There are not many things to celebrate about Gordon Brown’s time in office. He was a vilified leader; often quite rightly so. His Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, did not fare much better. However, a recent terror trial in New York showed that the criticism they received was not always deserved.
On 8 April 2009, a large terrorist cell based in northwest England was arrested. The cell had been dispatched to the UK by al-Qaeda in 2006 in preparation for an attack, the majority entering the UK on bogus student visas.
The plot is thought to have involved a car bomb attack against Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre, with a team of suicide bombers ready to detonate their devices among fleeing civilians. The suspects were known to have photographed several busy Manchester shopping areas, and a series of emails had been exchanged between an al-Qaeda facilitator based in Pakistan and the northwest cell’s ringleader, Abid Naseer. These emails initially appear to refer to Naseer’s various girlfriends and a forthcoming wedding. However, the security services and police believed that they were actually codes referring to explosives ingredients (including their availability) and the date of the attack itself, which was at some stage between 15 – 20 April, 2009.
With the attack seemingly imminent, the police arrested eleven Pakistani men and one Brit. Gordon Brown announced the disruption of a ‘major terrorist plot’. Electronic media seized during the arrests showed that Naseer had downloaded jihadi nasheeds calling for mass killings but no evidence of bomb-making. With insufficient evidence available to sustain a prosecution, the police released all suspects without charge. However, believing that the threat to the public was still severe, the government sought to deport the plotters (we now know that two of the cell members detained were undercover officers and their arrests took place to maintain their cover).
Yet once this deportation process was in motion, some chose to focus their attack on the government that had just prevented an attack.
Two Labour politicians – Khalid Mahmood and Mohammad Sarwar – wrote a letter to Jacqui Smith in which they said they were ‘amazed, shocked’ that no charges were being bought, saying that the treatment of the ‘innocent young men’ was ‘deeply disturbing and gravely unjust’. To Mahmood and Sarwar, ‘irreparable damage’ to race relations had been done.
The Liberal Democrats’ then-Home Affairs Spokesman, Chris Huhne, called the episode an ‘embarrassment’. Meanwhile Pakistan's high commissioner to London called for the British government to apologise and compensate the suspects. He described the plot as a ‘hoax’.
The Muslim Council of Britain – a large Muslim umbrella group – said that the government should apologise for treating the suspects in a 'dishonourable' fashion. Inayat Bunglawala, then a media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, wrote in the Guardian that the government’s behaviour ‘reprehensible’; ‘underhand’; and ‘cowardly’, and said that it ‘shames our country’. He, too, believed that the suspects deserved an apology from the government, having been ‘disgracefully’ smeared.
An organisation called ‘Justice for the North West Ten’ was launched, with a meeting in July 2009 seeing ‘over a hundred people, community organizers, students, trade unionists, lawyers and civil liberties activists’ demanding the release of the suspects. One of the speakers was Asim Qureshi from Cage (who, it is fair to say, have not had a brilliant few weeks on the PR front after their disastrous press conference discussing their links to Mohammed Emwazi).
Eventually, eight cell members returned to Pakistan voluntarily. Two – including Naseer – could not be deported there on human rights grounds, despite the Special Immigration Appeals Commission judge who heard Naseer’s deportation case concluding that he was ‘an al-Qaeda operative who posed and still poses a serious threat to the national security of the United Kingdom’. The same judge concluded that Naseer was supported by ‘committed Islamist extremist’ operatives who were ‘knowing participants in Naseer’s plans’.
Fortunately, the US was also interested in Naseer. Documents discovered at Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in May 2011 contained a letter from al-Qaeda’s head of external operations, Saleh al-Somali, informing bin Laden of the arrests of the northwest cell.
Then, in January 2013, Naseer was extradited to the US to face trial for his role in the plot (which was one branch of three separate, planned al-Qaeda attacks in 2009 – the other two planned for New York and Copenhagen). Last week, he was convicted and will probably be in jail for the rest of his life.
I am yet to see apologies from Mr Huhne and the rest who criticised a government that had just thwarted a barbaric attack that could have led to the loss of hundreds of lives. Perhaps they are imminent.
In the meantime, the Naseer episode should serve as a reminder that often the government does act in our best interests on national security cases; that there are no ‘hoax’ plots being dreamed up in order to target the UK’s Muslim communities; and that there remains a very determined terrorist foe out there that wishes to bring significant harm to this country.
Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society