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Context of 'December 23, 1998: British Radicals Arrested in Yemen; Apparently Intended to Carry out Bomb Plot'

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Abu Hamza.Abu Hamza. [Source: Ian Waldie / Reuters / Corbis]London-based imam Abu Hamza al-Masri starts working with two branches of the British security services, the police’s Special Branch and MI5, the domestic counterintelligence service. The relationships continue for several years and there are at least seven meetings between Abu Hamza and MI5 between 1997 and 2000 (see October 1, 1997, November 20, 1997, and September 1998). Based on records of the meetings, authors Daniel O’Neill and Sean McGrory will describe the relationship as “respectful, polite, and often cooperative.”
Rhetoric - One theme in the meetings, which take place at Abu Hamza’s home and a mosque he runs in Finsbury Park, is that the security services tell Abu Hamza that they do not want any trouble and ask him to tone down some of his more inflammatory comments. Abu Hamza listens politely, but always replies he is committed to jihad. However, over this period Abu Hamza’s rhetoric changes subtly, and he begins attacking “Zionists,” rather than simply “Jews.” Abu Hamza will later say that he asks security officers if his sermons are inappropriate, and they reply, “No, freedom of speech, you don’t have to worry unless we see blood on the streets.”
Information - Abu Hamza provides the security services with information about the ideology of various extremist factions, as well as “tidbits” of information about others, although in one case he provides specific intelligence that leads to the detention of two terrorist suspects. He also likes to “tell tales” about one of his rival preachers, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, and his Al-Muhajiroun organization.
Favors - Sometimes Abu Hamza asks for favors from his handlers. For example, on one occasion he requests the release of some associates after promising that they are not a threat in Britain.
Beyond the Reach of British Law - Abu Hamza will tell his aides that he is “beyond the reach of British law,” and will neglect to pay the mosque’s electricity and water bills. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “Increasingly, Abu Hamza acted as if Finsbury Park had divorced itself from Britain and was operating as an independent Muslim state. He contacted extremist groups, offering his services as an ambassador for them in [Britain] and presenting the mosque as a place of guaranteed asylum.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 96-97, 143-5]

Entity Tags: UK Security Service (MI5), Sean O’Neill, Daniel McGrory, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, Special Branch (Britain)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Police stop a car carrying supporters of Abu Hamza al-Masri on their way back from a paramilitary training camp in Wales. The supporters include Mohsin Ghalain, Abu Hamza’s stepson, and Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, his son. Abu Hamza, an informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), began setting up training camps and courses in Britain the previous year to prepare his supporters to fight for Muslim causes abroad (see (Mid-1997)). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will point out that the police followed the men’s car for some time before it was stopped and, “The authorities clearly had this group on a watch-list.” The police search the car, making remarks indicating they expect to find firearms. However, none are found, as the weapons were given to the men’s trainers, ex-soldiers in the British army, after the end of the course. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 84] Ghalain and Mostafa will later attempt to carry out terrorist attacks in Yemen, but will be thwarted (see December 23, 1998).

Entity Tags: Abu Hamza al-Masri, Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, Mohsin Ghalain

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading British imam and an informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), concludes an agreement with Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, leader of the Yemen-based Islamic Army of Aden, who he had met in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Abu Hamza sends followers for low-key militant training in Britain (see (Mid-1997) and (1998)), but this training consists of little more than survival courses and he needs a location where firearms can be used more freely. Therefore, Almihdhar agrees to provide training in Yemen, at a cost of £1,200 (about $1,800) per group of trainees. In return, Abu Hamza agrees to act as his press spokesman, and gives him a satellite phone costing £2,000 (about $3,200). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later describe the training: “The climate was brutal, the food inedible, and most of [the British recruits] complained that they missed their computer games and creature comforts. They got to ride horses, fire off several rounds of ammunition from an automatic rifle, and were instructed how to rig explosive devices by men who had fought in Afghanistan. They were also taught what else they would need to do to kill hundreds of innocents in an attack planned for Christmas day.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 157-158, 162, 164-165] A group of Abu Hamza’s supporters who travel to Yemen for militant training with Almihdhar will later be arrested by police (see December 23, 1998) and Abu Hamza and Almihdhar will talk on the satellite phone during a kidnapping organized to engineer their release (see December 28-29, 1998).

