As Britain grapples with what to do about citizens returning from Syria, a prominent terrorism case raises more questions than answers.
- By Ruth MichaelsonRuth Michaelson is an investigative journalist and conflict reporter based in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @_Ms_R
LONDON — Cerie Bullivant sits in a cramped meeting room at Cage, a group that opposes policies developed as part of the war on terror. Brightly colored posters against extraordinary rendition and Guantánamo Bay decorate the wall, along with a painting of a fist wrapped in barbed wire, a symbol of resistance. Bullivant, a press officer for Cage, has been frantically preparing for the trial of his colleague and friend, Moazzam Begg, who has been facing terrorism charges. Then some unexpected news arrives.
Amandla Thomas-Johnson enters the room, cradling his cell phone. "What, all the charges?" he says to the person on the line. Bullivant jumps up and follows Thomas-Johnson into the next room. They stand facing each other for a moment as Thomas-Johnson asks the caller questions. Bullivant rushes back into the glass-partitioned meeting room, a look of elation across his face: "They’ve dropped all the charges. Moazzam’s free!" He turns around and drops to his knees in prayer.
Bullivant has tears in his eyes as he explains how influential Begg has been on his life. "He introduced me to my wife," he says. Minutes later Begg’s 19-year-old daughter, Mariam, calls, and Bullivant breaks the news to her. She begins to sob audibly over the phone. When Bullivant hangs up, he explains that Mariam Begg was with her father during the raid at their home in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002. After the raid, Begg was detained by U.S. forces at Bagram prison and then sent to Guantánamo Bay.
Begg was released from Guantánamo in 2005, following pleas from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to U.S. President George W. Bush. The former Guantánamo detainee became an outspoken human rights campaigner upon his return to Britain. And then he was arrested again on Feb. 25, 2014, charged with seven counts of terrorist activity due to his two visits to Syria two years earlier. Before his sudden release, Begg was scheduled to appear in court to plead his case at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, on Oct. 6.
British media, activists, and lawyers have viewed Begg’s case as a landmark, a test of how the British government handles citizens who go to and return from the war in Syria. On the same day that Begg was freed, Oct. 1, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that if a Briton travels to Syria or Iraq, "You are an enemy of the U.K., and you should expect to be treated as such." Since reports emerged over the summer of four British members of the Islamic State — dubbed "The Beatles" for their nationality and work as a foursome — the fear about British jihadists has been fevered. The day before Cameron’s speech, a story broke that two schoolgirls, ages 15 and 17, had left their homes in Lambeth, South London, to travel to Turkey in the hope of joining the ranks of women within Islamic State-controlled Raqqa.
Begg traveled to Syria twice in 2012, once seeking a Libyan man he believed had been extradited to Syria to be tortured and the second time to train militants in a manner he and his supporters have described as "self-defense." Two years later, the British government declared that his visits were really about supporting terrorism. But in the end it seems that while one branch of the British government had labeled Begg a threat, another had known about his activities all along.
On Oct. 1, the Crown Prosecution Service, which pressed charges against Begg along with the West Midlands Police, made a surprising statement: "We have been made aware of material previously not known to the police investigation that means that there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction. If we had been made aware of all of this information at the time of charging, we would not have charged." Around 3 p.m. the same day, Begg walked free from Belmarsh prison in southeast London.
The next day the Guardian reported that MI5 had handed police prosecutors documents that proved Begg had indeed been in frequent contact with the spy agency prior to his trips to Syria, thus eliminating the possibility that he had acted in secret. His travels had been approved by MI5 and fit with British foreign policy on Syria at the time. Although the announcement came on Oct. 1, the West Midlands Police told Foreign Policy that it had received the new information that exonerated Begg "three weeks ago," but had needed time to analyze it.
As he left prison later that same day, Begg told a gathering of reporters that he had wanted "his day in court," adding, "not once but twice in my case, this government has been involved either in directly detaining me or indirectly detaining me, and on both occasions it’s been unlawful."
Begg was sent to Guantánamo in 2002, accused of being a recruiter for al Qaeda and attending terrorist training camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While he admitted in his 2006 memoir, Enemy Combatant, that he attended the camps to assist militants fighting in Kashmir, he stated that he never received any martial training. He has also stated many times that he was tortured during his three-year detention. His release in 2005 came after the U.S. government was unable to prove the allegations against him. After his release from Guantánamo, Begg was one of 15 former inmates who received compensation — an amount paid by the British government for its role in the illegal transfer and torture of British citizens. The exact sum per person was kept secret, but the total was reported as stretching into the millions of pounds.
Following his release in 2005, Begg became a key voice for British Muslims struggling to make sense of strict anti-terrorism laws that they believed targeted the Muslim community. He spoke in debates at Oxford and Cambridge universities, wrote for the Guardian, and even gave speaking tours where he reconciled with his former Guantánamo jailers on stage.
But this public profile didn’t stop the government from keeping the pressure on Begg. He reported that the Home Office had seized his passport in December 2013 and wrote that he was stopped and questioned under the 2000 Terrorism Act each time he entered a British airport, including en route to Brussels to speak at the European Parliament.
In the summer of 2012, Begg traveled to the area around rebel-held Aleppo with a privately organized aid convoy, still searching for victims of the United Kingdom’s extraordinary rendition program. He blogged candidly about his visits. In August 2012 he wrote, "On the outskirts of the city of Aleppo I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters. They were as concerned about the country’s future and avoiding a repeat of the Iraqi-style disaster as they were with ridding the country of Bashar al-Assad."
