ISIS recruiter who radicalised London Bridge attackers was protected by MI5
From collusion to blowback
by Nafeez Ahmed
Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.
The terrorists who rampaged across London on the night of 3 June were part of a wider extremist network closely monitored by MI5 for decades. The same network was heavily involved in recruiting Britons to fight with jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Police have confirmed that Khuram Shazad Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba were the three terrorists shot dead after participating in a brutal van and knife attack in the London Bridge area.
According to press reports, both Butt and Redouane were longstanding members of the proscribed extremist network formerly known as al-Muhajiroun. After 9/11, the group operated under different names such as Shariah4UK, Muslims4Crusades and Islam4UK. Originally founded by Lebanese firebrand, Omar Bakri Mohammed, who was banned from returning to the UK after the 7/7 attacks, the network was later run by Bakri’s deputy, Anjem Choudary.
Red flags, missed
Choudary was convicted in 2016 for supporting and encouraging support for ISIS.
Yet the press has largely ignored the extent to which Choudary’s uncanny freedom to operate in Britain, and to send British Muslims to fight in foreign theatres, was linked to his opaque relationship to Britain’s security services.
Khuram Butt was known to counter-terrorism police and MI5, who investigated him in 2015. The official line is that he was deprioritised as no evidence of attack planning was found.
Anonymous British counter-terrorism sources, however, told CNN that Butt was the subject of a “full package” of investigatory measures, as he was believed to be “one of the most dangerous extremists in the UK”. After September 2014, when ISIS began calling for attacks on the West, British security services grew “increasingly concerned that al-Muhajiroun members who had remained in the UK would carry out terrorist attacks.” The sources said that “One of those they were most concerned about was Butt.”
According to the Telegraph, Redouane fought with the Libyan Islamist militia unit Liwa al-Ummah to topple Muammar Qaddafi. Libyan security and diplomatic sources told the paper this militia sent foreign fighters to Syria after the NATO-backed revolution, many of whom “went on to fight alongside Al-Qaeda extremists in Syria”.
As British foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis reports: “The Liwa al-Ummah was formed by a deputy of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the former emir of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” Belhaj went on to become a military commander for the NATO-backed National Transition Council in Tripoli to bring down Qadafi in 2011. And in 2012, Liwa al-Ummah fighters in Syria merged with the main rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — which received direct military and logistical support from the US and UK militaries, as well as the Gulf states and Turkey.
Metropolitan Police denied that the third attacker, Zaghba, was known to the authorities, describing him as “not a police or MI5 subject of interest.”
An Italian national of Moroccan descent, Zaghba had also come on the radar of Italian intelligence in March 2016. Authorities stopped him at Bologna airport while trying to take a flight to Turkey to reach Syria, and had passed information on his movements to Moroccan authorities, as well as MI5 and MI6 — noting that he had told authorities in Bologna that he wanted to become a terrorist.
Despite being placed on an EU-wide watchlist, he managed to enter Britain without problems.
Several sources who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said they had known of both Butt and Redouane, describing them as notorious “trouble-makers” who were shunned by wider Muslim communities.
“Yeah, I knew these guys, they used to hang out down the road from me in Barking,” said one Muslim resident of east London. “They were known as open ISIS supporters. They used to recruit people to go Syria and fight. It was hardly a secret.”
The source was familiar with Khuram Butt but did not know the other London attackers. “He was part of the al-Muhajiroun network. They were Anjem Choudary’s boys. When the Syrian war first broke out, these guys were organising a lot of people to go there and fight. They did it under humanitarian cover, pretending they were going to give aid and stuff.”
Another source based in north London knew both Butt and Redouane as followers of Anjem Choudary. He said that they had joined al Muhajiroun after 9/11, and whenever he would bump into them they would talk “all about fighting infidel shia, they worse than Jews, etc.”
He said that they openly campaigned in support of ISIS: “Man, these guys were loud and clear. They thought of Iraq and Syria as land of the caliphate. As before they loved Taliban but criticised them for not making it caliphate. They always invited people to join jihad and Syria. Nothing new there.”
MI5’s open door
According to an investigation by Middle East Eye, from 2011 to around early-2013, MI5 operated an ‘open door’ policy for Britons to travel and fight in Libya and Syria. Foreign fighters told MEE that their travels had been facilitated by Britain’s security services.
