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Context of 'December 27, 1998: British Informer Abu Hamza Involved in Militant Plot to Abduct Western Tourists in Yemen'

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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

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

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

Ten alleged operatives of the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) go on trial in Aden, Yemen. Six of the men were arrested in December (see December 23, 1998), whereas four are arrested on the first day of the trial (see January 27, 1999).
Defendants - The men, eight Britons and two Algerians who previously lived in Britain, are linked to radical British imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, an informer for the British security services (see Early 1997). For example, they include his son Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, his stepson Mohsin Ghalain, and Shahid Butt, an aide. The men initially confess, but later claim that the confessions were beaten out of them (see January 1999). Abu Hamza has numerous links to the IAA and spoke on the phone to its operational commander during a kidnapping organized to secure the release of the first six men captured (see (June 1998), October 1998, December 27, 1998, December 28-29, 1998, and December 28, 1998 and After).
British Links - The trial focuses on the men’s connections to Abu Hamza, as the Yemeni government places the blame for its domestic troubles on outside influences. The first sentence the prosecutor utters is, “This offence started in London in the offices of SoS [Supporters of Shariah] which is owned by Abu Hamza and who exports terrorism to other countries.”
Trial Descends into Chaos - The first day sets the pattern for the proceedings. The men’s translator mistakenly says the prosecutor is seeking the death sentence, and the court descends into uproar, leading to an adjournment after just 50 minutes. According to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, the trial is further marred by “constant interruptions, endless adjournments, inexplicable delays, and time-wasting.” However, a “drip-feed” of incriminating information from the men’s confessions and the evident links between Abu Hamza and the IAA turns the tide in favor of the prosecution.
Men Sentenced - All the men are found guilty. Ghalain and Malik Nasser are given the heaviest sentences of seven years. Butt gets five years for being a member of a terrorist gang, but Kamel only gets three. O’Niell and McGrory will comment: “Every few minutes the judgement was punctuated by mentions of Abu Hamza, who the court was satisfied was deserving of most of the blame. That day his name, and not those of his followers, dominated the local headlines.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 177-184]

Entity Tags: Mohammed Kamel Mostafa, Malik Nasser, Shahid Butt, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Mohsin Ghalain

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohdar Abdullah.Mohdar Abdullah. [Source: San Diego Union-Tribune]Mohdar Abdullah, a friend of future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar when they live in San Diego, allegedly learns about the hijackers’ attack plans in early 2000. Abdullah helps Alhazmi and Almihdhar adjust to life in the US when they first arrive in San Diego. Abdullah speaks English well, and Alhazmi only speaks a little English and Almihdhar virtually none at all.
Alleged Prison Confessions - While imprisoned in the US in 2003 on minor charges, Abdullah will reportedly brag to other prisoners that he knew the two hijackers were planning a terrorist attack (see September 2003-May 21, 2004). According to one prisoner, Abdullah claims he had been told by an unnamed individual that Alhazmi and Almihdhar would be arriving in Los Angeles to carry out an attack before they arrived there on January 15, 2000 (see January 15, 2000). According to another prisoner, Abdullah claims that after Alhazmi and Almihdhar arrived in San Diego, they told him they planned to fly an airplane into a building and they invited him to join in the attack. Abdullah’s prison boasts will not be completely verified by the FBI. However, Abdullah will admit to the FBI that he knew of the hijackers’ extremist beliefs and that he was involved in the Islamic Army of Aden, a militant group in Yemen with al-Qaeda ties (see 1996-1997 and After and Around October 12, 2000). The 9/11 Commission will later comment, “Abdullah clearly was sympathetic to those extremist views.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 218-219]
Distantly Related to Almihdhar? - Abdullah is a Yemeni citizen, and after 9/11, it will be reported that the name in his Yemeni passport is actually Mohammed al-Mihdhar. Authorities don’t believe he is closely related to Khalid Almihdhar, but he could belong to the same tribe or clan. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/21/2001] There is evidence that Abdullah cases the Los Angeles airport in June 2000 with Alhazmi (see June 10, 2000), and he appears to know about the timing of the 9/11 attacks several weeks in advance (see Late August-September 10, 2001).

Entity Tags: Islamic Army of Aden, Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Mohdar Abdullah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

October 12, 2000: USS Cole Bombed by Al-Qaeda

Damage to the USS Cole.Damage to the USS Cole. [Source: Department of Defense]The USS Cole is bombed in the Aden, Yemen harbor by two al-Qaeda militants, Hassan al-Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar (a.k.a. Nibras). Seventeen US soldiers are killed and 30 are wounded. The CIA will later conclude that with just slightly more skilled execution, the attack would have killed 300 and sunk the ship. [ABC News, 10/13/2000; Coll, 2004, pp. 532; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 191] The Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) immediately takes credit for the attack. This is a Yemen-based Muslim militant group widely believed to have close ties to al-Qaeda (see 1996-1997 and After). [Guardian, 10/14/2000] The IAA statement is released by its spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Masri (see Early 1997, (June 1998), and December 28, 1998 and After). Abu Hamza says that the attack was timed to mark the anniversary of the execution of the IAA’s former commander (see October 17, 1999). [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 184] The prime minister of Yemen at the time of the bombing will say shortly after 9/11, “The Islamic Army was part of al-Qaeda.” [Guardian, 10/13/2001] The US soon learns the names of some al-Qaeda operatives involved in the attack, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Tawfiq bin Attash and Fahad al-Quso (see Early December 2000), and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see November-December 2000). 9/11 hijackers Ramzi bin al-Shibh (see October 10-21, 2000) and Khalid Almihdhar (see Around October 12, 2000) may also have been involved. This is a repeat of a previously attempted attack, against the USS The Sullivans, which failed and was apparently undetected (see January 3, 2000). [Los Angeles Times, 12/22/2002] The 9/11 Commission will later say the Cole bombing “was a full-fledged al-Qaeda operation, supervised directly by bin Laden. He chose the target and location of the attack, selected the suicide operatives, and provided the money needed to purchase explosives and equipment.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 190]

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Khallad bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Islamic Army of Aden, USS Cole, Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim al-Thawar, Khalid Almihdhar, Fahad al-Quso, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Hassan al-Khamri, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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