Entity Tags: Abu Hamza al-Masri, Islamic Army of Aden, Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Supporters of Shariah, a radical organization run by leading British imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, issue a threat of attacks in Yemen. The threat, described by authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory as a “blustering communiqué,” is published in the group’s October 1998 newsletter. In language that is “juvenile and insulting,” the US military and other “unbelievers” are warned to leave Yemen or suffer the consequences. Abu Hamza, an informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), has recently started working with the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA—see (June 1998)), a Yemen-based militant organization. The IAA will be near to implementing a massive plot in December involving close associates of Abu Hamza (see Before December 23, 1998 and December 23, 1998), but it is unclear if Abu Hamza is aware of this plot at the time the communiqué is published. Abu Hamza will follow up in the next month’s newsletter with more of the same, accusing a country he refers to as the “United Snakes of America” of plotting “a secret operation to target Muslim fundamentalists in the region.” He adds: “We see this as a powerful detonator for Muslims to explode in the faces of the Snakes of America. This will hopefully trigger a domino effect in the Peninsula. As observers have seen the more frequent explosions in the land of Yemen in the last four months, especially in the crude oil pipeline which is the blood for the American vampires.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 164]

Entity Tags: Abu Hamza al-Masri, Islamic Army of Aden, Supporters of Shariah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Islamic Army of Aden (IAA), a local militant group linked to al-Qaeda (see Early 2000 and October 12, 2000), plots a series of strikes against Western-related targets in Aden, Yemen. According to the Yemeni authorities, the plot encompasses:
bullet An attack on the Movenpick hotel, which is used by Western tourists and had already been bombed in 1992 (see December 29, 1992);
bullet Firing rockets into a clinic in the grounds of Aden’s only Christian church;
bullet Murdering British diplomats at the British consulate;
bullet Attacks on the Al Shadhrawan nightclub;
bullet Hitting the UN office in Aden; and
bullet Attacking a hotel used by US troops.
However, the plot, headed by IAA leader Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, will be broken up on December 23, when six of the plotters linked to leading British imam Abu Hamza al-Masri are arrested by police in Aden (see December 23, 1998). [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 159-160]

Entity Tags: Islamic Army of Aden, Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A group of six young men are arrested in Yemen, where they are alleged to have been planning a series of bombings. Five of the men are British. They include Mohsin Ghalain, the stepson of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading radical cleric in Britain and informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), and Shahid Butt, Abu Hamza’s “six-foot four-inch enforcer.” The men are members of the militant Supporters of Sharia organization run by Abu Hamza and are in Yemen to work with the Islamic Army of Aden, a local radical organization and al-Qaeda affiliate.
Arrest Merely a Coincidence - The Yemeni government will say that they are arrested purely by coincidence, after the police notice a group of them committing a minor traffic violation. When their vehicle is found and searched following a chase, a cache of weapons and explosives is found in it.
Skepticism about Yemeni Claim - However, author Mary Quin will later comment: “Several aspects of the story about how the Britons were apprehended did not ring true. Having spent a week on Yemeni roads myself, it seemed highly unlikely that a police officer would bother to pull over a vehicle at midnight for something as mundane as going the wrong way around a traffic island.… The fact that the car happened to be stashed with weapons and explosives seemed too much of a coincidence. I was also suspicious of the reported speed with which the police located the two hotels where the defendants were staying.”
Informant Tip? - Instead, Quin will speculate that the Yemeni authorities were tipped off by an informer, Hetam bin Farid, who will later go on to command the Islamic Army of Aden (see (December 30, 1998-October 31, 1999)). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will also say that the timing of the arrests “suggest[s] that Yemeni intelligence services had prior warning of the bomb plot.” [Quin, 2005, pp. 103-4, 116; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 156-157, 176, 178-179]

Entity Tags: Supporters of Sharia, Islamic Army of Aden, Hetam bin Farid, Mohsin Ghalain, Shahid Butt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

