UK.”
There is also, he said, a new wave of young Somali gangs in British cities. This is worrying for the security establishment, as it is “only a small step” from gangland criminality to terror. “My fear is that this is the breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists,” he said.
On Thursday, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, revealed that 34 terror plots had been disrupted since the July 7 attacks in London in 2005; a figure which is a testament to the professionalism and effectiveness of British police and security services.
But this is not an airport thriller. In the real world, the task of containing a terrorist threat from a person who cannot be prosecuted or deported is stretching brave men and women to their limit — and, in this case, far beyond it.
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