After travelling back to Libya in May 2011, one British fighter “was approached by two counter-terrorism police officers in the departure lounge who told him that if he was going to fight he would be committing a crime.”
The fighter provided them the name and phone number of an MI5 officer. Following a quick phone call to him, he was waved through.
“As he waited to board the plane, he said the same MI5 officer called him to tell him that he had ‘sorted it out’…
Another British citizen with experience of fighting in both Libya and in Syria with rebel groups also told MEE that he had been able to travel to and from the UK without disruption.
‘No questions were asked,’ he said.”
The ‘open door’ policy was designed to augment US and British support to opposition forces seeking to overthrow Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Funnelled through our allies, the Gulf states and Turkey, the bulk of this support went not to secular rebels but to hardline Islamist groups, including both al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Under this ‘open door’, as Curtis observes, “at least one London attacker and the Manchester bomber were able to travel to Libya to fight in Britain’s war.”
Since 2011, the primary figure responsible for recruiting Britons to fight in the Middle East and North Africa was Anjem Choudary.
Of the 850 Britons who went to join various insurgent groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, most of them — fully 500 — had been recruited by Choudary to fight with ISIS. Choudary had also been linked to as many as 15 terror plots since 2001. These astonishing figures were revealed by the police after Choudary was convicted last year.
Sensitive ISIS documents corroborate the former al-Muhajiroun network’s crucial role in this British-ISIS terror funnel. The documents, leaked in early 2016, identified Choudary’s mentor — Omar Bakri Mohammed — as a sponsor of Britons trying to be inducted into ISIS.
Choudary’s role as a key instigator in the recruitment of British Muslims to join the ISIS jihad in Syria, occurred at precisely the same time that Britain’s security services were operating an ‘open door’ policy to augment the anti-Gaddafi and anti-Assad rebellions.
These activities were well-known to British police and intelligence. Earlier this year, a group of extremists connected to Choudary were jailed for supporting ISIS and urging people to fight in Syria, after a 20 month-long undercover police operation.
This raises the question as to whether the reason nothing was done to shut down Choudary’s activities was his utility to MI5’s ‘open door’ to Libya and Syria.
MI5 and ISIS recruiters, sitting in a tree
The official explanation of the failure to prosecute Bakri and Choudary for so long despite this track record is that the two were notoriously clever at appearing to staying on the right side of law. Supposedly, this meant that counter-terrorism officials found it difficult to build a case against them.
This narrative is problematic. Security sources speaking outside of official press statements have pointed to a somewhat different reality: that both Bakri and Choudary had ties to MI5.
In his book The Way of the World, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Ron Suskind recounts how he was told by a senior MI5 officer that Bakri had long been an informant for the security service, who “had helped MI5 on several of its investigations.”
Bakri confirmed the same in an interview with Suskind. “Bakri enjoyed his notoriety and was willing to pay for it with information he passed to the police,” wrote Suskind.
“It’s a fabric of subtle interlocking needs: the [British authorities] need be in a backchannel conversation with someone working the steam valve of Muslim anger; Bakri needs health insurance.”
Bakri’s ties with British intelligence to support foreign operations, moreover, go back decades.
As I wrote in the Independent on Sunday:
“According to a former US Army intelligence officer, John Loftus, three senior al-Muhajiroun figures — Mr Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza and Haroon Rashid Aswat — were recruited by MI6 in 1996 to influence Islamist activities in the Balkans.”
But the connection did not stop there.
In 2000, Bakri admitted training British Muslims to fight as jihadists abroad, boasting: “The British government knows who we are. MI5 has interrogated us many times. I think now we have something called public immunity.”
A year later, the private security firm set up by Bakri in cohorts with Abu Hamza — Sakina Security Services — was raided by police and eventually shut down. Speaking in Parliament at the time, Andrew Dismore MP claimed the firm sent Britons “overseas for jihad training with live arms and ammunition”. Bakri was not arrested, let alone charged or prosecuted.
In short, Omar Bakri’s utility to British state operations in foreign theatres, such as the Balkans, appeared to grant him immunity in extremist recruitment at home.
To this day, it is not widely known that Bakri and his al-Muhajiroun network played a key role in facilitating the recruitment, radicalisation and logistics behind the 7/7 London bombings. The ultimate suppression of crucial evidence of this from government narratives, despite being mandatory reading for all legal counsel during the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest, has granted the group virtual free reign.
