On June 17, amidst much furor, a British Special Immigration Appeals Committee (SIAC) allowed the release on bail of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, a radical preacher described by Spanish counter-terror judge Baltasar Garzon as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador to Europe.” Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, adding that she would appeal it. In the meantime, Abu Qatada was released from Long Lartin prison to join his family at a £800,000 home in West London, where he is under virtual house arrest. Only allowed out for two hours a day, Qatada wears an electronic tag, is not allowed to use the internet, computers or mobile telephones. He is also forbidden to visit mosques, lead prayers or give religious instruction. Police have powers to search his home at their discretion, and he has a rather comical list of individuals who he is banned from meeting with, including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and imprisoned preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. Aside from his solicitors and family, all other visitors must be approved by the Home Secretary (BBC, June 18; Times, June 19).
This entire process would appear to be a vindication of Qatada’s own boast to his followers after his first arrest in 2002 when he claimed Britain’s “ponderous extradition laws meant that it was far from certain he would ever be expelled” . To the horror of observers, the entire process was repeated on July 3, 2008, when the same court released an Algerian man the British press can only identify as “U,” though it has been revealed in the foreign press that the suspect is likely to be Abu Doha (New York Times, July 4). While he is to have equally rigid bail conditions, the release of this individual—who is suspected of being involved in the LAX bombing attempt in December 1999 and the plot to attack the Christmas market in Strasbourg in December 2000—is seen as a further blow to British counter-terrorism efforts (Telegraph, July 3).
The release of these two individuals may soon be followed by more, as the British judicial system contends with a double problem in these terrorist cases. First is the inability of British prosecutors to produce evidence that will stand up in court—something which is, in part, the result of the inadmissibility in court of wiretap evidence, a reality that is currently under review—and secondly, the inability of Britain to deport individuals such as these back to their home countries due to EU and UK laws stating that individuals cannot be deported to nations where they may be tortured (Jordan in Abu Qatada’s case, and Algeria in “U’s”). While such concerns were meant to have been addressed with “memorandums of understanding” that the British government signed with Libya, Jordan and Lebanon concerning the treatment of such returnees, British courts decided that other concerns remain—in Abu Qutada’s case there were fears that evidence used in his Jordanian conviction may have been obtained through torture (Sunday Mirror, June 22).
The Life and Times of Abu Qatada
Born in Bethlehem when it was still part of Jordan in 1960, Abu Qatada first came to the UK in September 1993 on a forged passport from the United Arab Emirates. While it remains unclear exactly where he was coming from, he was apparently in Peshawar in 1990, where he attracted many followers before going into Afghanistan in 1992 after fighting had ended in Kabul (CNN, November 3, 2001). Upon arriving in the UK and gaining asylum in June 1994, Qatada started to get involved in the London Islamist scene, eventually becoming one of “Londonistan’s unholy trinity” (the other two being Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed) . He quickly adopted the Algerian jihad as his focus, and became editor of the al-Ansar Newsletter while preaching and writing from London in support of the Groupe Islamique Armé’s (GIA) actions .
This continued until mid-1996, when, in the face of widespread condemnation throughout the Arab world of the GIA’s brutal targeting of civilians, Abu Qatada denounced the group as “innovators” and formally cut his ties . His work was not, however, solely focused on Algeria and he raised thousands of pounds for Islamist groups around the world. When he was questioned in February 2001, he was found to have £170,000 in cash, including an envelope with £805 in it labeled “for the mujahideen in Chechnya” (BBC, February 26, 2007). He also acted as a mentor for another London preacher, Abu Hamza, reportedly calling him “the best student he ever had” and being “very impressed [at] how quickly Abu Hamza memorized the Koran and Hadith” under his tutelage .
While in London it is alleged that Abu Qatada was directly involved in plots abroad, with the Jordanian government trying and sentencing him to life imprisonment in absentia for a bombing plot timed to coincide with the Millennium and investigators connecting him with terrorism cells in Spain, France, Italy and Belgium (Washington Post, July 10, 2005; Guardian, August 11, 2005). Both 9/11’s “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid sought religious advice from him and he was a known figure at the infamous Finsbury Park Mosque in London (BBC, February 26, 2007). Most ominously, tapes of his sermons were found in the Hamburg flat used by Muhammad Atta and others before the 9/11 attacks.
At various points, it has been claimed that Abu Qatada was an informant for Britain’s Security Service MI5, something that is sometimes pointed to as the reason for why Britain’s services failed to interdict him in the face of an apparent litany of allegations by continental European intelligence services . It is also claimed that during the mid-1990s, he met with MI5 agents and offered to help ensure that terrorist attacks would not take place in the UK (BBC, February 26, 2007). The final piece of evidence that is offered is the fact that he disappeared from MI5’s surveillance just before he was due to be arrested in December 2001, even though he was finally found elsewhere in London 10 months later, “a few minutes’ walk from MI5’s headquarters” . While on the run he remained in close contact with jihadists around the globe through the internet—apparently including Abu Musab al Zarqawi—as well as issuing a legal ruling justifying the 9/11 attacks.
