French plot to kidnap Abu Hamza and save the World Cup
By Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory in an extract from their new book, Times Online, May, 31, 2006 – http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,13509-2203782_1,00.html
Exasperated by Britain’s failure to silence the Islamic preacher of hate, France considered drastic measures to protect itself from a terror attack, suggests The Suicide Factory
“PERHAPS we could snatch him off the street, kidnap him, take him to Paris and deal with him properly there.”
The remark stopped the conversation across the lunch table just as if a waiter had dropped a glass, smashed a plate or thrown water in a customer’s face. Reda Hassaine peered through the fug of his own cigarette smoke at his French paymaster, trying to gauge how serious the suggestion had been. The silence remained unbroken, the word “kidnap” hanging in the air between them.
Hassaine did not know what to say. His job was to move quietly, unobtrusively inside the mosque, to write reports, to feed information back to Jérôme, the man with whom he was now lunching. No one had said anything about snatching Abu Hamza off the streets of London.
Jérôme, the immaculate “diplomat” from the French embassy, smiled at his companion’s discomfort. “Something has to be done. Chevènement says he cannot sleep on Thursday nights wondering what threat is going to emerge from the London Algerians the next morning or what Abu Hamza is going to say in his Friday sermon. Paris is very anxious that they will threaten France again.”
Jean Pierre Chevènement, France’s Minister of the Interior, had one worry in particular. It was March 1998. In a few months the football World Cup was to be held in France, and it was a huge security headache. Algerian terrorists of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) had bombed the Paris Métro in 1995, and the architects of that atrocity — regarded in France as a deadly enemy — were still on the loose, living untroubled lives in London. The World Cup offered them an opportunity, and there were whispers in the intelligence world that something was being planned. It might take only a word from their spiritual guide Abu Hamza, an article in his newsletter, or a line in a communiqué pinned to the Finsbury Park mosque noticeboard to set the wheels in motion.
Friday was consequently the busiest day of the week for Hassaine, a former journalist and fledgling spy. On Fridays it was imperative that he heard Abu Hamza preach, made a mental note of any proclamations on the board and picked up a copy of the newsletter.
There had been panic in 1997 when a newsletter carried a GIA logo in which the letters were arranged in the shape of a triangle.
Was it a signal that terrorists were going to target the Eiffel Tower? In 1994 four GIA men had hijacked an Air France jet in Algiers and threatened to fly it to Paris and smash into the tower. The plane was stormed by French commandos at Marseilles and the terrorists killed.
France was on edge. Such was her anxiety about the World Cup that she demanded co-operation from her European neighbours. Where she deemed that collaboration was lacking, or less than enthusiastic, she was sending teams of agents abroad to gather intelligence on Islamist militants. Hassaine was part of the team in London, recruited by France’s DGSE intelligence service, to be a spy inside Finsbury Park’s Algerian community and its mosque.
Hassaine had fled Algeria after the GIA killed some of his closest friends and threatened his life. He was motivated by anger and a burning need to see justice done. Although he was married with a young son, and the entire enterprise made him feel nervous and unsafe, some sense of righteous purpose carried him on, recklessly risking his safety.
He had been working for the man he knew as Jérôme for several months when the idea of kidnapping Abu Hamza was lobbed like a grenade into a long lunch at the Bangkok Brasserie, a basement Thai restaurant that was one of their regular haunts.
This was, the Frenchman said, “the ideal place” for their meetings. Located in London’s clubland, the traditional haunt of spies, it was below street level, hidden from view on the corner of St James’s Street and Piccadilly. No one could see in from the street. Jérôme insisted that he and Hassaine always arrived for lunch at 12.30 pm to ensure that they got the table in the far corner, from where he could see everyone who came and left.
Hassaine finally ended the silence. He leaned across the table, and spoke nervously. “How would we do it?” he asked, fervently hoping that there would be no “we”, that this was something he would not have to be involved in.
Jérôme sketched out some ideas; clearly the plan was not at an advanced stage. Essentially it required taking Abu Hamza off the street. Sending a squad into the mosque, where he was surrounded by followers and bodyguards, was not feasible. He would have to be surprised. It might be best to take him as he left his house in west London; Aldbourne Road in Shepherd’s Bush was a quiet street of family homes. Abu Hamza might have his sons to protect him, but there would be the element of surprise. And the hit squad would be armed. They would need a van, or a large vehicle with darkened windows. Then there would be a drive, a high-speed dash to Dover and a ferry across the Channel.
“It would have to be a French ferry,” said Jérôme. “Once we got one of his feet on board that would be it. No coming back.” Hassaine might be asked to give a signal, act as a lookout, or create some sort of distraction at the mosque, but the kidnapping would be left to the professionals.
