Monday, August 01, 2005


British government saves Briton from "extraordinary rendition" by the U.S.

On July 21, the date of the 2nd London bombings, a British citizen of Indian descent, Haroon Rashid Aswat, was arrested in Zambia at the request of the U.S. This much seems certain. After that the accounts begin to diverge, and British and American intelligence services are said to be in hot dispute over the importance of Aswat. So let's see what we can figure out—

Aswat's arrest and detention

The Times of London offers the most cogent account—

In the weeks before the attacks Aswat, according to American officials, was under surveillance in South Africa and US authorities wanted to arrest him for questioning.

The South Africans are believed to have relayed the request to British authorities who were reluctant to agree to him being seized because of his status as a British citizen. The US, it is claimed, wanted to take control of Aswat using a process known as “extraordinary rendition”, which would bypass the normal extradition process and may have resulted in him being flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or a country that allows torture.

However, questions are also being asked about whether the British did not wish to have Aswat arrested because he was seen as a useful source of information. To some, British intelligence is too willing to let terrorist suspects run in the hope of gathering useful leads and other information.

In the weeks before the London attacks a man said to be Aswat may have entered the UK, though British security officials think this may be a case of mistaken identity.

What seems clearer is that he either slipped his surveillance or was allowed to move on from South Africa. He was seized in Zambia on July 21, according to the Foreign Office, the day the second wave of would-be suicide bombers struck.

The possibility is being suggested here that Aswat was allowed to move into Zambia,1 which is more "deportation friendly" to the U.S. than is South Africa.

After Aswat's arrest, it was reported that British consular officials were denied access to Aswat by Zambian authorities. Aswat's family, who have been in Britain for 40 years were concerned that he might be sent to Guantánamo. According to Martin Bright and Tariq Panja in the Observer—

Aswat's family, who have been estranged from him for 10 years, said that Britain should be doing more to gain access to him as he could face a lightning extradition to the US. They point to the example of the British Zambian, Martin Mubanga, who was flown directly from Zambia to Guantánamo Bay in 2001 after the US alleged he had fought allied forces in Afghanistan.

On Friday or Saturday Aswat's family released a statement—

We are extremely concerned, distressed and disappointed by the attitude of the British government and the FCO [Foreign Consular Office] in not providing consular access to Haroon.

It is very worrying that after more than 10 days the British government is still unable to verify that the British citizen detained is actually Haroon.

Our son, albeit estranged for many years, is surely entitled to the presumption of innocence as any other British citizen.

Press reports are reporting unnamed British officials in discussions with the US government over extradition of Haroon, yet our government and the FCO is dilly-dallying and does not have the decency to confirm Haroon's detention.

We wonder whether the government's attitude would have been any different if it was a white, non-Muslim citizen detained in a foreign country?

The family's lawyer added,

The family are desperate as the Foreign Office appears to be utterly failing in any representation of this young man's interests ... It seems extraordinary that our own consulate is getting nowhere. We are only too familiar with other cases where British citizens and those granted refugee protection by the British have been arrested in and removed from Zambia, Gambia and Pakistan to Guantánamo Bay.

Although accounts continue to differ, the British Foreign Office has apparently managed to secure an order for extradition to Britain. The Independent Online reported today—

A Briton arrested in Zambia on suspicion of terrorism was set on Monday to be extradited to Britain after the interior minister signed a document handing over custody of the man, an official said.

"We have signed the document for his movement. The minister has completed the whole process," Peter Mumba, secretary of the interior ministry, said.

Why the U.S. wants Aswat

This part of the story is at least reasonably consistent. The U.S. is claiming that Aswat came to the U.S. to set up a terrorist training camp. Here's the Times account—

While Aswat was closely connected with the Finsbury Park mosque, he was sent to America to meet a known Al-Qaeda activist. US investigators accuse him of being one of the “co-conspirators” of Earnest James Ujaama, who co-operated with US authorities after being charged in 2002 for planning to recruit and train jihadists in the US.

Aswat is said by US investigators to have travelled from London to Oregon in November 1999 to meet Ujaama and scout out a potential jihad training “ranch”. In the end the conspirators did not proceed with it.

But here is where the American story about Aswat gets interesting—

According to US intelligence sources, .... [t]hey believe he assisted or masterminded the London attacks.

This leaves one to wonder why, if the U.S. believes Aswat is a possible "mastermind" of the London 7/7 bombing, it would not defer to the British. There are at least two possibilities here, which are not mutually exclusive—

Official British reaction to U.S. charges and efforts to extradite

Before the British had prevailed in their extradition request, Scotland Yard had downplayed the importance of Aswat in their investigations and characterized him only as a "person of interest" and said there was no evidence that Aswat was involved in either the bombings of 7/7 or 7/21.

Then the British-American squabble was made known. Saturday Ian Cobain and Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian reported

A dispute has arisen between British diplomats, who have no objection to him being extradited to stand trial, and American authorities, who are understood to wish to see him subjected to a process known as rendition, which could see him taken to a country other than the US, where he may be at risk of being tortured.

"The British government's policy is not to deport or extradite any person to another state where there are substantial grounds to believe that the person will be subject to torture or where there is a real risk that the death penalty will be applied," the spokesman said....

Before civil libertarians take too much comfort in this high-minded stance by the British they should consider this: (1) These statements were made by the British Foreign Office and not the intelligence services. And (2) Britain has its own in-country Guantánamo that can countenance torture quite nicely, thank you.2

Who is Aswat?

