The bomber who never was

This is the face of Reda Moghrabi. Because of him fellow Palestinians Samar Alami and Jawad Botmi are serving 20 years for conspiracy to bomb the Israeli Embassy. Only Moghrabi - now suspected of being an Israeli agent - knows the truth, but apart from their word there is not the slightest evidence that he ever existed.
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Inside her tiny room, with its arched brick roof just off the stone corridor of the women's Category "A" prison in Durham, Samar Alami has already had two years to ponder the extraordinary events that took her from her wealthy Knightsbridge home to share her life with Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. Palestine seems a very long way away - even when Samar Alami hands her visitors a small cup of scalding, Arabic coffee - and the more she tells her story, the more you realise how difficult it must have been for an English jury to believe in her innocence.

On 16 December, 1996, Samar Alami and her friend, Jawad Botmi, both proclaiming their innocence, were convicted of conspiring to bomb the Israeli embassy and the headquarters of the Zionist federation in London in 1994. "The evil pair," one paper called them. When Alami named the man she believed had entrapped them - Reda Moghrabi, whom she now suspected was an Israeli agent - the authorities largely ignored her revelation. Which is perverse, to say the least, because the police admit they never found the actual bomber. And Moghrabi is the name the bomber used.

At 32, Samar Alami is a slight, energetic Lebanese-Palestinian with a BSc in chemical engineering from University College, London, and an MSc from Imperial College; an intelligent, thoughtful, political woman who was a member of various British Palestinian groups, as well as a supporter - she never concealed this - of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Jawad Botmi is 30, came from Battir in the occupied West Bank, and holds a BSc in electrical engineering from Leicester University. An attempt to run his own security alarm company had failed by January 1995, and he was reduced to earning pin-money in Britain by acting as a middle-man at car auctions. Frustration at the plight of Palestinian refugees, anger at the unfair nature of the Oslo "peace" accord, and guilt that they had no part in the "resistance" to Israeli rule in the West Bank, brought the two together.

Carefully, Alami tells visitors of her life before the trial: how she had kept two guns in a family apartment in Knightsbridge for a Palestinian friend who feared assassination when he was in London; how she tried to work out the chemistry of bombs which could be improvised for use against Israeli military targets in the occupied territories; how she experimented with Botmi to see if model aircraft could carry explosives over the Lebanese- Israeli border; how she had been photographed at a London synagogue during a visit by Shimon Peres (she said she took an interest in Jewish affairs); and of how she took up Reda Moghrabi's offer of free explosives (for experiments with the model aircraft, she claims) a few days before the Israeli embassy was bombed in 1994.

"I guess I was a bit naive," she told me just before her trial. "I never felt threatened by Reda Moghrabi. I didn't take nearly enough precautions." And listening to her, I could see how the 12-strong jury would shake their heads in disbelief. She was convicted by a majority of 11 to one, and I wasn't surprised. Gareth Peirce, her solicitor, was not going to score any points when the defence tried to explain to the jury the history of Palestine - even though Peirce brought along a shoal of testaments for Samar Alami, including one from a former Tory minister, Lord Gilmour.

But the trial was, to put it mildly, a very puzzling affair. Even before it began, the case developed unusually. First of all, the police charged Nadia Zekra, a very middle-class Palestinian lady, with planting the bomb outside the embassy. Explosive traces had supposedly been found on a table in her home. Then, once the trial began, all charges against Zekra were dropped. Another Palestinian, Mahmoud Abu-Wardeh, was charged, but the jury acquitted him on all charges. And in the pre-trial period, the judge allowed both Alami and Botmi to go free on bail - indeed, I first met both of them when they turned up to a lecture I gave at the Royal Geographical Society in London during their hearing. Why, I asked myself then, would the court allow two supposedly dangerous "terrorists", alleged to have blown up an embassy, to wander the streets of London?

The claim of responsibility for the Israeli embassy bombing was itself very curious. It was sent to two Arab newspapers in London and claimed to be from the "Jaffa team" of the "Palestinian Resistance". No such group has ever been heard of before, or since, and the wording of the Arabic- language document lacked the clarity of nearly all other similar claims. A week earlier, a massive bomb had destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires - yet the London bombings killed no one, an extraordinary miracle that had most Middle East militants wondering what sort of organisation could have proved so ineffective. Every Palestinian opposition group or Muslim organisation in Lebanon opposed to the so-called "peace process" has either denied to The Independent any role in the explosions, or expressed ignorance of it.

Then came the trial itself. Gareth Peirce, Alami's solicitor - the lady who broke the prosecution's case in the Guildford Four trial - agrees that the judge, Mr Justice Garland, generally behaved with great fairness towards her client. But there were some unhappy prosecution slips in the trial.

