Somali man harassed for refusing to work MI5 spy
A Somali-born man who spurned MI5 efforts to recruit him as an informant has been found guilty – following a partially secret trial – of preparing to join Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Anas Abdalla was discovered hiding behind canisters in the back of a lorry in Dover as he tried to smuggle himself out of the UK in April 2015.
He claimed he was escaping from years of harassment by anti-terrorism officers. His final movements had been closely tracked by an undercover “law enforcement” agent.
It is the fourth time the former computer technology student, who holds British citizenship, has been put on trial for the same terrorist offence at the Old Bailey on London. He was convicted after the prosecution shifted from its previous position of neither confirming nor denying (NCND) Abdalla’s allegations of “oppressive treatment” by the security service.
In order to contest details of Abdalla’s dealings with MI5, evidence was given in secret by counter-terrorism officers. The media and the public were excluded from court 10 at the Old Bailey during the in camera sessions – one of a handful of occasions this has happened in a criminal court in England and Wales. The jury, Abdalla and his lawyers remained.
The court order authorising the procedure stated that the closed hearing would cover “any evidence which is called by the prosecution which confirms or denies any allegation of contact, or attempted contact, between MI5 and [Abdalla]”, as well as “any allegation … that [Abdalla] would not be allowed by MI5 to live and progress normal expectations and achievements in life”.
As a result, it is not possible to report on all the evidence the prosecution had offered against Abdalla.
For a former asylum-seeker to smuggle himself out of the UK is highly unusual. For the Crown Prosecution Service to present MI5-related evidence behind locked, courtroom doors is, however, becoming more common. It was used in the Erol Incedal trial last year.
The legal means used to try to secure a conviction are now provoking concern about a lack of open justice and the way in which the media are restricted in reporting terrorism trials.
In a judgment on whether the case could be heard in secret, which can now be reported, the judge, Richard Marks QC, said he considered the general problem in such cases. “The knowledge that having cooperated with a state agency, a witness from that agency had given chapter and verse in open court about the dealings they had had, would, in my judgment, be highly likely to act as a serious disincentive to others who might otherwise be contemplating rendering assistance.”
Abdalla hung his head as the jury found him guilty by a majority of 11 to one after deliberating for 19 hours and 30 minutes. He was remanded in custody to be sentenced at a later date.
As he was being remanded Abdalla threw a plastic cup at a counter-terrorism officer and said: “One day we will be standing in a bigger court than this.”
Abdalla, 26, was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in February 1989. He eventually settled in Birmingham, was granted leave to remain in the UK in 2011 and became a British passport holder but his academic career floundered.
At Wolverhampton University, he failed five out of seven modules on an IT course and did not submit written assessments the following year. He was asked to leave in 2010. Short-term jobs followed.
He came to the attention of the police when he was stopped carrying a computer belonging to Ahmed Diini, who was later imprisoned in Egypt. The court heard that Abdalla was repeatedly detained at airports and ferry terminals under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, known as a “port stop”; often he was questioned for so long that he missed his flight or ferry.
Details of his interviews were passed to MI5. On one occasion Abdalla told officers: “I wish I was in Somalia: better to be killed and know your enemy.”
Abdalla came to believe that interference from the security services meant his girlfriend left him, his bank card stopped working and he lost jobs, the court was told. His barrister, Rajiv Menon QC, told the jury: “This is the stuff of nightmares from which there is no escape. This is what happens when you are targeted by the security services and decline to cooperate.”
Abdalla denied the charge of preparing acts of terrorism. His lawyer said he had been planning to slip unnoticed out of the UK and move to Bulgaria, where his cousin was studying.
He falsified his qualifications in some job applications, Menon said, because he was desperate to work. He had participated in a fraudulent cheque scheme, it was said, in order to raise money to leave the country. A bank spotted that the cheques had been altered. Abdalla, who had fled, was arrested in Germany, returned to the UK on a European extradition warrant, jailed for breaching his bail and convicted of fraud.
After being released, he was called into Stechford police station in Birmingham so that his confiscated laptop could be returned in February 2013. It was a set-up, Abdalla said. Counter-terrorism officers escorted him upstairs to a green-carpeted room with cameras and recording devices on the wall.
Two men were inside, Abdalla told the court. One, who gave his name as “Phil”, stood up, shook his hand, praised his skills and asked if he would like to work for the security services “gathering intelligence on targets”.
Abdalla said he told them he did not want to work for MI5 “unless they could convince me it was a noble cause”. Their debate allegedly degenerated into a row over rendition, kidnap and torture.
Phil, Abdalla said, “acknowledged they did certain things wrong … and made mistakes … but that that did not mean everything [MI5] did was wrong … At times he would be very angry. He said: ‘It’s in your best interest to work for us.’”
Three days after leaving the station, Abdalla said, Phil called him hoping to arrange another meeting. Abdalla said he rejected the offer and hung up. Over the following 18 months, he claimed, he received hundreds more telephone calls from the same number; sometimes five or 10 calls a day. Abdalla normally ignored them. Once, he said, he answered and a woman said: “Phil wants to speak to you.” Abdalla turned the phone off.
During an open session, the prosecution, led by Duncan Atkinson QC, challenged Abdalla’s claim that he was fleeing from security force harassment and attempted to demonstrate that the difficulties in his life were due to other causes. The court was told that the defendant developed his reason for leaving the country long after his arrest.
By 2015, Abdalla, who lived in Acocks Green, Birmingham, was one of the targets being investigated by an undercover officer, codename “Muhamed”, who had infiltrated alleged Isis supporters suspected of planning to smuggle themselves out of the UK to Syria, the court heard.
One of the other men, Gabriel Rasmus, 29, from Lozells, Birmingham, has pleaded guilty to preparing acts of terrorism, the same offence under section 5(1) of the Terrorism Act 2006 with which Abdalla is charged.
Abdalla and Rasmus, the prosecutor alleged, were planning to travel to Syria via Bulgaria and Turkey “to join forces with so-called Islamic State and to offer their services, with their lives if necessary, to engage in acts of terrorism”.
His final, chaotic search for a lorry to smuggle him overseas was tracked by counter-terrorism officers. When he was detained at Dover, Abdalla held a valid UK passport and, like Rasmus, carried a rucksack containing an iPhone wrapped in foil, a second Nokia mobile, ID cards, £520 and €250 in cash, waterproof clothing, walking boots and a G-Shock watch.
One of the other men detained from the lorry was Mahamuud Diini, Ahmed’s brother. The court was told he had also been trying to leave the country covertly. Diini, however, had been prosecuted previously for seeking to travel to Syria but was acquitted.
Menon pointed out that Abdalla had also been carrying a blazer. “Why take a blazer,” he asked, “if you are heading for the frontline?”