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Tuesday, January 17, 2012 

The man who knows too much.

There's something about Abu Qatada that truly terrifies the authorities in this country. Fast approaching the tenth anniversary of his initial arrest, he's spent the past decade either in Belmarsh, first under the notorious law introduced after 9/11 that allowed for the indefinite detention with charge of non-British citizens; at his home under a control order with a 14 or 22 hour curfew; and latterly, having been accused of trying to escape from this purgatory purely on the back of secret evidence which he couldn't challenge, held at Long Lartin. Unlike Babar Ahmed, who has now been held without charge awaiting deportation to America for the last 8 years and has had a high profile campaign calling for his trial in this country, hardly anyone has been prepared to speak up for the man also known as Omar Othman.

This is not exactly surprising. Having been described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe by a Spanish judge, something noted at the beginning of almost every report on the latest legal movement in his case, and as a spiritual leader to al-Qaida when that detail is overlooked, you don't tend to receive much in the way of positive press. His case certainly isn't helped by his proximity to those other notorious Islamists, Abu Hamza and Abu Bakri Mohammed, nor by the speeches and lectures he gave which were favourites among those who went on to take part in terrorist attacks. His interview with Panorama back in 2001, reposted today, is deeply ambiguous and can be taken by both critics and those (very few) speaking in his defence as being either evidence of his general extremist views or his limiting of what is permissible under certain circumstances. Far easier to interpret is a supposed statement from him published on jihadist forums in 2009, where he makes reference to meeting Bilal Abdullah, convicted of the Glasgow airport and Tiger Tiger failed bomb attacks:

"Dr. Bilal Abdullah is a true man of Islam from all points of views; for he is knowledgeable, proficient, and resolute. I was humbled when I heard him say to me: "I was very influenced by your taped lectures.'"

The prison service for its part denied that Qatada was managing to smuggle out or issue any such communiques, although how reliable that claim is when there's a whole interview that was conducted with him also online is debatable.

Nonetheless, described by the reliable Will McCants as one of the most influential jihadi ideologues and having played a huge role in the development of contemporary takfirism, what is clear is that he was in the past an important figure to many involved in extremist Islam. Entirely opaque by contrast is his past involvement with the security services. Along with Abu Bakri, there is much debate about just how far his dealings went with MI5. Bakri has always claimed that he had a deal, described either as a covenant of security or a covenant of peace, whereby as long as he and his groupings did not advocate attacks in this country itself they would be left relatively alone. The only documentation we have which describes Qatada's interactions with MI5 is in the first ruling by SIAC (PDF), where the officer records in the second of his interviews with Qatada that "he came the closest he had to offering to assist me in any investigation of Islamic extremism", following it up by saying he would ‘report anyone damaging the interests of this country’. The officer came away from the third interview believing he had intimated that he "expected him to use that influence, wherever he could, to control the hotheads and ensure terrorism remained off the streets of London and throughout the United Kingdom". According to SIAC there were no further meetings.

This seems doubtful, especially when we consider the highly related cases of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna. Al-Rawi had become friends with Qatada, and following 9/11 agreed to help MI5 keep tabs on him. When Qatada went into hiding after the passing of the indefinite detention bill, al-Rawi was one of the few who knew where he was, and attempted to arrange a meeting between the two, Qatada pulling out at the last minute. His usefulness apparently over, MI5 said he could leave the country and go to Gambia, only for them to pass on fabricated material to the CIA saying they had taken bomb parts along on the journey. The result was their incarceration in Guantanamo Bay for 4 years.

At best then, it seems reasonable to believe Qatada has information which would highly embarrass MI5 should he have to be tried in the UK. At worst, he could be able to sing like the proverbial canary: if his meetings went far beyond what has so far been disclosed, it could well make the previous accusations of Londonistan look tame. As Richard Norton-Taylor also points out, and as was highlighted by the search for relevant documents following the bid for compensation by those who claimed they had been rendered to Guantanamo Bay with the connivance of MI5 and SIS, it will also be both extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming. Only last week it was announced that no one would face prosecution over their role in that policy. Avoiding a repeat of even the chance of that unpleasantness starting all over again, with all it involves for the reputation of the security services must be high on the list of priorities.

Moreover, it seems incredible considering the amount of material available that a prosecution couldn't be brought against Qatada here. The aforementioned SIAC ruling mentions that "he is reliably reported as having made a speech at a gathering in the Four Feathers Mosque in which he gave a blessing to the killing of Jews", the kind of incitement to racial hatred, or even incitement to murder which enabled the conviction of Abu Hamza. Ahmed Faraz was recently successfully prosecuted and jailed for selling books which included Sayid Qutb's Milestones, albeit apparently in a special edition "developed specifically to promote extremist ideology". If such a case can be made which could potentially affect both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, why can't one be made against the man many seem to believe was directly connected with al-Qaida? It seems to only be Qatada and the also loathsome, if not anywhere near as potentially dangerous Anjem Choudary who seem to be able to escape the law here.

This is the light in which today's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan has to be seen. While dismissing the notion that he would be liable to face torture, the court accepting the dubious promise of an authoritarian state that it will refrain from mistreating this one particular special prisoner, they upheld his claim that any trial would not be fair as the evidence against him would be overwhelmingly based on the confessions of two men, both of whom were tortured. Despite the disagreements of consecutive courts, Qatada having gone through the full process of SIAC to the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords to finally the ECHR, the government must have always known it was unlikely that he would ever be deported, whether on the worthlessness of the memorandum of understanding or as, it has turned out, under the right to a fair trial of Article 6.

What then do they do with Qatada now? Any further appeal seems liable to fail. The most obvious response from the government would be to put him under a TPim, the replacement for control orders, but this can hardly hold up in the courts indefinitely. Sooner or later, the authorities are going to have to face up to the fact that the person they fear knows much about their shady dealings is going to have to be prosecuted. They ought to start preparing for that rather than continuing to try desperately to do anything other than the decent and right thing.

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