A drawing of London streets allegedly showing the location of the Israeli embassy - target of the July 1994 bombers - was proved to be a street map of Sidon where one of Alami's relatives lived. There was confusion about an aerial found in Mr Abu-Wardeh's possession which was originally said to be part of Botmi's aircraft project, but was in fact part of a security alarm.

Then two members of the jury complained to Mr Justice Garland that a reporter in the court had tried to contact them during the trial proceedings. One of the jurors stated that the reporter "said words to the effect: `I've got a telephone number if you want it.'" The reporter - subsequently identified by The Independent as a journalist for Israeli radio, and who denied any attempt to "nobble" the jury - was interviewed by the police but allowed to remain in court during the trial.

Gareth Peirce tried to obtain the film from the Israeli embassy security videotape camera that must have shown the bomber - only to be told that the security camera was not working on the day of the bombing. Both the accused could prove that they were not at the scene of the bombing - Alami had been making a telephone call from the Imperial College library at the time, had forgotten where she was when the bomb exploded (as she might well have done if innocent), and was only able to prove her alibi when her solicitor found that the telephone in the library recorded the time and number of calls.

But once Alami and Botmi decided to name Moghrabi - having apparently begun to realise the degree to which they had been "set up" - the authorities took little interest in the revelation. She was not asked to provide a portrait of the man who may well - if she was telling the truth - have been behind the bombings. "There is no independent evidence of his existence, and we never had an address, telephone number ... no business reference, no bank account, no credit card reference..."

Mr Justice Garland remarked: "Well now, is he real? Is his name a label for someone else, or is he a fictitious character carefully tailored to fit those parts of the Crown's case to which there is no answer?" As far as the couple were concerned, the judge might have added: "he could have been a Mossad agent, a police informer, or goodness knows what, for all they knew."

The name Moghrabi can be Arabic or Jewish, Lebanese or Palestinian - most Moghrabis in the Middle East would trace their ancestry to the 16th- century Spanish expulsion of Jews and Arabs to the Maghreb of North Africa. Moghrabi may be a name as false as the intentions of the man in whom Alami and Botmi placed their trust in 1992.

But since Alami and Botmi put together their portrait of Moghrabi separately from each other - in two different prisons where they were being held - and since the two faces are similar, he almost certainly did exist. And from their memory of his words, it is also possible to reconstruct his story. Agents, after all, are always encouraged to build their identities around events that really happened, because it is easier to stick to a biography if some of it is actually true.

Born in the West Bank around 1950, and to parents who had abandoned their home on the coast during the 1948 flight of Palestinians from what became Israel, Moghrabi grew up in Nablus or Ramallah. Arrested by the Israelis for "resistance activities" in 1978 or 1979, he moved to Jordan where he taught at the Barqaa refugee camp.

In early June 1982, Moghrabi fought Israeli invasion forces on the Lebanese coast road south of Sidon. Falling out with both Yasser Arafat's PLO and Arafat's opponents in Damascus, he left Lebanon via Syria and Cyprus for Britain where - through refugee status or marriage to an Englishwoman - he went into business with Gulf contacts. In the mid-Eighties, he moved to Kuwait but then fled when Iraq invaded in 1990, returning to Britain to live in Birmingham.

Alami met Moghrabi for the first time in the spring of 1992, after they both attended a London lecture on the Middle East. Moghrabi began discussing "resistance problems" with Alami and Botmi in 1993, recalling his experience in Lebanon. "Moghrabi was coming across as someone informative, critical, interesting, and experienced," Alami was to recall. By March of 1994, they were talking about the techniques of bomb-making. Moghrabi seemed "knowledgeable". In June 1994, Moghrabi used Botmi's help in buying a second-hand Audi car - which was to seal Botmi's fate. A few days later, Alami and Moghrabi met for the last time.

"He had phoned me ... saying he was leaving Britain and he might leave a few things for me," Alami recalled. "He said that he had been doing experiments, that he had products (sic) he no longer needed ... and thought of giving them to me." Moghrabi gave Alami explosives, boot-to-boot from his car to hers in central London. "I wasn't sure how to react but somehow couldn't say no," she says. Just after midday on 26 July, 1994, the Audi car blew up outside the Israeli embassy in London. That night, another bomb exploded outside Balfour house in Finchley. Alami and Botmi were convicted of conspiracy - though not the actual bombing - in December.

The jury obviously concluded that Reda Moghrabi was a fictitious character. But if so, Alami and Botmi have produced a mighty convincing portrait of the "Man Who Never Was". And since even Scotland Yard agree that the convicted pair did not carry out the bombing - that there was someone else who actually planted the bomb - you might expect the police to show a little more interest in the man with the staring eyes.