Thus, Omar Bakri’s acolyte and deputy, Anjem Choudary, led a similarly charmed life.
Days after Choudary’s terrorism conviction, a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism officer who had investigated Choudary revealed that prior to the proceedings, Choudary too had been protected by MI5.
The Telegraph reported that despite being at “the forefront of radical Islam in Britain” for 20 years:
“The security services repeatedly prevented Scotland Yard from pursuing criminal investigations against hate preacher Anjem Choudary… Met counter-terror officers often felt they had enough evidence to build a case against the radicalising cleric, only to be told to hang fire by MI5, because he was crucial to one of their on-going investigations.”
It was only in August 2015, after Choudary posted YouTube videos online which openly documented his support for ISIS, that he was eventually prosecuted. Prior to that, the police believed they had a watertight case, but the decision not to prosecute had come from MI5.
The police source himself told the newspaper:
“I am gobsmacked that we allowed him to carry on as long as long as he did. He was up to his neck in it but the police can’t do full investigations on people if the security service say they are working on a really big job, because they have the priority. That is what they did constantly. While the police might have had lots of evidence they were pulled back by the security service because he [Choudary] was one of the people they were monitoring. It was very frustrating and did cause some tension but we were told we had to consider the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture: war
According to Charles Shoebridge, though — a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism intelligence officer — “nothing was done by UK authorities” to stop UK citizens “joining jihadist groups in Libya and Syria.”
This was despite the fact that these Britons “made no secret on social media of the fact, even sometimes posting evidence of their participation in acts of terrorism and war crimes.” There was an “obvious risk of terrorism blowback were such trained and experienced extremists to return to Britain.”
Shoebridge had pointed out at the time that “this ‘turning a blind eye’ was actually consistent with the UK govt position of intensive overt and covert support of rebel groups in Libya and Syria in attempting to topple Gaddafi and Assad.” Turning a blind eye, he added, was also consistent with “a long record of the UK government allowing, using and facilitating Islamist extremists to destabilise ‘enemy’ states, from Soviet occupied Afghanistan in the 80s, through Bosnia and Chechnya, to Libya and Syria today…
“It was only in 2013 when groups such as ISIS started to harm US and UK interests in Syria and Iraq, and kill US and UK citizens, that any action at all was taken to stop British jihadists from travelling, or arresting and charging those who returned. At this time it’s likely a tipping point was reached in the inherent conflict between MI6 priorities in furthering UK govt policy to overthrow Gaddafi and Assad, and MI5’s stated priority of keeping the UK safe from terrorism — indeed, it’s likely a tipping point was also reached internally within MI5 itself. In any event, from 2013 action started to be taken, which suggests government policy changed.”
The official defence for all this is that before 2013, the legislation necessary to tackle travelling jihadists did not exist. Shoebridge dismisses this as nonsense: “First, it’s been illegal to take part in terrorist related activities abroad since 2006 and, second, the new legislation introduced since 2013 has itself barely been used.”
In fact, it was only around 2014 that British counter-terrorism officials moved more aggressively to take down al-Muhajiroun.
I asked the Home Office to confirm whether Choudary was indeed an MI5 informant, and whether British authorities were aware of his recruitment of Britons to Syria — including the role of any of the London attackers as ‘foreign fighters’.
A spokesperson said: “We are not commenting on the individuals named while that investigation continues or responding to speculation.”
But if Geddes and Shoebridge are correct, then when Anjem Choudary — Britain’s top ISIS terror recruiter — was dispatching Britons to Syria, he was, in Geddes words, “allowed… to carry on” by Britain’s security services.
The decision not to prosecute Choudary was to have fatal consequences. In February, about half of the British fighters who had travelled to Iraq, Syria and Libya returned.
In November 2014, as Home Secretary, Theresa May said that JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, had raised the threat level for international terrorism from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’, indicating that an attack on the UK was believed to be “highly likely.” May’s announcement clarified that the threat level was lifted primarily due to the threat from 500 British nationals who had largely fought with ISIS:
“The decision to change the threat level was based primarily on developments in Syria and Iraq, where the terrorist group ISIL controls swathes of territory. We believe more than 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq, many of them to fight… ISIL and its western fighters now represent one of the most serious terrorist threats we face.”
