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Profile: Sean O’Niell
Sean O’Niell was a participant or observer in the following events:
Djamel Beghal, who authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will call “al-Qaeda’s man in Paris,” leaves France and moves to London. He makes the move due to his dissatisfaction with life in France, because of the anti-Islamist climate in Paris and because of poor personal circumstances. On arrival in Britain, he rents properties in Leicester, in central England, and in London, where he begins to frequent Finsbury Park mosque. In early 1997 the mosque becomes a hotbed of Islamist radicalism when it is taken over by Abu Hamza al-Masri, an informer for British intelligence (see Early 1997 and March 1997). Beghal becomes one of the key figures at the mosque, which he uses to recruit potential al-Qaeda operatives, including shoe bomber Richard Reid (see Spring 1998). One of his recruiting techniques is to constantly lecture impressionable young men and, according to O’Niell and McGrory, “A recurrent theme of [his] nightly lectures [is] to tell the young men sitting at his feet that there [is] no higher duty than to offer themselves for suicide missions.” Beghal also travels the world, going to Afghanistan at least once to meet senior al-Qaeda leaders, possibly even Osama bin Laden, who Beghal claims gives him a set of prayer beads as thanks for his work. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 86-87, 89-90]
The British domestic counterintelligence service MI5 meets with Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading British imam and informer (see Early 1997). After the exchange of “pleasantries,” Abu Hamza and his handler discuss his recent breach with the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), an Algerian militant group, which has been indiscriminately killing civilians (see Mid 1996-October 1997). The handler notes that “[Abu] Hamza is bowed but not broken,” and adds, “For him the jihad goes on, if not in Algeria then somewhere else.” Abu Hamza tells the MI5 officer that Britain “is seen as a place to fundraise and to propagate Islam.” Authors Daniel O’Neill and Sean McGrory will later comment, “The admission that Abu Hamza and his followers were using [Britain] to raise funds to finance terrorism overseas did not seem to cause a blip on the MI5 agent’s radar.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 145]
Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading London radical and informer for the security services (see Early 1997), tells his inner circle of his plans for the future. According to authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory, he “confide[s] to his inner circle at a meeting in his office in January 1998 that he [is] convinced it [is] his destiny to inspire a generation of jihadis [holy warriors]. It [does] not matter how young they [are]; he [is] convinced that the sooner he [has] the chance to influence juvenile minds, the better.” The authors will attribute this to the fact that he “yearn[s] to run [al-Qaeda’s] British franchise.” Numerous intelligence services have informers inside the mosque, and may learn of Abu Hamza’s intentions. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 79, 84]
London’s Finsbury Park mosque hosts a lecture by a young radical who has trained in South Asia and fought in Kashmir, a region claimed by both India and Pakistan. The mosque is run by Abu Hamza al-Masri, an informer for British intelligence (see Early 1997), and he intends the talk to be part of the process of enticing radical Muslims to go and actually fight abroad. One of the group of about 40 listeners, Salman Abdullah, will later tell reporters about the evening. Following an introduction by Abu Hamza, the fighter—referred to only as Mohammed and himself a former attendee at the mosque—tells the listeners about his travel to South Asia, his training there, and then how he saw action in held Kashmir. He is praised highly by Abu Hamza for taking this final step and not just getting training.
'The Gullible and Confused' - Authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will describe what Abu Hamza was doing: “Abdullah and the others were entranced, and Abu Hamza looked on contentedly. This is what he did best—open the door to jihadi groups around the world. Recruitment is a gradual process, and it begins crucially with manipulators like Abu Hamza. He takes the raw material, the gullible and confused, and decides whether these young minds and bodies can be shaped at training camps abroad, then sent on terror missions or employed to do other chores for the cause of Islamist extremism.”
'A Stepping Stone to Holy War' - O’Niell and McGrory will add: “Abu Hamza’s role at Finsbury Park was to instil self-belief among these boys, inflame them with his rhetoric and make them feel they had a purpose in life, namely to pursue the tested course he and other militants mapped out for them. Teenagers like Abdullah [were]… steered… to academies like Finsbury Park, which was fast earning a reputation as a magnet for radicals. Abu Hamza regarded his mosque as a stepping stone to holy war. Waiting inside Finsbury Park for the new arrivals were talent-spotters, men who had trained in Afghanistan or other war zones and whose job now was to weed out the poseurs and exhibitionists from the boys who might be some use.”