According to Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, who will later head the Yemeni navy and be Yemen’s ambassador to Syria, men from the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) meet with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, half-brother of Yemen’s president Ali Abdallah Saleh. Al-Ahmar helped recruit Islamist radicals to fight in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War (see 1980-1990) and allegedly later received a payment from Osama bin Laden to help settle Afghan Arabs in Yemen (see May 21-July 7, 1994). The meeting follows the breaking up of an IAA plot to attack targets in Aden (see Before December 23, 1998 and December 23, 1998), and comes two days before the IAA takes Western hostages in an attempt to obtain the release of six recently arrested IAA operatives (see December 28-29, 1998). Al-Hasani will say, “Two days before the killings, members of the terrorist group were in al-Ahmar’s house in Sana’a,” the capital of Yemen. “They were also in telephone contact with Sana’a just before the shootings.” [Sunday Times (London), 5/8/2005] Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will write that during the kidnapping, IAA leader Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar “bark[s] out his demands for a prisoner swap over the telephone to a half-brother of Yemen’s President Saleh, among others.” Presumably, this half-brother is al-Ahmar. In addition, on the last day of the kidnapping Almihdhar tells a local dignitary, “We have contacts at the highest level and we are expecting a response from them at noon.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 159-160] Exactly what al-Ahmar knows of the kidnapping in advance, if anything, is unclear.

Entity Tags: Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Islamic Army of Aden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Army of Aden (see Early 2000 and October 12, 2000), telephones Abu Hamza al-Masri, a London-based imam and informer for the British security services (see Early 1997). Six operatives sent by Abu Hamza to Yemen for training had become involved in a bomb plot, but were arrested four days ago (see December 23, 1998). Almihdhar makes two calls to Abu Hamza, and tells him of the capture of the operatives, who include Abu Hamza’s stepson and former bodyguard. The two men apparently come up with a plan to capture some Western tourists, and Abu Hamza purchases more airtime worth £500 (about $800) for Almihdhar’s satellite phone. After the tourists are captured the next day (see December 28-29, 1998), Almihdhar will immediately telephone Abu Hamza and, according to one of the tourists’ drivers, say, “We’ve got the goods that were ordered, 16 cartons marked Britain and America.” This is not the only telephone contact between the two men, and authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will add, “What was apparent from the first hours of the hostage crisis was that the short-tempered [Almihdhar] needed the advice and reassurance of his spokesman in North London.” The calls are intercepted by the Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s wiretapping agency, using a base in Cyprus. Although the communications cannot be used in court under British law, they are useful to the intelligence services in determining what is going on between Almihdhar and Abu Hamza. However, the intercepts are also shared with the FBI, which will later indicate it may use them in a US prosecution of Abu Hamza stemming from the fact that two of the kidnap victims are American nationals. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 156-157, 161, 180]

Entity Tags: Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Government Communications Headquarters, Islamic Army of Aden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A group of 20 people, including 16 western tourists, are kidnapped in southern Yemen by the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA), an al-Qaeda affiliate. In return for releasing the hostages, IAA leader Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar demands the release of six IAA operatives arrested a few days earlier (see December 23, 1998). Almihdhar also makes further demands, including the release of more prisoners, an end to the US-led bombing of Iraq, and a change of government in Yemen. Knowing that it will be unable to meet all these demands and worried Almihdhar will carry out his threat to start executing the hostages, the day after the kidnapping the Yemen government sends in the army to rescue them, but four hostages die during the fighting. [Quin, 2005, pp. 31-62, 83, 126-7, 155-6, 200-1] Three of the militants are killed, and seven, including Almihdhar, are captured. However, some escape. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 168]
Motive - Hostage Mary Quin, who will write a book about the kidnapping, will later conclude that fear for the hostages’ safety is not the only motive for the attack by the army and that it is also a product of the government’s policy of attacking the IAA where possible. Yemen’s deputy foreign minister will comment: “We are not tolerating these groups. What happened in Abyan [where the hostages were held] was a reaction to a crackdown on these people.”
Link to Abu Hamza - Before and during the kidnapping, Almihdhar is in contact with the IAA’s spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Masri, in London, using a satellite phone Abu Hamza provided him with. One of the six operatives Almihdhar wants the government to release is Abu Hamza’s stepson. Almihdhar will be sentenced to death for his role, and most of the other kidnappers are also caught and punished (see October 17, 1999). The Yemen government later asks for the extradition of Abu Hamza, who has a relationship with British intelligence (see Early 1997), but the British government refuses (see January 1999). [Quin, 2005, pp. 31-62, 83, 126-7, 155-6, 200-1]
Relative of 9/11 Hijacker? - It will later be suggested that Almihdhar is a distant relative of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. [New York Times, 12/7/2001]

