Bin Laden’s London base

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

In July 1994, Osama Bin Laden established an office in London, called the Advice and Reformation Committee (ARC), which sought to promote worldwide opposition to the Saudi regime – an immediate response to the Saudis revoking his citizenship, according to a declassified CIA report. Run from a house in Wembley, north London, the ARC was equipped with a bank of fax machines and computers which churned out dozens of pamphlets and communiqués lambasting the lavishness of the House of Saud and its waywardness from promoting sharia law in the country, as well as calling for a break-up of the Saudi state. According to recent US court documents, the ARC was ‘designed both to publicise Bin Laden’s statements and to provide cover for activity in support for Al Qaeda’s “military” activities, including the recruitment of trainees, the disbursement of funds and the procurement of equipment and services.’ In addition, the London office served as a communication centre for reports on military, security and other matters from various al-Qaida cells to its leadership.

A US Congressional research service report, released just after the September 11th attacks in 2001, noted that Bin Laden even visited London in 1994 and stayed for a few months in Wembley to form the ARC. Other sources claim that he visited London in 1994 to meet members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and even that he travelled regularly to London in 1995 and 1996 on his private jet. Whatever the truth of these claims, Bin Laden’s telephone billing records from 1996–8 show that nearly a fifth of his calls, 238 out of 1,100 – the largest single number – were made to London, showing the importance of this base. It was the ARC that arranged a meeting between Bin Laden and a number of CNN journalists in March 1997.

The ARC’s staff included two members of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s terrorist organisation, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Adel Abdel Bary and Ibrahim Eidarous, both of whom were later indicted in the US for involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings, when simultaneous explosions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam killed over 200 people. Abdel Bary is alleged by the US to have managed al-Qaida training camps and guest houses before arriving in Britain, where he was granted asylum in 1993; two years later he was sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged involvement in the bombing of the Khan al-Khalili tourist landmark in Cairo. In May 1996 Abdel Bary is accused of being appointed by al-Zawahiri as leader of the London cell of the EIJ.

Eidarous is alleged to have begun organising the EIJ’s cell in Azerbaijan in August 1995 before coming to London in September 1997 to become the leader of its London base. While in Britain, where he was also granted political asylum, Eidarous is accused of maintaining satellite phone links with the al-Qaida leadership, and, with Abdel Bary, of providing forged passports for EIJ operatives in the Netherlands and Albania. On the day of the East Africa bombings, both disseminated the claims of responsibility through faxes to the media; lawyers for the two men deny that they had advance knowledge of the bombings but an MI5 officer, later giving evidence to an immigration appeal, stated that the faxes were actually sent before the bombings took place. The two men were detained by the Special Branch in September 1998 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, on charges that they were associated with the 1998 bombings.

The head of Bin Laden’s ARC was the Saudi dissident Khaled al-Fawwaz, who was arrested by British police acting under a US extradition request in September 1998 for his alleged involvement in the East Africa bombings the previous month. Until this point the British authorities had allowed al-Fawwaz and the ARC to operate openly for four years. The US indictment against al-Fawwaz alleges that he provided Bin Laden with ‘various means of communications’, including a satellite telephone to speak to al-Qaida cells, and that he visited Nairobi in 1993 and established a residence there for Abu Ubaidah, one of al-Qaida’s military commanders. Al-Fawwaz has been held in Britain since 1998, and US attempts to have him extradited have been consistently blocked by the British courts after appeals by al-Fawwaz’s lawyers claiming his human rights would be breached in US prisons.

The evidence suggests that the ARC’s activities were initially tolerated by the British, who may have seen them as a useful source of intelligence. Al-Fawwaz’s lawyers have, for example, said that he was in regular contact with MI5 from the time he came to Britain in 1994 until his arrest four years later. His meetings often lasted for three or more hours while his phone was probably tapped and his correspondence intercepted. ‘Perhaps MI5 thought it was better to monitor al-Fawwaz … for intelligence,’ the Guardian has noted.

