Terrorism Act: ‘They asked me to keep an eye on the Muslim community’
Asians tell of being targeted and cajoled by officers from MI5 and special branch
Just after landing at Edinburgh airport on 11 April 2010 Asif Ahmed was met by plainclothes officers and taken away from his wife. He was about to turn from model citizen into a terror suspect, one of 85,000 people who met a similar fate that year.
Officers met the couple just after they got off the flight from Stansted and told them Ahmed needed to come with them for a “normal check”.
The couple were returning from a weekend break and Ahmed saw no reason why he might be suspected of anything. Indeed, after London was attacked by terrorists in July 2005, Ahmed worked for the mayor of London and in Scotland to improve relations between Muslims and the rest of the population.
He was taken to a room by two officers who told him they were from special branch, a police department that deals in intelligence and security matters. Ahmed, 28, was told he was being questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
When he asked why, an officer replied: “No reason, it is just a random stop.” Ahmed told them they had stopped the only two people on the flight who looked like Muslims.
They said they did not know he was Muslim, which he did not believe.
The officers Ahmed remembers were detectives – a sergeant and a constable. They did not give their names but did give their identification numbers.
Ahmed says he felt compelled to answer their questions: “I had no choice, I was told I had no right to refuse.” He says the officers told him that if he exercised the right to remain silent, he could be detained further and eventually face jail.
Ahmed says he was questioned about his job, where he prayed, the Muslim groups he was active in. He was asked for a definition of extremism and what he would do if he found out someone was going to carry out an act of terrorism. He got the answer to that correct: he would tell the police.
In another room his wife was questioned. She was upset about being asked details about her sister, who was seriously ill at the time. Ahmed says the policemen interviewing him kept saying that he and his wife, studying for a PhD in political science, were “interesting people”. Then one of the officers asked if he would become a spy: “They asked if I would like to work with special branch, to keep an eye on the Muslim community in Edinburgh … They asked me three times. They said do it covertly.” He refused.
A similar scene played out at Stansted on 31 December 2007. Abdullah, a youth worker from east London, had returned from a Haj tour in Saudi Arabia with a tour group. “I was told that there was a problem with my passport and two white men in dark suits approached me and said that they needed to talk to me.”
They were police officers and he was taken to a room: “I was told that I had been stopped under terrorism-related legislation … I was given a sheet of paper that basically said that they were allowed by law to do this to me and I needed to comply with questioning.”
He was asked about his family, how his trip had been paid for, which mosque he prayed at and if he had “any additional training or skills”.
His mobile phones were taken away and searched. Then his questioning was disrupted by the arrival of another man, who said he was called Matthew, and a woman. “They were casually dressed and took over from the previous two men. They introduced themselves as MI5. I was concerned why MI5 would want to speak to me and listened attentively.”
In a written statement Abdullah says the officers quizzed him and said his “name had come up in circles discussing terrorist activity and it was up to me to prove where I stood. They wanted my help in tackling potential terrorists and related activity”.
He added: “They showed me some photos of a number individuals. I knew most of them well as they were friends and local associates. Some I didn’t recognise and one I wasn’t too sure about.
“This was the one they pressed me on. They also wanted details about the individuals that I knew, which I provided. I tried to be as co-operative as possible and in the end they took my number and left me theirs.
“Strangely, Matthew insisted that I save it discreetly under work or taxi. I was then escorted out and was free to leave.”
Abdullah believes MI5 wanted to turn him into a spy. “Matthew called me several times to arrange a follow-up meeting. He said he wanted me to help him in the work MI5 does. We had a phone discussion and I said that I thought that what they were trying to do was noble but I had reservations about the way in which they operate on an ethical level and was uncomfortable with that. He insisted that I meet him and said that ‘it was in my long-term interest’ to do so.”
A meeting was arranged for 22 January 2008 outside a tube station.
“I was told to meet Matthew outside Farringdon station but was directed by phone from there to a nearby location and Matthew walked with me to a hotel.”
He said he was asked about “my personal and work details – past and present. I mentioned here that I had visited Egypt in the summer of 2004 for six months to study Arabic.
“I was asked about my future plans – I mentioned that I planned to return to Egypt shortly to continue with my Arabic and Islamic studies.
“He mentioned that he really wanted me to help him with the photos. I said that I had already told him what I knew.
“In the end Matthew said that he wanted to meet me again but I wasn’t so sure any more as I could see that something was wrong.”
Despite telling MI5 he was not interested, the barrage of calls and texts pleading for a meeting just kept coming.
After that “Matthew called me a few times to arrange a further meeting. He gave me a mobile number (07522 055 947) but I decided that I didn’t want to have any more contact.”
By mid-February Abdullah was fed up. “I texted Matthew to explicitly say I wasn’t interested in any further contact and for him not to contact me anymore,” he said. “I also mentioned that if I did have any information about any threat, terrorist or otherwise, that I would naturally report it to the police. I then called my phone provider and changed my number.”
In May 2008, Matthew obtained the new number and called again. He wanted information, which Abdullah said he did not have.
But the MI5 officer, Abdullah alleges, made a threat. “He said I needed to see him before I travelled to Egypt, for my own good. Otherwise I would find it difficult over there because they had ‘international partners’.”
Abdullah said: “He was threatening me – if I go to Egypt, I might be arrested and ill treated. I took it as a threat. They could have me arrested, and tortured there. It was quite clear.”
There is no independent evidence to support the claims that police and MI5 are abusing schedule 7 stop and search powers by trying to turn innocent people into informers.
But there is a consistency of testimony from those who have been stopped and pressured to inform.
Solicitor Alastair Lyon, who has advised dozens affected by schedule 7, said: “This is a power which has sowed fear in the most vulnerable of our communities. The security services and special branch are operating in an unregulated and unchecked way without legal observers, to put pressure on people. This is a legal black hole allowing them to question thousands of people about very personal details without any of the usual human rights safeguards.” He added: “It has created a legal black hole where personal and sensitive information is, on pain of imprisonment, forced from individuals who are told that in effect they have no rights. It is a complete abuse of authority.”
For youth worker Mohammed, the link between his being stopped under schedule 7 and other approaches is clear. For a year security service officers tried to recruit him, approaching him at home, in the street, even as he ate at a tandoori restaurant. One of them, called Jeff, showed him pictures of various people.
Then on 5 November 2008, he was stopped at Stansted airport while returning from Spain and taken to a room. Mohammed said: “Then Tim came in. [He] showed me a badge and said he’s from MI5. He spoke about Jeff. ‘He’s been trying to meet me but you haven’t responded,’ said Tim.
“He reminded me that he is working for my best interest: he doesn’t want this to come out, doesn’t want for my workplace to become dirtied, my reputation – as if I’ve got something to hide and I’ve done something wrong in the first place.”
He added: “We know that you went to a terror camp, transited in Dubai and changed passports. We know you went to Dubai in 2006 and met AQ figures.”
Mohammed said: “I told him these were crazy allegations and how would they have this info anyway.”
Tim said: “We don’t need to go there ourselves, we have info from locals.”
Mohammed was let go with the promise that Tim would be in touch. He did indeed call several days later, but Mohammed did not reply.