Under Surveillance - O’Niell and McGrory will also point out: “Foreign intelligence services knew this selection process was happening within months of Abu Hamza taking over in north London in March 1997. They had their own informants inside.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 76-79]
After being recruited to fight for radical Muslim causes by British intelligence informer and radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri (see Early 1997, August 1998, and August 1998 or Shortly After), Salman Abdullah leaves London and travels to Pakistan. One of Abu Hamza’s aides gives him an airline ticket, £700 in cash (about US$1,100), and a phone number in Islamabad to call when he arrives. He is taken by a contact for a month’s hard training, and then brought back to central Pakistan. Finally, he goes to the disputed region of Kashmir for three months and spends his time there “engaged in sporadic firefights” against Indian forces. Authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will comment: “Abdullah’s tour of duty guaranteed him a hero’s welcome on his return to north London. His stature as a ‘jihadi’ meant that Abu Hamza could employ him in a new role, as a propagandist, inciting others to follow his path.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 81-82]
British authorities learn of the arrest of top Islamist militant Djamel Beghal in Dubai (see July 24 or 28, 2001), and the CIA tells them that an operative behind a plot Beghal is helping organize, a bombing of the US embassy in Paris, has arrived in Britain. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 157] It is unknown who the operative behind the plot is and what action British authorities take on the matter, but arrests of people linked to Beghal and his associates are made around Europe in the next few months (see September 13, 2001, September 26, 2001 and March 2000-September 22, 2001). Beghal has been active in Britain for some time, in particular at London’s radical Finsbury Park mosque, which is under surveillance by the British (see 1997), and a group of his associates are arrested in Britain one day after his capture is made public (see March 2000-September 22, 2001). However, no action is taken against one of his key associates, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is an informer for the British (see Early 1997). Authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will comment: “Despite Beghal’s clear links to operations in London and Leicester, however, there was no search of the [mosque] building and no attempt to arrest the chief recruiter [Abu Hamza] who had led the prayers there. The mosque continued to be at the centre of jihad recruitment.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 94]
The assets of leading Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri are frozen by the Bank of England. This follows a designation by the United Nations that Abu Hamza is a person associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, the freeze has little practical effect on Abu Hamza, who has been an informer for the British security services for some time (see Early 1997). Authors Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will comment: “This grandiose announcement meant that the Bank of England ordered a freeze on any bank accounts held in his name, and all welfare benefits he was entitled to receive were stopped. The sanctions sounded severe, but in practical terms they made little difference to Abu Hamza. The five-bedroom house in Shepherd’s Bush where he lived with his five youngest children was rented by Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the name of his wife Nagat, who obtained full British citizenship in 1997.” This means that Abu Hamza is able to keep his house, which will be renovated at the council’s expense in 2004. The British government also continues to meet his wife’s rent and council tax payments. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 73; Times (London), 10/12/2006]
Raid on Finsbury Park Mosque. [Source: BBC]The Metropolitan Police mount an early morning raid on Finsbury Park mosque, sending in 200 officers.
Decision to Launch - The raid is primarily the result of intelligence about Kamal Bourgass, a man implicated in an alleged ricin plot (see September 18, 2002-January 3, 2003). Bourgass was in possession of an envelope with instructions in Arabic for manufacturing poisons and explosives, as well as lists of chemicals, discovered by police during a raid in Wood Green days earlier (see January 5, 2003). These “poison recipes” were in Bourgass’s writing, and the envelope had the address of the Finsbury Park Mosque with the name of “Nadir,” an alias used by Bourgass. [Observer, 4/17/2005; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 254] Like other illegal immigrants, Bourgass had used the mosque as a place to stay and as his postal address for correspondence with the immigration service. He had stayed there in the weeks before his attempts to make ricin were discovered. [BBC, 2/7/2006] In addition, one of many suspects detained by the police around Britain at this time tells police that the photocopier in the mosque’s office had been used to copy some “recipes” written by Bourgass. Other suspects detained have links to the mosque, and have worked or slept there. Finally, two suspects the police want to detain are known to sleep in the mosque’s basement.
High-Level Approval - Due to the politically sensitive nature of the operation, it is approved in advance by Prime Minister Tony Blair, Home Secretary David Blunkett, and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In the 24 hours before the raid, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens says publicly that many terrorists are under surveillance and Blunkett says he is happy for counterterrorist units to take “whatever steps necessary, controversial, or otherwise.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 254-256]
Searches, Discoveries - Armored officers batter down the doors to begin days of searches. In addition, they make seven arrests. After the trial and conviction of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri for hate crimes in February 2006, police will reveal their discoveries from the raid. The police uncover chemical weapons protection suits, pistols, CS spray, and a stun gun. Other military paraphernalia include a gas mask, handcuffs, hunting knives, and a walkie-talkie. The police also find more than 100 stolen or forged passports and identity documents, credit cards, laminating equipment, and checkbooks hidden in the ceiling and under rugs, as well as more than $6,000 in cash. A senior police officer will say, “The fact that they were happy to keep this sort of stuff in the building is an indication of how safe and secure they felt they were inside.” Authors Daniel McGrory and Sean O’Neill will comment, “This was exactly the kind of material that informants like Reda Hassaine had told the intelligence services about years before” (see 1995-April 21, 2000).
Afterwards - Despite the haul, Abu Hamza is neither arrested nor interviewed, although police believe he must have known what was going on. The items seized will not be mentioned at his trial, or, with the exception of the photocopier, the ricin trial. However, they lead to police inquiries in 26 countries, which McGrory and O’Neill will call “a clear indication of the reach and influence of the terrorist networks operating out of Finsbury Park.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 260-262; BBC, 2/7/2006]
During the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui (see March 6-May 4, 2006 and March 27, 2006), there will be some mentions of his time in London, where he was radicalized and linked up with other militants. However, numerous questions about his actions and associates there remain unanswered. Journalists Sean O’Niell and Daniel McGrory will later comment, “US intelligence knew Moussaoui was a product of Finsbury Park mosque, but during his nearly four months in court nobody asked him about his relationship with [extremist cleric and British informer] Abu Hamza, or about those who were at the mosque at the same time as him, and what became of them. Those secrets Moussaoui takes to his eight-by-five-foot cell.” They add, “The publicity given to his spurious boast [that he wanted to hijack a fifth plane] meant that prosecutors paid little attention to other aspects of his testimony, particularly his measured account of how his time at Finsbury Park had shaped his beliefs and steered him and his ‘brothers’ towards al-Qaeda. Nobody asked who these ‘brothers’ were. Nor did they inquire who their leader in London was, and what role that person played in introducing them to al-Qaeda and its emerging network of training camps.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 92, 223]
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