After the terrorist massacre of tourists in Luxor, Egypt in November 1997, Egypt’s President Mubarak blasted the British for hosting militants in London allegedly linked to this and other attacks, including Abdel Bary, and requested their extradition. It has been reported that the British government refused this request. However, it appears that the government did indeed seek to deport the militants, following a request from the Egyptians, but was hindered by Egypt’s rejecting a British request to ensure that they would get a fair trial and, if found guilty, would not be executed. Thus the deportation was prohibited by the European human rights convention, which forbids deportation of suspects who might be subject to torture or inhuman treatment.

Another Saudi dissident in London was Saad al-Faqih, a former professor of surgery at King Saud University who had lent his medical expertise to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Faqih fled Saudi Arabia in 1994 and set up another opposition group to the regime, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), in London in 1996 and was given political asylum. Al-Faqih has recently said that he maintains ‘high-level contacts’ with the British intelligence services and gives them advice about Saudi Arabia. In 2004, the US government designated al-Faqih as a provider of financial and material support to al-Qaida since the mid-1990s, and accused him of being in contact with Bin Laden. However, Al-Faqih has been living openly in Britain for well over a decade and has not once been questioned by the British authorities. His alleged involvement in terrorism has been questioned by several well-informed analysts, who point to the fact that no case has been brought against him, let alone proven, that MIRA is a legitimate opposition group to the Saudis and that his designation by the US as a terrorist is mainly about placating its Saudi client.

But the British may have seen the ARC and other Saudi groups as providing more than just intelligence. The American journalist Steve Coll, citing interviews with British officials, offers a reason why Britain was reluctant to crack down on the centres of opposition to Saudi Arabia: ‘It was an article of faith in Washington and London during the early 1990s that a little outside pressure, even if it came from Islamists, might help open up the Saudi kingdom to new voices, creating healthier and more stable politics in the long run.’ Coll’s notion that British and US planners wanted to use an Islamist lever to influence the Saudi internal agenda is certainly credible and consistent with past policies in the region. However, his notion that this aimed at ‘healthier’ (rather than simply pro-Western) politics is less credible: London and Washington were more likely to have seen internal reform as a way of consolidating the House of Saud’s rule.

Al-Faqih himself provides another explanation for the British government tolerating these groups. Asked in an interview in November 2003 about living in Britain, al-Faqih replied that the British ‘have discovered that betting on strategic relations with the [Saudi] regime is dangerous. It is better to have relations with the people and I assume they know how much public support we have.’ Al-Faqih also recently said that ‘the British are shrewd enough to know that the Saudi regime is doomed and they want to be in a position to deal with alternative leaders.’ Al-Faqih here exaggerates the support for MIRA in Saudi Arabia and it is nonsense to equate it with ‘the people’. Yet the point that Britain was attempting to cultivate relations with future policy-makers in the country by tolerating these opposition groups is certainly credible. While Britain has long shored up the feudal rulers of Saudi Arabia, the long-term stability of the regime has equally long been questioned. Again, opposition groups could act as a kind of proxy force for Whitehall; to a certain extent, therefore, Britain may have been trying to play both sides.

The London base allowed Bin Laden to motivate his supporters around the world. The perpetrators of the 1995 bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia had read Bin Laden’s writings after being faxed them from London. It was also London from that various of Bin Laden’s key fatwas were sent around the world. The ARC, for example, disseminated the English translation of Bin Laden’s August 1996 declaration of jihad against the Americans ‘occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places’, calling for the US to be driven from Saudi Arabia, the overthrow of the House of Saud and Islamic revolution all over the world. Two years later, in February 1998, the ARC publicised Bin Laden’s creation of an ‘International Front for Jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews’, joining together a variety of terrorist groups. However, ‘this caused little stir in Whitehall’, Times journalists Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory note.

