Moazzam Begg’s lawyer once said that the former Guantanamo Bay detainee was ‘an extremist all right - he believes passionately in charity and justice for all.'
Many seemed to agree. Despite Begg signing a confession at Guantanamo admitting his links to al-Qaeda and terrorism-related activity (which he says was coerced), Amnesty International promoted the terror suspect widely. At a campaign event in 2007, Shami Chakrabarti of the civil-liberties group Liberty called him a "wonderful advocate . . . for human rights and in particular for human liberty'. In 2006, the New Statesman ranked Begg 21st in its top-50 list of 'heroes of our time' (ahead of Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan and the Queen).
However, earlier this year, Begg was charged with a series of terrorism offences relating to time he recently spent in Syria. He was accused of attending a terrorism training camp, possessing electronic documents (entitled Camp 1, Camp 2, Training Schedule, Camp Rules, and Fitness Training Schedule) and fundraising for terrorism. Begg was recorded complaining that his trainees lacked maturity, that ‘Jihad is not just a physical capacity but also about using your brain', and that 'they want to call it martyrdom but I said we have to be physically prepared. If you don't prepare this just becomes suicide, not martyrdom.'
Begg had denied all the charges. While he has conceded that he was in Syria giving training to rebels working against the Assad regime, he has said his activities there did not meet the definition of terrorism. His lawyer argued that ‘Mr Begg did not train anyone for the purposes of terrorism as defined in the 2001 [anti-terror] act. Mr Begg says he was involved in training young men to defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime.'
In a farcical turn of events, the charges were dropped last week when fresh evidence was presented to the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) by MI5. The CPS has been cagey about precisely what this was, but one component is that Begg had actually travelled to Syria with MI5’s prior consent and was in contact with them before his departure. Begg will now escape jail.
He has previously admitted to fighting in Bosnia; his own handwritten notes to the Combatant Status Review board details his time at training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s. Yet he is routinely described in the media as an innocent swept up in the War on Terror, who was simply a ‘language teacher’, an ‘international aid worker’, or an ‘Islamic bookseller’.
Now he has admitted to being capable of giving military training. That is some contradiction. I’ve never done any aid work, but you must pick up some unusual skills in the field, if Begg’s experience is anything to go by.
In an additional twist, Begg has also now disclosed in a BBC interview that he may know those who were holding Alan Henning and could perhaps have secured his release had the government chosen not to ‘demonise and criminalise’ him. If we take him at his word, it's worth asking how this school teacher/aid worker/bookseller could have the weight in jihadi circles necessary to pull off something of this magnitude. Remember, even theological heavyweights such as Abu Qatada criticised ISIS’ capture of Henning – but to no avail.
The natural suspicion is that Begg always was far more than the naïve innocent he professed to be. The nature of his activities in Syria may have now become clear. But his links to both terrorist groups and MI5 have ensured that the truth about Begg himself has never been murkier.