I was looking through an old contacts book the other day (something that sad ageing hacks find themselves doing) and found that a number of people I used to call are now in prison.
There was old Abu Qatada’s mobile number: I’d interviewed him in 1999 for The Observer when he was first named as a terror suspect. He outlined then what became the standard line for Islamist apologists:
‘Why do we hate America, why are we enemies of America? This is a question that should be addressed to America. Islam is the enemy, you say it, the West says it. And by America’s action it made us the enemy.’
Man of God or Man of Violence, we wondered and it seems the British justice system is having difficulty deciding too.
In the same book is a number for Abu Hamza, who has just lost his fight against deportation to the United States, the classic Bond-villain and a gift to any journalist. I’d first written about him in January 1999, when he was named as part of a plot to kidnap tourists in Yemen and bomb British targets. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ is in there too, but then everyone had his telephone number.
Looking at these names made me think how long it was before any of us took the problem of British-based Islamic extremism seriously. At the time, the intelligence services were famously briefing that Abu Hamza and Bakri Mohammed were ‘clowns’. But to be fair, those of us who heard the blood-curdling tales of jihadi training camps direct from the clowns themselves were pretty sceptical. How wrong we all were. In the end liberal Britain just didn’t know what to do with dissidents from the extreme right of the political spectrum.