From Bethlehem to Belmarsh: Abu Qatada’s ordeal in Britain

The witchunt against Abu Qatada simply reiterates the British Government's relationships with dictatorships – past and present

Until the devastating 11 September attacks the name of Abu Qatada al-Falastini (the Palestinian) was relatively obscure in western circles.

Born in Bethlehem in the West Bank in 1960 Omar Mahmoud Othman, like numerous Palestinians, became part of the diaspora in neighbouring Jordan.  After living in different Middle Eastern countries where he studied various Islamic doctrines Othman (Abu Qatada) came to the UK in 1993 and was soon granted leave to remain. 

Abu Qatada may have hailed from the occupied West Bank but it was events elsewhere that brought his controversial fataawa (Islamic edicts) during the mid-90s to light. It is this link to Abu Qatada’s history that British politicians and the media have regarded with disturbingly myopic vision.

In 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win elections in Algeria after gaining immense popularity with the public. Fearing an imminent Islamic takeover the National Liberation Front (FLN) government cancelled elections and power was handed over to the military. FIS was outlawed and thousands of its members were imprisoned. Characteristically, France, Britain and the US remained silent and continued their support for the Algerian Government. 

After severe crackdowns FIS took up arms against the government and a brutal civil war ensued during which an estimated 200, 000 people were killed – including many civilians. The situation spiralled out of control after atrocities were committed by government forces “dressing up as Islamists” and carrying out massacres and rapes in areas suspected of harbouring rebels in order to deplete support for FIS. Abu Qatada, like many Islamic scholars, was supporting the rebels and had become something of a spiritual icon for the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a faction that had broken off from FIS after it entered negotiations with the Government. It was in the light of these atrocities that Abu Qatada quoted a 13th century fatwa which argued that if the enemy is targeting women and children then the threat to reciprocate is permissible.

The GIA, however, became increasingly intolerant and often cited Abu Qatada’s edicts as a justification for its barbarity. As a result, Abu Qatada formerly relinquished his support for the organisation and issued a statement against the GIA.

It is clear that Abu Qatada became something of a spiritual leader for Islamic groups around the world but his influence has been highly inflated by the media and various governments. Despite that, Algerian authorities have not indicted him for any offence and neither did they seek his extradition.

In 2000 Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia in Jordan as part of the millennium bomb plot in Amman. He argues that confessions obtained against him were extracted under torture. However, even then his extradition was not immediately sought by Jordanian authorities and, more importantly he was not arrested in the UK. Instead, up until and even after the September 11 attacks British intelligence maintained links with Abu Qatada through his friend Bisher al-Rawi. 

Al-Rawi, in his words, was attempting to “try to help with steps necessary to get a meeting between Abu Qatada and MI5. I was trying to bring them together. MI5 would give me messages to take to Abu Qatada, and Abu Qatada would give me messages to take back to them.” For his efforts Bisher al-Rawi, along with Jamil El-Banna, was detained on a business trip to Gambia and extraordinarily rendered to the Dark Prison, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. In all these places both men were interrogated hundreds of times about their links to Abu Qatada. Both Al-Rawi and El-Banna were released without charge after several years and eventually won a large out-of-court settlement against the British Government.

In 2002, Abu Qatada was arrested and held without charge in Belmarsh prison under emergency antiterrorism measures alongside several other Middle Eastern foreign nationals. In 2005 the House of Lords ruled that the men’s detention had been "unconstitutional" and several of them, including Abu Qatada, were released under the highly restrictive control order program. After the London bombings, focus again was placed on Abu Qatada and this time Britain began seeking Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) that individuals would not be tortured or subjected to arbitrary detention if returned, incredibly, from countries known to practice torture and detention without trial.  They included Algeria, Libya and Jordan.

Abu Qatada has since been widely reported as “the head of the mujahedeen in Europe”, “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man” and “Al-Qaeda’s European ambassador.” The man who originally made these claims was Spanish judge Balthazar Garzon. Garzon was this week convicted in a Spanish court for attempting to pervert the cause of justice. It is very concerning that the media and senior British Government members repeat this man’s claims without offering any evidence. 

The same was done with a certain Abu Zubaydah held in Guantanamo. He too was convicted in absentia for a bomb plot in Jordan and President George W. Bush touted him as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man.” After years of interrogation and torture in secret CIA sites the position on Abu Zubaydah eventually changed with the US Government admitting that he was never a member of Al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly Abu Zubyadah, like Abu Qatada has also never been charged with a crime.

What’s missing in all the discussion around Abu Qatada – is Abu Qatada. From the time of his initial arrest in 2002 until now the only statements the public has heard from him have been his calls for the release of British hostages abroad. In 2005 he made an appeal for Norman Kember, a peace activist taken hostage by militants in Iraq. To return the favour Mr.Kember provided bail security for Abu Qatada in 2008 – when he was released from prison for a short while. Abu Qatada also made a plea for the release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston who was kidnapped in 2009 by gunmen in Palestine. The BBC has been attacked for reportedly asking its staff to not refer to Abu Qatada as an extremist.

If Abu Qatada is the “truly dangerous individual” that the Special Immigration and Appeals Commission (SIAC) judge claimed him to be, there are some serious questions the Government must answer about him:

  1. Why in over ten years has Abu Qatada never been questioned by the police or intelligence services?
  2. Why can no one produce any evidence against Abu Qatada at a time when Britain has more antiterrorism legislation in place than it did at the height of the IRA campaign?
  3. Why has the terrorism threat level in this country not decreased since Abu Qatada, who constitutes such a “threat to national security”, has been in custody?

David Cameron and King Abdullah of Jordan have agreed to work on finding a "solution" to the Abu Qatada case. Although King Abdullah is no Gaddafi he is not the people’s choice either. Similar discussions were had between Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi regarding Libyan dissidents in Britain – and elsehwere – before the latter fell out of favour. But look what happened? Rendition victims and former prisoners once deemed terrorist by tyrants, just like Nelson Mandela, have taken power all across the Arab world. Jordan’s neighbour Syria, is next on the list.

Britain had close relations with all the despotic regimes in the Middle East until the people rose up and threw off the yoke of the dictators. The answer in every country has been shown through the ballot box, as well as the bullet, with Islamic parties unanimously carrying the day. From the old guard (exclduing the Gulf states) there is only really Jordan and Syria left and the latter’s leader’s days are numbered. It may be true that monarchies installed by the British during the last century may be more resistant to change but even in places like Morocco and Jordan Islamic political parties are clearly the most powerful, and rising. 

The case of Abu Qatada has thrown up all the old prejudices in one within the British state: racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, hatred of asylum seekers, hypocritical foreign policy, discontent with Britain’s own laws and, with being part of the European Union.

Abu Qatada is at present held in the Detainee Unit of HMP Long Lartin alongside people like Adel Abdul Bary, Khalid Al-Fawwaz, Syed Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad. The common factor between all these Muslim men is that they have been held in British prisons collectively for over 45 years – without charge –  in the land of habeas corpus and the Magna Carta. At least in the case of Abu Qatada the European courts, and even SIAC have finally recognised this.

At a time when this country has been caught red-handed co-operating with both democratic allies and dictators of old, with unprecedented criminal and civil actions against its intelligence services, it would be a truly short-sighted move to build even more co-operation based on old alliances. Britain should have talked to the Islamic parties in Algeria instead of backing the military dictatorships against them. Britain should talk to Abu Qatada properly while he’s still here. There won’t be much point once he’s thrown into a dungeon in Amman; and, even less so if he’s liberated by victorious rebels we might be forced to back against our one-time friends.

This article was first published on 10th February 2012 and has been reposted due to current situation.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)