Entity Tags: Mary Quin, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, Islamic Army of Aden, Yemen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, the head of the Islamic Army of Aden, is captured in a failed hostage-taking operation (see December 28-29, 1998), one of his lieutenants, Hetam bin Farid, becomes its de-facto leader. However, bin Farid is arrested shortly after Almihdhar is executed (see October 17, 1999). At his trial, bin Farid will claim to be a police informer, although the judge will not accept this argument and will sentence him to seven years in prison. Bin Farid was involved in a plot to bomb targets in Yemen (see December 23, 1998), which was broken up by the police. Author Mary Quin, who will investigate the plot, will say that she does not believe the police’s account of the chance discovery of the plotters’ weapons, and speculate that bin Farid may have been telling the truth when he claimed to be an informer. [Quin, 2005, pp. 116, 127]

Entity Tags: Hetam bin Farid, Mary Quin, Islamic Army of Aden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Yemen asks Britain to hand over militant cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is wanted in connection with crimes committed by the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA—see December 23, 1998). [Quin, 2005, pp. 107] Although Abu Hamza has not yet been formally charged with a role in the plot, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh complains that he has been “planning and financing sabotage and bombings in Yemen.” Saleh also writes a personal letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to send the cleric to Yemen for trial. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 164, 172, 177] However, Britain says that it has not received a formal request for extradition. Author Mary Quin will later comment, “Since no extradition treaty exists between Yemen and Britain, it is unlikely that a formal request would have been made—but very likely that Yemen communicated its strong desire to lay its hands on the handless Hamza, one way or another.” Abu Hamza supports and funds jihad in Yemen and is the IAA’s spokesperson (see (June 1998)). In December 1998, one of the IAA’s demands in return for freeing kidnapped hostages was that Abu Hamza’s stepson be released from prison in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998). [Quin, 2005, pp. 107] As a result of the row between the two countries, on January 3 Britain announces that Yemen’s application to join the Commonwealth has been rejected, because it “does not meet the entry criteria on good governance.” Yemen responds that it does not care and it is withdrawing the application anyway. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 172]

Entity Tags: Mary Quin, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Islamic Army of Aden, Yemen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The trial of Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Army of Aden, begins. Almihdhar is on trial in connection with a bombing plot that some of his alleged operatives failed to carry off (see December 23, 1998) and a kidnapping he carried out in an attempt to get them freed (see December 28-29, 1998). The trial, which the authorities had predicted would last a mere 48 hours, drags on for months and Almihdhar turns it into a public relations exercise for himself. He is tried along with two other men; 11 more are tried in absentia.
Apparent Admissions - Upon arrival, Almihdhar breaks free from the guards and shouts an apparent admission: “I did everything in the name of God so I am sorry for nothing. I am very famous now, but let everyone know I only gave orders to kill the men not the women [during the kidnapping].” Upon entering the court, according to authors Daniel McGrory and Sean O’Neill, he “shrug[s] off his escort and swagger[s] into the wooden dock like a prize fighter entering the ring.” Asked if he feels remorse for one of the female victims being buried today, he says he does not, adding that neither is he concerned about her husband, who escaped: “If my pistol had not jammed he would be dead as well.” He also comments, “If I live I will kill some more.”
'More to Call On' - After the judge manages to persuade Almihdhar to listen to the charges he faces, he first denies knowing the operatives involved in the bombing plot, then turns to the public gallery and says he is angry they failed in their mission. He adds: “Don’t worry, others will come behind them. I have more to call on.”
Link to Abu Hamza - Much of the trial is focused on British radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who the Yemenis say is behind terror operations in Yemen. O’Neill and McGrory will write that Abu Hamza’s “spectre” hangs over the proceedings and that “[h]is name crop[s] up at every session, with prosecutors labouring the point that the real villain was not in the dock, only his footsoldiers.” Asked about his link to Abu Hamza, Almihdhar says: “He knows me, because I am very famous. Hamza takes orders from me. I don’t take them from him.”
Confession - He gives his profession as “a mujaheddin warrior working in the cause of God,” and then immediately launches into what McGrory and O’Neill call a 45-minute “harangue,” during which he reveals details of how he planned and carried out the kidnapping.
Sentenced to Death - Almihdhar will be sentenced to death at the end of the trial on May 5. The sentence will reportedly be carried out in October 1999, although some will suggest Almihdhar is not actually executed (see October 17, 1999). [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 173-176, 183]