The Wit and Wisdom of Abu Qatada
Amongst Britain’s radical preachers, Abu Qatada usually distinguished himself as the most erudite and productive in literary terms of “Londonistan’s unholy trinity.” Omar Nasiri, who worked undercover in London for British and French intelligence and attended a number of his lectures, identified him as “very intelligent [and] very learned,” speaking a language of jihad that Nasiri noted as “almost identical” to that used in the Afghan training camp he had attended . Qatada’s writing advocates the separation between the Muslim and non-Muslim world; his most cited text, Islamic Movements and Contemporary Alliances, details the dangerous development of Muslim “involvement in alliances with modern non-Islamic powers,” providing an analysis of numerous instances across the Muslim world where this has not worked .
He further expounds in his sermons on the concept of a “covenant of security” (aqd al-amaan), explaining that “the land of kufr is considered as a land of war. The exception is if the land has a contract with the Muslims.” However, he qualifies this by citing that “some scholars limit it to 10 years, and the reason they say this is in order for the Muslims to not abandon the jihad against the kuffar” . In other words, he offers a possible time limit for the covenant of security between Muslims and non-Muslims that was often offered as the justification for the lack of attacks in the UK before 7/7. From his new perch in Beirut, Omar Bakri Muhammad recently stated that he left the UK in August 2005 because he felt “the government had violated the ‘covenant of security’ that had hitherto guaranteed peace between Muslims and the British state” (Asia Times, June 12).
In a lengthy series of sermons entitled Sil silatul Iman (the Belief Series), Qatada lays out much of his belief structure. He opens by detailing the presence of three circles of Muslims within the Umma, beginning with “The Muslims,” in other words the 1 billion or so community around the globe, who have within them the more selective “Saved Sect” and finally within this sub-group, the “Victorious Sect” . He then goes on in great detail to answer a vast number of theological questions and definitions, before turning to the topic of jihad. In response to the question “What is required in order to establish an Islamic state?” Abu Qutada replied that “dignity is only established through jihad” . After a long series of detailed explanations, Abu Qutada justifies the use of jihad:
“It is jihad that breaths life into the ummah [Muslim community]. It is the jihad that distinguished the Muslim from the hypocrite. We must be proud that we are the tool that Allah uses against the kuffar to punish them. What is this life that’s so precious to us? It is worse than that of a dog, this humiliated and submissive life where the ummah is subjected to the worst of crimes, and groups still insist that Muslims should use peaceful measures in order to bring change. How ignorant!” 
Some have accused Abu Qatada of making permissible “the killing of women and children… [and] using other people’s money by any means, claiming that such monies were the spoils of war” . In the context of his Iman sermons, this does not seem too far off, as he concludes that the blood of both apostates and their women is halal (permissible) and “that the wealth that belongs to the group is permissible. Therefore you are permitted to steal it from them, and even assassinate its members” . To support this process of justification, Abu Qatada cites the 9th-10th century Persian Sunni historian Imam Tabari and 13th-14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taimiyah, a frequently cited authority for today’s Islamists.
In his ruling on the decision to release Abu Qatada, Justice Mitting stated: “The appellant represents a continuing and significant risk to national security,” and the Home Secretary has declared the government will fight this decision . Nonetheless, Abu Qatada now rests comfortably in West London in an £800,000 house, living with his family on welfare from the British government amounting to more than £50,000 a year (Daily Mail, June 23). For some this is merely a reflection of the “fair play” in the British legal system, however, it has left many counter-terrorism experts exasperated and raises concerns over how the UK will manage to deal with the 2,000 dangerous individuals currently under surveillance by the Security Services.
With the recent collapse of cases against “lyrical terrorist” Samina Malik and the so-called “Bradford Five,” the British legal system has shown it has a real problem in convicting individuals it alleges are domestic terrorists (Times, June 18; Guardian, February 14). The release to house arrest of Abu Qatada, one of the more infamous names in extremist literature around the globe, has merely reinforced the fact that this problem extends to foreigners in the UK as well. While an argument could be made that such rulings deflate Muslim perceptions of xenophobia in the British legal system, the reality is that very real security concerns are not going away and a quick read of many of the chatrooms or webpages frequented by British Muslims would indicate that British “fair play” is not filtering through to the community. The surprising release of Abu Qatada makes it clear that many fissures existing in the current system of dealing with domestic terrorist threats remain in need of repair.
1. Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, The Suicide Factory, (London: HarperCollins, 2006) p.109
2. Ibid, p.106
3. Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, (London: Hurst, 2007), p.188
4. Omar Nasiri, Inside the Global Jihad, (London: Hurst, 2006), p.272
5. O’Neill and McGrory, p.29
6. Ibid., p.151
7. Ibid., p.108
8. Nasiri, p.267
9. William McCants ed., Militant Ideology Atlas, (Combating Terrorism Center USMA, November 2006) www.ctc.usma.edu/atlas/Atlas-ResearchCompendium.pdf, p.119
10. Quoted here from a lengthy translation found at a number of online sources by unidentified individuals entitled “Iman Series,” http://rapidshare.com/files/123839081/Iman_series.pdf.html, p.64
11. Ibid., p.12
12. Ibid, p.55
13. Ibid., p.69
14. Shaykh Abdul Maalik ibn Ahmad ibn Mubaarak ar-Ramadaanee al-Jazaa’iree, The Savage Barbarism of Aboo Qataadah, www.salafimanhaj.com/pdf/SalafiManhajQataadah.pdf, p.11
15. “Iman Series,” p.82
16. Special Immigration Appeal Commission ruling, http://www.siac.tribunals.gov.uk/Documents/outcomes/Othman_O_BailRuling_WebCopy.pdf