During this time, he stayed with a group of British fighters who were part of the newly formed Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, or "Army of Immigrants and Supporters." Begg provided a group, mostly composed of Brits, with fitness training, teaching them jumping jacks, push-ups, and similar exercises, according to Bullivant. "He felt that here was a group of guys who were under attack and unfit. Western kids from cushy backgrounds — they’d be like lambs to the slaughter," Bullivant said. Begg also purchased a generator for the father of a Briton who was fighting in Syria with the group.
In the period between Begg’s trips to Syria in 2012 and his arrest in 2014, the dynamics of the Syrian civil war shifted — and so did British foreign policy.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the group Begg stayed with, would later lose fighters to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. But in 2012, the fearsome jihadi army now known as the Islamic State didn’t yet exist. Begg’s description of his actions corresponded with the U.K.’s official foreign policy on Syria at that time, which was to supply the rebels with nonlethal aid. This policy came to an end in December 2013, with fears that the aid would fall into the hands of Islamist groups. While Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is now part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that opposes the Islamic State, the group’s former commander, Abu Omar al-Shishani, is now an Islamic State commander in Syria.
Meanwhile Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States on Sept. 24 for its cooperation "with other violent extremist organizations" and for kidnapping civilians and foreigners in Syria. However, in its most recent update of officially designated terrorist groups in September 2014, the British government did not include Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.
In a blog post published on Dec. 24, 2013, Begg described a 2012 meeting with MI5 in which the spy agency expressed concerns about Britons returning to the U.K., radicalized by their time in Syria. "I told them that Britain had nothing to worry about, especially since British foreign policy, at the time, seemed in favour of the rebels," Begg wrote. "At the end of the meeting I was assured by MI5 that my proposed return to Syria to continue my work would not be hindered, and it wasn’t."
When Begg went to Syria in 2012, British policy on Syria was focused on supplying £5 million in equipment, such as radios, medical supplies, and satellite equipment, to "unarmed opposition groups." Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar would unlikely count as "unarmed opposition," but it was also yet to be named as a specific threat by any country. In the past week, widening the scope of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, across the border, and into Syria has been discussed in Parliament. Now Cameron has switched his tone on Syria, focusing on the threat to the U.K. posed by those who return from the war-torn country.
Yet Begg’s connection to the rebels in Syria may have also been used by the British government to its advantage. In an interview with the BBC on Oct. 7, Begg described how he had worked to free the captured British aid worker Alan Henning, even at one point writing a letter to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to several sources at Cage, Begg worked alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a key player in negotiations concerning several Britons held by the Islamic State, including two journalists. Bullivant stated that these negotiations included the initial release of photographer John Cantlie in July 2012. Cantlie was later recaptured by the Islamic State and has recently appeared in three of its propaganda videos.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes offers like Begg’s seriously and pursues them in attempts to get hostages released. According to Begg, he was working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office right up until the time of his arrest in February 2014.
Khalid Mahmood, a member of Parliament from Birmingham, told Newsweek in August that he believes 1,500 British Muslims have left to join extremist forces in Iraq and Syria over the past three years. In June, then Foreign Secretary William Hague said that as many as 400 British citizens were fighting inside Syria. As for the threat of returnees, Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London said in January that between 30 and 50 British fighters have returned to the United Kingdom.
An April 2014 report by Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee highlighted some of the difficulties that the government faces in determining whether those returning from Syria present a threat. "[N]ot everyone who returned will have been engaged with a terrorist organisation," the report says, citing Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire. The report also mentions the government’s concerns about "the difficulty of identifying those who were travelling to engage in jihad as opposed to those who were travelling for humanitarian reasons."
Yet Home Secretary Theresa May, who has earned the nickname "the Iron Lady" for her stance on counterterrorism, said in September that she wants to expand the U.K.’s anti-terrorism laws to allow for the instant arrest and prosecution of anyone returning from Syria to Britain. The bill will be debated in the House of Commons by November, and the Conservatives seem intent on it passing.
Critics say that sweeping punishments are counterproductive and that harsh tactics risk alienating the Muslim community even further. Civil rights groups such as Liberty have said over the past decade that police powers are "used disproportionately against the Muslim population," causing that population to feel stigmatized and "under siege." The Islamic Human Rights Commission, a member of the British government’s task force on tackling radicalization, stated in a January 2014 report that the government’s ever-expanding definition of extremism has come to include "yet more beliefs and behaviours that are not in themselves illegal or indicators of extremist inclination."
At this point, the government seems to have clearly established that Moazzam Begg is not a potential terrorist. But his case shows the complications of addressing those who return to Britain from Syria. Kat Craig, legal director of the abuses in counterterrorism team at the human rights group Reprieve, said that the Begg case shows that different branches of the British government are not coordinating. "There can be few cases that demonstrate so clearly the need for open justice and the presumption of innocence," she said. "It’s also high time that we had proper oversight over the intelligence services so that in the future, these unacceptable mistakes can be avoided." Craig points out that given that Begg made no secret of his activities and was even offering his help in hostage negotiations, that "what is now needed is for the U.K. government to show the same honesty and hold a proper inquiry into this shameful affair."
Begg has said that it is inevitable that he will sue MI5 and the government over the mistakes that lead to his seven-month detention. Less certain is whether different government departments will begin to speak with one voice on those returning from Syria.