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Fertiliser trial: more questions than answers

4th May 2007

On 30th April 2007, Omar Khyam and four other young Muslim men were sentenced for life for plotting to build a bomb based on the fertiliser feed Ammonium Nitrate and other ingredients. When the trial details became public, the murky role of various informers and other individuals entered the public domain. These include the New Yorker Muhammad Junaid Babar, the so-called ‘supergrass’ who actually obtained the chemicals – and is now in the US having been granted immunity and a new identity; Mohammed Momin Khwaja from Ottawa who provided the ‘know-how’ for a proposed remotely activated detonator, now in detention in Canada; and finally Qayum Khan from Luton – aka ‘Q’. Mr Qayum Khan is believed to have played a central role in various plots – but today remains free in Britain.

The Fertiliser gang was monitored by the security agencies from an early stage. The half-ton of Ammonium Nitrate purchased and stored by them had in fact been substituted for a harmless chemical. Ammonium Nitrate left standing would eventually yield a pungent smell, but this escaped the attention of the gang. Junaid Babar and Khwaja met up in Pakistan in October 2003. Khwaja’s academic record. shows no specialization in electronics. His conversation with Omar Khyam has a Laurel-and-Hardy aspect:

They stopped at an internet cafe in Slough, where Khawaja showed Khyam an image, saved on the web, of the detonator he was building.

Khyam then took Khawaja to his home in Hencroft Street in the town.

OMAR: "What does this device actually do?"

KHAWAJA: "What does it do? OK - you have two pieces, right? - a receiver and transmitter. The receiver will be similar to, let's say, a mobile phone, sort of like this….

BBC, 30th April 2007

What is additionally curious is the willingness of some of the men involved to confide in the media. So in 2001, Babar told a Canadian camera crew "My loyalty has always been, is and forever will be, with the Muslims…I can't stand by and live in America while my Muslims are being bombed in Afghanistan."

A BBC report also cited that Junaid Babar "while in Pakistan [after 9/11], [he] gave a series of interviews to journalists including one with Channel Five, in which he vowed to kill US troops who entered Afghanistan".

The UK Fertiliser trial therefore brings to mind a similar case in Canada in 2006 reported by CBS News.: “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police itself delivered three tons of potential bomb-making material to a group that authorities said wanted to launch a string of attacks inspired by al-Qaida, according to a news report Sunday. The Toronto Star said the sting unfolded when investigators delivered the ammonium nitrate to the group of Muslim Canadians, then moved in quickly on what officials called a homegrown terror ring".

John Chuckman, retired Chief Economist for Texaco Canada, writing in the 'Asian Tribune' (Terror in Toronto or Tempest in a Teapot?, 10th June 2006) noted, "The known facts of the Toronto case are simple. CSIS, Canada's intelligence agency, identified one or more of these fellows on an Internet chat room about two years ago. This prompted additional investigation, and a group of young men sharing angry dreams was discovered. Finally, when a 3-ton load of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used as a component for an explosive, was offered by the watchers and accepted by someone in the group, a wave of arrests quickly followed....While formal charges have not been produced and lawyers for the accused have received no discovery information, the lawyers were permitted, in a Darkness at Noon fashion, to read (but not copy) a synopsis of accusations which I understand is typically prepared by police. Apparently, such synopses have a history of great inaccuracy when compared to actual legal charges finally submitted in court. I believe that it was with this in mind and with the intention of alerting the thinking public to some odd stuff that a lawyer for one of the accused stood outside the court and recited some of the accusations. The points include a wish to behead the Prime Minister, take government hostages, blow up part of Parliament, and attack the CBC. Behead the Prime Minister? Doesn't that just sound like what you would expect from angry young men discussing violent fantasies in a chat room? How many pimply-faced young men annually express dire wishes for school principals, teachers, girlfriends' fathers or others with some authority? It may not be much of a legal charge, but it's great stuff for the press, and we've had the words cell, al Qaeda, and terrorism repeated countless times. There is not the least justification yet for any of these words. We must keep in mind that a group of unhappy young men can easily be manipulated by a clever intelligence agent or policeman."

Sting operation or not, unhappy fantasists or not, the question remains as to the factors causing Omar Khyam and his lot to acquire the moral recklessness that comes across in some of their taped conversations:

Omar Khyam: "If you get a job in a bar, yeah, or a club, say the Ministry of Sound, what are you planning to do there then?"

Jawad Akbar: "Blow the whole thing up."

Omar Khyam: "That's what I'm saying."

Jawad Akbar: "I think the club thing you could do, but the gas would be much harder. There's people who even get in with their searching stuff but it's only bouncers that search you."

Omar Khyam said: "The explosion in the clubs, yeah, that's fine, bro, that's not a problem. The training for that is available. To get them into the Ministry of Sound really isn't difficult."

BBC, 25th May 2006

In the 1930s a certain type of Cambridge undergraduate was drawn to Communism because it offered hope to do something for the working class. However a number were then drawn to acts of murderous fanaticism on the instructions of their masters. The most notorious of these were in a spy ring comprising Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean that gave away the country's most strategic secrets to Stalinist Russia. Philby in particular, from his position in MI6, betrayed clandestine Allied operations in Albania, the Baltic, and Ukraine, leading to the deaths of scores of patriots and agents. Mary Kenny writing in the Catholic Herald noted, "In life, Kim Philby was particularly fatal to a Catholic political movement. In 1944, a senior German intelligence officer, Erich Vermehren, and his wife Elizabeth defected …and landed in Britain carrying a crucial list of German Catholics who formed a secret opposition against Hitler. The Vermehren list was given to Philby, who subsequently had everyone on that list shot or assassinated: the reason being that the Kremlin did not want any non-Communist, or indeed, anti-Communist German opposition to flourish".

What were the personal vulnerabilities and psychological factors at work in the minds of the Cambridge high-fliers? At least in Philby's case, his passion for social justice was tied in with a grudge that society had snubbed his archaeologist-businessman father, St John Philby and not given him due recognition. His fellow conspirator and mentor, the knighted [later withdrawn] Anthony Blunt defended his actions on the basis of social justice. It also later became known that a brilliant London-based KGB controller, the Hungarian psychologist Dr. Arnold Deutsch, not only sold his naïve high-fliers the story of the USSR as the land of equality, but manipulated their sense of arrogance and superman self-belief.

In a thoughtful essay, the London-based Sudanese writer Abdulwahab el-Affendi has observed, "the decision to join violent groups is not because young people read Sayyid Qutb or his presumed medieval inspiration, Ibn Taymiyyah. It is usually the other way round: militants usually begin reading Qutb as a consequence of choosing the militant path…a closer examination of the discourse of violent Islamic groups indicates, in fact, many attempts to reinterpret religious teachings on political grounds" (in 'The conquest of Muslim Hearts and Minds', Saban Centre, 2005). There should be little doubt that in the cases of Muhammad Siddique, the 7/7 bomber, and Khyam, their militancy rested on an ideology of revenge for acts of aggression, political injustices and human rights abuses.

What is now missing in the puzzle are today's Dr Deutschs'. We know the foot-soldiers and the various facilitators, but who and where are the controllers? So now, what about Mr Q? Would he not be able to nudge a few doors wider open?

May 2007

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