Unknown to Hassaine, there were a number of undercover French agents operating in London, and a team of assassins from Draco, a DGSE unit, had been placed on standby to take out individuals regarded as senior terrorists.
Another DGSE surveillance team was watching the mosque. Again, the agents had been told that the purpose of their mission was to prevent any attack on the World Cup.
The problem hampering all the plans – assassinations or kidnappings – was the attitude of the British authorities. Over lunch, Jérôme made it clear to Hassaine that while his contacts in the undercover worlds of MI5 and MI6 might be prepared to turn a blind eye to such an operation, there was unlikely to be any such help from the regular police. “We might get some help from the British,” he said, “but we will not get any help from the British law.”
In short, if anything went wrong, all hell would break loose. If there were a gunshot, if Abu Hamza were injured, if a traffic policeman stopped the kidnap vehicle – if just one thing tripped up, there would be a huge diplomatic incident. What the French were proposing was to kidnap a British citizen in London and take him to face justice in France. The scandal could be bigger than the blowing up of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985. But such was the level of French frustration – from the Minister of the Interior downwards – with the British that all options were being countenanced.
As far as the French were concerned, the British had entered into a Faustian pact with the extreme Islamist groups assembled in London. They were free to organise, propagandise and speak, as long as there was no threat and no trouble on British soil. Abu Hamza seemed to enjoy a friendly relationship with MI5 and Scotland Yard’s intelligence wing, the Special Branch. They called him regularly, invited him for meetings and were generally on cordial terms.
He had himself been witness to the tension between the British and the French over his activities when he attended Scotland Yard after one summons. The call from the Special Branch officer emphasised that this was not a British police matter. Abu Hamza said: “They called me and said, ‘Would you like to come to Scotland Yard, it’s not about us or anything we are doing’. They said the French police wanted to speak to me. They told me I was a British citizen and I didn’t have to answer if I didn’t want to.”
Abu Hamza, who was offering the pretence of co-operation with the authorities because it seemed to allow him complete freedom to carry on as he pleased, decided to attend.
At Scotland Yard he was taken to a room where two French detectives were waiting. A Scotland Yard detective sat in on the meeting, acting almost as Abu Hamza’s protector. The French officers were enquiring about Christophe Caze, a medical school dropout who converted to Islam and fought in Bosnia, where, it was suggested, he had met Abu Hamza. Caze had been killed in March 1996 near the town of Roubaix after a shootout with French police who had thwarted a plan to attack a G7 summit. A huge cache of arms and explosives was found.
The French wanted information and showed Abu Hamza pictures of members of the Roubaix gang. He said he knew nothing. “The main Frenchman was really upset and angry, he showed on his face he was angry,” he said. “But the Englishman was very easy about it all, he said I didn’t have to answer. At the end of the meeting he walked with me back to my car, he was smiling and chatting and everything.”
To French eyes, the British were protecting Abu Hamza and other dangerous men in the mosque. After a few glasses of wine during lunch, Jérôme would often express his anger, and refer to the British capital – as many in France did – as “Londonistan”.
Hassaine said: “Jérôme would complain that Scotland Yard was sympathetic to Abu Hamza. They would say, ‘They are doing nothing wrong, we cannot arrest them for anything’.
“But the French believed that this plot to attack the World Cup was real, that it was being drawn up in London and that Finsbury Park mosque was the capital of Londonistan. The names of many suspects were passed to the British – veteran terrorists arriving from around the world – but the British did nothing. They did not take it seriously, even when the French said that if anything were to happen they would declare publicly that they held the British responsible.”
In the event, France thwarted the threat to attack the tournament. The process of unravelling it began with the arrest of an Algerian terrorist in Belgium in March 1998. The man had been convicted in absentia by a French court in connection with the Paris Métro bombs in 1995, and was subsequently jailed by the Belgian courts for nine years for attempted murder, criminal association, sedition and forgery. In the three months before the World Cup began, more than a hundred North Africans were arrested in France, Switzerland, Italy, Britain, Belgium and Germany as suspected terrorists.
The extent of the World Cup plot has never been revealed. Some sources say that the key operation was to have been an attempt to assassinate the members of the USA team in their hotel as they watched the game between England and Tunisia on television. Others feared a bombing campaign. Ultimately, however, the greatest problem for French police was the England fans.
As France’s team lifted the trophy and sparked nationwide celebrations, the World Cup plot was best forgotten rather than trumpeted as an anti-terrorist victory. It was a happy moment too for Hassaine, watching from his flat in north London as Zinedine Zidane, his fellow countryman who was playing for France, emerged as the star player of the tournament.
Extracted from The Suicide Factory: Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque by Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory to be published by HarperCollins on June 19, price £7.99