Unfortunately you will not get the definitive answer to that question here. Still, some facts are known.

1. Aswat is a jihadi.

This was an assertion made by his father. And during the 10 years since his family last saw him, Aswat has been quite busy. The Times offers an interesting account—

As a potential mastermind of the London attacks, Aswat has connections and a past that are almost too neat a fit. Now 31, he was brought up in Dewsbury, near Leeds, where Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers, lived. He left the area 10 years ago and is believed to have travelled to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is said to have told investigators in Zambia that he was once a bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden.

When Aswat returned to Britain he attended the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, which was a hotbed of radicalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Reda Hassaine, an Algerian journalist who worked as an informant for the British and French security services, witnessed Aswat recruiting young men at the mosque to the cause of Al-Qaeda.

“Inside the mosque he would sit with the new recruits telling them about life after death and the obligation of every Muslim to do the jihad against the unbelievers,” said Hassaine last week. “All the talk was about killing in order to go to paradise and get the 72 virgins.”

Aswat also showed potential recruits videotapes of the mujaheddin in action in Bosnia and Chechnya.

“He used to tell them look at your brothers, the mujaheddin. All of them are now in paradise living next to the prophet,” said Hassaine.

“He was always wearing Afghan or combat clothes. In the evening he offered some tea to the people who would sit with him to listen to the heroic action of the mujaheddin before joining the cleric for the finishing touch of brainwashing.

“The British didn’t seem to understand how dangerous these people were.”

Among the extremists who attended the mosque were Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”, and Asif Hanif, a British suicide bomber who blew himself up in a Tel Aviv bar in 2003 killing three others and injuring 60.

There are other concerns. If Aswat knew the London bomber Khan, it would also link him to a group uncovered last year who allegedly were planning a large bomb attack. Under Operation Crevice, police arrested eight men after finding a large quantity of explosive material in a garage in west London.

During that investigation, Khan’s name surfaced on the periphery, but he was deemed no threat and not pursued. Some US investigators now claim another name also surfaced during Operation Crevice: that of Germaine Maurice Lindsay. He became another of the 7/7 bombers — and US authorities claim he was also on a watch list of suspected terrorists when he caused carnage at King’s Cross.

However, British security sources deny Lindsay’s name cropped up in Operation Crevice. And investigators say there is no hard evidence of what role, if any, Aswat played in the London attacks. Scotland Yard sources say he is not considered a priority in their criminal investigation into the July 7 and July 21 attacks. But senior Whitehall officials do not rule out the possibility there my be links to one or more of the bombers.

“I don’t think the evidence is conclusive either way,” one official was reported as saying in the US.

2. Aswat may conceivably be a British agent

The Times also took the trouble to report that—

Senior Whitehall officials also deny “any knowledge” that he might be an agent for either MI5 or MI6.

If he wasn't an agent, he was certainly given free rein. But the Times offers one explanation—

[Q]uestions are also being asked about whether the British did not wish to have Aswat arrested because he was seen as a useful source of information. To some, British intelligence is too willing to let terrorist suspects run in the hope of gathering useful leads and other information.

3. He has been rather vaguely implicated in the 7/21 bombings through cellphone calls.

According to a report in the NY Times,

Investigators also ... that calls had been made from his cellphone to West Yorkshire, where three of the July 7 bombers lived. But investigators said they now had determined that none of the calls were to the bombers themselves.

These were calls said to be from Aswat. The U.S. has asserted that calls were made to Aswat. The Independent Online, for instance, reported that "They said that the four suicide bombers behind the July 7 attacks had made about 20 calls to him on his cellphone.


The story of Haroon Rashid Aswat is certainly one to follow. Whether he is an al-Qaeda mastermind terrorist, as so many media accounts have urged, or a British agent, as the Times of London has ever so subtly suggested, will probably be known only by inferences we can make from the disposition of the case after Aswat has been returned to Britain.

The repeated British denials of the seriousness of Aswat's complicity in the bombings suggest that Aswat may be an agent. After all, if he is an agent, they can hardly put him away in Belmarsh Prison for the rest of his life, so he will have to be in some sense exonerated.

On the other hand, if Aswat is an agent, you have to wonder why the British didn't simply inform the Americans and ask them to back off, though there is an easy answer to that. British and American intelligence agencies have a long history of mistrust, and this may be just one more example.

Since the U.S. appears to have been the instigator of Aswat's arrest, it is not inconceivable that it has once again blown apart a British investigation.3


1According to the Financial Times, Zambia has no deportation treaty with the U.S. As a Commonwealth country it does have such an agreement with the UK. [back]

2To get some idea of prisoner treatment in Belmarsh Prison, see Anti-human-rights law to go to the Law Lords (12/14/04) [back]

3In August 2004 the U.S. issued a politically motivated "terrorist alert" based on the intelligence of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan. This blew open an ongoing investigation in Pakistan.

MSNBC reported,

In addition to ending the Pakistani sting, the premature disclosure of Khan's identity may have affected a major British operation in which 12 suspects were arrested in raids this week, one of whom U.S. officials said was a senior al-Qaida figure. One of the men was released Friday.

British police told Reuters on Friday that they had been forced to carry out the raids more hastily than planned, a day after Khan's name appeared in the Times.


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