It was Theresa May’s own ‘open door’ policy toward Britons fighting in foreign theatres which directly facilitated the expansion of this threat.
Under that policy, the chief coordinator of the British-ISIS corridor, Choudary, had active ties to MI5 which prevented counter-terrorism police officers from prosecuting him.
This draws a direct connection between Choudary’s impunity in Britain until 2015, and Britain’s short-sighted foreign policy goals in Syria.
“When the US and British militaries were working with the Turks to train various Syrian rebel groups, many military officers knew that among those we were training was the next round of jihadists,” said Alastair Crooke, a former 30 year senior MI6 officer who dealt with Islamist groups across the Muslim world. “But the CIA was fixated on regime change. We knew that even if at any moment ISIS was eventually defeated, these Islamist groups would move against secular and moderate forces.”
This collusion between Western security services and Islamist extremism, Crooke told me, has very long roots in an intelligence culture that went back as far as the 1920s, “when in the attempt to gather control of the Arabian peninsula, King Abdulaziz told us that the key is Wahabism.”
This alliance culminated in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was “the first clear use of fired-up Islamist radicals to provoke Russia into an invasion. This set the scene ever since. From then, our intelligence services have had a deeply entwined history with Islamist groups based on the belief that Saudi Arabia had the power to turn them on and off at will.”
Islamist groups have been used by British and American intelligence services, said Crooke, essentially “to control and contain the Middle East” against different forces, Nasserism, nationalists, and more recently Baathists.
Perhaps Crooke’s most damning insight was how these operations led to British intelligence becoming heavily dependent on Gulf state intelligence services to conduct regional operations.
“In the 1980s, Saudi began paying for operations with large sums of money — which was considered acceptable in the interests of landing a blow on the USSR’s influence in the region. As a result, though, our intelligence services became increasingly dependent on Saudi funding. If they wanted to avoid Congressional or parliamentary oversight, and to continue expanding difficult and sensitive off-the-books operations, they would go instead to their Gulf partners.”
The impact of this on the integrity of the US and British intelligence community has been devastating:
“The assumption is that this doesn’t affect the integrity of intelligence, but clearly it does. The Gulf states have become paymasters for increasing expenditures on intelligence operations that the security services would prefer not be disclosed.”
This “incipient influence directly into the intelligence services”, said Crooke, is “supplemented by huge subsidies to think-tanks in Washington and London which create a specific cultural atmosphere. It has led many in the US and Europe to uncritically absorb the Gulf kingdoms’ narrative of the region — one in which it is seen as absolutely fine to use fired-up Sunni Islamism to overturn governments like that of Gaddafi or Assad, without any sort of reflection.”
For Crooke, this mindset is responsible for the persistence of such failed policies, and explains why in the early days of the ‘Arab Spring’, Western policymakers believed they could “use Islamists of all sorts as useful tools to bring about change, and that our Gulf allies could control all this.”
I asked Crooke what should be done — especially now, in the unprecedented wake of three terrorist attacks in Britain over three months:
“We should start by surfacing these matters into consciousness. Only then can we begin the conversations needed to resolve them. We need to understand that the tension between fighting a ‘war on terror’ while at the same time in some ways being in bed with terrorists, has produced a disaster.”
For Shoebridge, the biggest elephant in the room is intelligence reform: “Repeatedly, MI5 has made decisions not to deploy its substantial physical and electronic surveillance resources against extremists who were well known to it, and who then went on to commit or attempt terrorist attacks — Manchester being a prime example.”
One explanation of this, he said, could be that the decision making processes by which MI5 prioritises the deployment of its resources are “defective.” Another could be that some extremists “were actually working as informants for MI5, regarded as under control or trustworthy, and therefore not needing to be watched.”
How can we really ever know?
“Only a fully empowered and totally independent inquiry could establish the truth of the matter however — and there’s no sign that this is likely to happen anytime soon.”
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning 16-year investigative journalist and creator of INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded public interest investigative journalism project. He is ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s Motherboard.
His work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, Raw Story, New Internationalist, Huffington Post UK, Al-Arabiya English, AlterNet, The Ecologist, and Asia Times, among other places.
Nafeez’s work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
Nafeez has twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s ‘Top 1,000’ list of most influential people in London, in 2014 and 2015.
This article was amended on 8 May to remove an incorrect reference to a source cited by The Telegraph identified wrongly as Will Geddes.