Entity Tags: Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, Abu Hamza al-Masri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading London-based radical cleric and informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), calls for the overthrow of the government of Yemen, headed by President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This is part of a war of words after Yemen arrested Abu Hamza’s stepson and some other associates (see December 23, 1998) for allegedly planning attacks in Yemen. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 181]

Entity Tags: Abu Hamza al-Masri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Acting on a tip-off from a local sheikh, Yemeni security forces capture six men wanted on terrorism charges by Al Batan mountain, around 250 miles northeast of Aden. Four of the men are wanted in connection with a series of planned bombings in Yemen (see December 23, 1998). They are:
bullet Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, son of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a British militant leader and informer for the security services there (see Early 1997). Abu Hamza’s stepson is already in custody;
bullet Shazad Nabi, a British citizen;
bullet Ayaz Hussein, another British citizen; and
bullet Ali Meksen, an Algerian who apparently uses a number of false identities.
The other two are members of the Islamic Army of Aden, a local al-Qaeda affiliate. One is known as Abu Haraira, the other is Abdullah Salah al-Junaidi. Both had participated in a hostage-taking operation aimed at freeing six associates of the British men (see December 28-29, 1998). [Quin, 2005, pp. 107-108; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 177]

Entity Tags: Ayaz Hussein, Ali Meksen, Abu Haraira, Shazad Nabi, Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, Salah al-Junaidi, Islamic Army of Aden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism holds a hearing on the global reach of al-Qaeda and hears testimony from several intelligence community officers. One of them is Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to the FBI who was involved in several pre-9/11 failures (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, August 22, 2001, and August 24, 2001). Wilshire is described as the deputy chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section. In his opening remarks, Wilshire describes the “worldwide jihad movement,” which is “considered to be legitimate by many of our allies in terms of defense of Islam,” as a “multibillion effort” active in, for example, Chechnya, Bosnia, and the Philippines. Although some of the “tributaries” to the movement are “somehow legitimate,” al-Qaeda is “one of the most significant off-shoots,” and views the US as “the stabilising mechanism that allows the regimes that [Osama] bin Laden views to be corrupt [such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia] and to stay in power.” Wilshire also says that one of bin Laden’s goals was to provoke a “land war in Afghanistan,” although he perhaps did not anticipate it taking its current form. He discusses how al-Qaeda has changed over the years, the bayat oath of loyalty to bin Laden, and numbers of operatives: he puts the organization’s “elite” in the hundreds, but says it also has “small thousands” fighting in places like Afghanistan and Chechnya, as well as “thousands” more around the world, although perhaps “their skill level is not as high.” He also discusses a recently released videotape in which a man thought to be bin Laden said the “muscle” hijackers did not know they were on a suicide mission until the last minute (see Mid-November 2001), and calls bin Laden “very charismatic.” Wilshire adds that radical Islamists have looked at the possibility of setting up training camps in the US, but that it is easier for them to have introductory training in Europe, which was the case of a group of British citizens arrested in Yemen (see December 23, 1998). Finally, he says that al-Qaeda is linked to Abu Sayyaf, which is not just a local Filipino group and falls under “outside influence.” [US Congress. Senate. Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, 12/18/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Terrorism Operations Section, Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, Tom Wilshire

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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