How Britain betrayed me
Jason Burke, chief reporter, The Observer – Sunday February 18, 2001
British security services ordered illegal burglaries in Muslim places of worship to gather information on alleged Islamic militants, a key MI5 and police informer has told The Observer .
In one of the most detailed descriptions of secret operations on the British mainland, Reda Hassaine, an Algerian former journalist, has revealed how he infiltrated the tight-knit community of Islamic militants in the UK for MI5 and the Special Branch, the police squad with responsibility for gathering information on suspected terrorists.
Hassaine, an asylum-seeker, disclosed how officers blackmailed him into carrying out the burglaries by threatening him with expulsion if he refused. They also advised him on how to defraud the British welfare system to enhance his meagre earnings from them.
The revelations will deeply embarrass the security services and lead to further accusations of incompetence as yet another operative tells his story. It will also raise serious questions about the services’ dealings with vulnerable groups like asylum-seekers.
‘Any suggestion that asylum applications could be contingent on « co-operating » with the UK security services raises the most serious concerns,’ a spokesman for Amnesty, the human rights group, said.
During two years as an informer, Hassaine was asked to steal scores of documents from senior preachers at mosques in north London. Some were communiqués from extremist groups overseas; others were seemingly innocuous.
Hassaine, 37, even told his handlers about a dirty tricks campaign against Muslim militants in London being run by the French intelligence service, the DGSE. Though it too involved burglaries of mosques and Islamic groups’ premises as well as the funding of a newspaper supporting the terrorist Osama bin Laden, Hassaine was advised to help the French.
Though Hassaine has been badly beaten by Muslim hardliners and now faces almost daily death threats, the Home Office has refused his asylum application.
Reda Hassaine risked his life infiltrating Islamic groups for police and MI5. But after two years service he was betrayed, he tells Jason Burke
They gathered on a raw February night to learn the secrets of war. Packed into a conference hall off Euston Square, London, 400 committed Muslim militants listened carefully as their leaders explained how bombs could be made and delivered to their targets.
The talk was of victories and defeats, of holy war and martyrs, of betrayal and the punishments for traitors to the cause. Many in the audience wore the uniforms of Afghan or Algerian guerrillas, others carried wounds sustained in combat in a dozen different Middle Eastern countries.
Sitting towards the back of the hall was an inconspicuous, balding, bespectacled man with a slight stammer. He listened intently to the lectures and was quick to join the earnest conversations, in Arabic, French and English, among the men around him. Many of those there thought they knew him – a 37-year-old Algerian-born writer who had turned to militant Islam after years of frustration and poverty in north London.
But when the talk and the prayers were over, Reda Hassaine did not join the others in drinking coffee late into the night. He went home and began to write up what he had seen. Though a journalist by profession, his dispatch was not for any newspaper. It was for his handlers in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the élite police squad dedicated to monitoring Britain’s terrorists. Hassaine was a spy.
Hassaine has now agreed to tell The Observer his story. In a series of lengthy interviews last week – and in an 11-page statement – he gave one of the most detailed descriptions of the shadowy world of the security services and their operations in Britain. His is a tale of duplicity, crime and violence. More than anything it reveals the breathtaking cynicism with which the vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited in the name of state security.
Until the spring of 1999 few people had heard of Finsbury Park mosque. It sits on a grim traffic-choked corner in north London surrounded by clouds of exhaust and long terraces of Edwardian houses. On Fridays the pavements outside are full of young Muslim men heading for Friday prayers and the sermon of the fiery and controversial preacher Abu Hamza.
Hassaine had lived nearby since fleeing to the UK in 1994. He was well integrated into the local community and was a popular figure. His wife and children were known and liked.
But Hassaine was living a double, or indeed treble, life. In order to get his family out of civil war-racked Algeria, where left-leaning journalists were dying by the dozen, he had been forced to make a terrible pact with the Algerian security services. In return for safe passage to the UK he agreed to help them as they struggled to put down the Islamic insurgency devastating their country. Once trapped into the world of espionage there was no way he could turn back.
His first mission was to pose as an activist for the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) – the most extreme of the Algerian terror groups – and pick up a fax machine from a London-based undercover operative. The fax’s memory held scores of phone numbers identifying GIA men in Algeria who had sent communiqués to the UK. The meeting took place on Wimbledon Common. Hassaine had successfully accomplished the mission. But he was now a marked man.
He fled to Paris, was tracked down and attacked by Islamic militants and travelled on to London. For the next five years, Hassaine worked for the Algerian secret service gathering low-level intelligence on extremists in the UK. ‘It was easy,’ he said last week. ‘I’d just meet the men from the embassy and tell them who was around the mosques.’
But by late 1997 there were others who wanted Hassaine’s help. The football World Cup in France was imminent – starting in June the following year – and authorities in Paris were terrified of terrorist attacks. The Algerians – especially those in London – were prime suspects.
Hassaine moved up a gear. For the next year he supplied his contact at the French embassy, a man he knew as Jerome, with grade A intelligence. The Frenchman had promised him citizenship if he agreed to help, so Hassaine took risks. Much of the information was stolen. At one point the two even discussed kidnapping men that Paris wanted out of action.
A newspaper was launched, with Hassaine as the editor, publishing propaganda for Osama bin Laden in a bid to flush out the alleged master terrorist’s supporters. And when Hassaine revealed that an extremist splinter group was planning to burn a rival group’s mosque Jerome told him that ‘it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we made it happen’ though there was a worry that the British authorities would find out.