Also instructive is that the British and US intelligence services repeatedly turned down the chance to acquire information on Bin Laden and al-Qaida in the 1990s. In early 1995, for example, the Sudanese government, then hosting Bin Laden, offered to extradite or interview him and other key operatives who had been arrested on charges of planning terrorist atrocities. The Sudanese proferred photographs and details on various Arab–Afghans, including Saudis, Yemenis and Egyptians who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets. ‘We know them in detail,’ said one Sudanese source. ‘We know their leaders, how they implement their policies, how they plan for the future. We have tried to feed this information to American and British intelligence so they can learn how thing can be tackled.’ This Sudanese offer was rejected, reportedly due to the ‘irrational hatred’ the US felt for the Sudanese regime, as was a similar subsequent offer made specifically to MI6. Three years later, Britain was also to ignore an arrest warrant for Bin Laden issued by Libya, as we see in Chapter 13.

So safe did Bin Laden’s supporters feel in London that, in 1995, they sent overtures to the Home Office enquiring whether their leader could claim political asylum. The then home secretary, Michael Howard, later said that an investigation by his staff into Bin Laden resulted in a banning order being placed on him. In January 1996, the Home Office sent a letter to Bin Laden stating that he be ‘excluded from the United Kingdom on the grounds that your presence here would not be conducive to the public good.’Presumably, giving asylum to Bin Laden would have been a step too far for the British in view of their need to be seen to be placating the Saudis.

The 1998 US embassy bombings were not the only terrorist outrages being planned by Bin Laden, or those close to him, during the period 1994–98. By late 1994, the CIA was designating Bin Laden as a terrorist threat, knowing that his inner circle were working closely with the Sudanese intelligence services which were, in turn, running terrorist and paramilitary operations in Egypt and elsewhere. In June 1995, an al-Qaida team attacked Egyptian President Mubarak’s presidential motorcade during a visit to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. In 1996 a secret CIA analysis showed that the US was aware of Bin Laden’s financing of Islamic extremists responsible for attempted bombings against one hundred US servicemen in Aden in December 1992, funneling money to Egyptian extremists to buy weapons and bankrolling ‘at least three terrorist training camps in northern Sudan’. After moving to Afghanistan in May 1996, Bin Laden set up terrorist training camps there under the protection of the Taliban. It beggars belief that British intelligence was also not aware of Bin Laden’s activities during the period when it tolerated his London base.

In contrast to Britain’s toleration of the ARC and MIRA, different treatment was meted out to the leader of another Saudi opposition group in London, Mohamed al-Masari, a refugee from Saudi Arabia who in 1994 established the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights. By early 1995, the Saudi government was vigorously protesting to Whitehall about al-Masari’s attempts to subvert the Saudi regime, and threatening to cancel arms deals if the government failed to take action against him. Given the high stakes involved, in April and May 1995, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Prime Minister John Major gave speeches apparently directed at al-Masari saying that Islamic dissidents were ‘extremely unwelcome’ in London. The following December, Whitehall, prioritising arms exports to the Saudis, took the unprecedented step of ordering al-Masari’s expulsion, and attempted to dispatch him to wherever local authorities could be persuaded, settling on the Caribbean island of Dominica, to whom British aid was quadrupled as a sweetener. However, the British courts ruled that the expulsion would be illegal, the government having failed to show that al-Masari would not be in danger after his removal. According to former CIA officer, Robert Baer, the Saudis were behind at least two assassination attempts against al-Masari; it is not clear whether these were in Britain or elsewhere.

The Guardian interpreted the Major and Hurd speeches as a sign that the government’s stance towards Islamic dissidents was hardening, prompted by Arab governments pressing Britain to clamp down on them. Yet government action was largely limited to al-Masari, clearly to appease the Saudis, while until September 1998 other dissidents, like Bin Laden’s associates, were allowed to go about their business freely. They appeared to operate with the tacit consent of the British authorities, with the most likely reason being that, consistent with the historical record, they were seen as useful to the British.