But the British already knew about the plan. They knew because Hassaine had told them. On 20 May 1998 the Algerian had met a Special Branch officer at Liverpool Street police station in London. The man, whose name is known to The Observer , had listened carefully while Hassaine detailed his dealings with the French. He had appeared friendly and concerned when Hassaine said his asylum request had been pending in the UK for four years.
When, three months later, the French unceremoniously ended their relationship and refused the promised passport, Hassaine knew where to go.
Just before 4pm on Tuesday 10 November 1998 Hassaine walked into Scotland Yard and asked to speak to Special Branch. He waited for half an hour in reception and then was led by two officers to a ground floor office. He explained the situation and was told to expect a call.
A month later it came. This time Hassaine was told to wait outside a Burger King branch in Waterloo and then to follow, at a distance, a man whom he would recognise from his visit to Scotland Yard. After a rambling walk through the streets of Waterloo, they arrived at a Holiday Inn and only then did ‘Charles’ – as Hassaine knew him – turn and acknowledge his new informant.
His first assignment was commissioned nearly two months later. It was no surprise. He was to infiltrate the Finsbury Park mosque and gather as much information as he could on Abu Hamza.
After years in relative obscurity the fiery preacher had suddenly sprung into the news. Just before New Year a group of tourists in Yemen had been taken hostage by Islamic extremists. They were freed after a bloody shoot-out and Yemeni police claimed to have traced the plot back to Britain. They accused Abu Hamza, a veteran of the war against the Russians in Afghanistan, of inspiring the attack. Abu Hamza denied it and hard evidence was thin on the ground.
Over the next weeks Hassaine spent almost every day at the mosque. Each night he would write up a report for his handlers detailing Abu Hamza’s associates, his speeches and the attitudes of those around him. The Observer has seen these reports. He was asked to provide the police with a sketch map of the mosque showing all the possible escape routes and detailing the hardline preacher’s security arrangements.
His mission culminated in the meeting near Euston Station. Within weeks Abu Hamza was arrested in a blaze of publicity. Shortly afterwards, in a luxury hotel in Mayfair, Hassaine received his reward: an assurance that the Home Office would soon sort out his asylum application. ‘At that moment I felt like my long journey in the wilderness was coming to an end at last,’ he said. But Special Branch officers had other plans: they were passing Hassaine on to MI5.
At 10.04am on 29 July 1999 Hassaine got a call on his mobile. He was told to be at Green Park Underground station by 11.45am. After the standard rambling walk following his contact he found himself at another nondescript West End hotel. There he was introduced to Kevin, his new handler from MI5.
Kevin again assured him that everything would be done to get him British citizenship, promised him an annual salary of £900 (which could be augmented, Hassaine was told, by claiming social security and housing benefit on top) and handed him his first assignment.
A key associate of the chief of the GIA had recently arrived in the UK, Kevin said. Hassaine was told to get close to him, to sort out his accommodation and welfare benefits and to teach him English. MI5 wanted to recruit him as an agent, Kevin said, but as none of them spoke Arabic or French, Hassaine would be in charge until the young man was ready to be approached.
For the next 15 months Hassaine was busy. Every day he was out talking, drinking coffee, praying with the militants. He got close to those who were deeply involved with the terrorists in Algeria. They told him of planned bombing campaigns in Paris, of assassinations, of attacks on Europeans in the country. All the information was relayed back to his handler. Assignment after assignment was completed successfully.
But the pressure began to grow. One meeting with two MI5 officers turned acrimonious. When Hassaine balked at some of the more difficult things he was asked to do he was threatened with expulsion. ‘Don’t forget who you are and who we are,’ he was told. Hassaine had to comply. ‘I couldn’t go back. I had to try to go forward,’ he said last week.
MI5 wanted him to bring them more information on the plans being formulated by GIA groups in Algeria. First they wanted the address and home telephone number of a man suspected of being the GIA’s point man in Britain, almost certainly so they could bug him.
Hassaine, at some risk, obtained the information. He had to, in effect, burgle the offices of Abu Hamza and senior militant figures in Finsbury Park Mosque and elsewhere. It was extremely dangerous and illegal. ‘If I had been caught by the militants they would have torn me apart. The police could have jailed me,’ Hassaine said. ‘But I did it again and again for weeks. I stole scores of documents.’
The papers – including communications from GIA activists in Algeria – led to the break-up of what police believed to be cells planning terrorist attacks in Britain. For months, Hassaine’s routine went on. He met his handlers, was assigned men to investigate, stole, attended demonstrations and meetings. Occasionally security was stepped up. One time Hassaine received his instructions hidden in a cigarette box left in a phone box outside Warren Street Underground station. On other occasions there were convivial meals at good hotels.
But as his work got harder and more sensitive he had to take more risks. After learning of a group of Yemeni militants hiding in Birmingham, Hassaine was sent to discover what he could. Within weeks he had the men identified and had filed a five-page report. Some were linked, tenuously, to Bin Laden – a key target for the security services.
On a wet day in April last year Hassaine heard that a preacher at a mosque in west London had left England for Afghanistan to meet Bin Laden. He crossed the city to verify the story. Within minutes of arriving at the mosque he was attacked, badly beaten and his head gashed open. MI5 advised him to lie low for a while.
But then came a crushing blow. The Home Office told him that his application for asylum had been refused. There would be no passport. The only reward for his services was temporary permission to remain in the country, subject to review at any time. He had been led along all the way.
‘I am an educated, cultured man,’ said Hassaine last week. ‘I wanted to be a British citizen to be safe and I wanted to fight the extremists who have destroyed my life. But everyone has betrayed me. I have lost my country, my family, my health and my profession. I have spoken out because I have now lost hope.’