Defiant shouts end a strange saga of international intrigue and conspiracy

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The Independent Online
UNDER DIFFERENT circumstances, Samad Ahmed could have been in his local pub yesterday afternoon, enjoying his usual lager and lime. His friend Mohsin Ghailan would have been equally at ease in sharp designer clothing and trendy dyed red hair. Just a couple of lads with Brummie accents, arguing about football, or cars or the music scene .

Instead, they stood in a hot and packed courtroom inYemen with photographers and cameramen jostling for space as Judge Jamal Mohammed Omar announced his verdict. They and three other Britons in the dock with them were guilty of taking part in a terrorist plot to carry out bombings and murders. The defendants shouted "Allahu Akhbar" in a gesture of defiance, members of their families were in tears. Outside, more than 200 soldiers from the country's special forces kept guard on jeeps with mounted machine guns.

It was the dramatic finale to an extraordinary tale of international intrigue, conspiracy and diplomatic furore. The Britons were convicted of preparing to unleash jihad - a holy war - in Aden.

They planned to destroy the only Christian church in the city with a rocket attack; blow up tourists by mining the Movenpick Hotel; cut the throats of known homosexuals and assassinate British and other Western diplomats.

There is little in the background of the men convicted yesterday to explain why they would leave homes and families in England and travel 3,000 miles to unleash carnage. Ahmed and Ghailan were students, from Birmingham and West London respectively, their fellow defendant Gulam Hussein, 25, was a security guard from Luton. Shazad Nabi, 20, was a bus driver and Ayaz Hussain, 26, a computer studies graduate, both from Birmingham, as were Malik Nasser, a graduate in information systems, and Shahid Butt, a charity worker. Mohammed Mustafa Kamal, at 17, the youngest, had just left school in North London.

Six of the group were born in England of Pakistani or North African parents. Malik Nasser, though born in Yemen, was brought to England when only two months old. Shahid Butt was six months old when his family moved from Pakistan.

None of them, to the casual observer, showed signs of being particularly devout Muslims; they did not burn with religious zeal and blended easily into the multi-cultural city schools and surroundings they grew up in. Ghailan, according to his Yemeni guards, did not know how many times a day a Muslim should pray, or which side of his cell faced Mecca.

When first arrested last December they appeared to be unfortunate victims of an impending miscarriage of justice; confessions had been beaten out of them, their families and supporters told everyone who would listen. But it seems that, despite their normal British upbringing, at least some of them had actually begun to move in a dangerous and violent world.

It is worth noting that half way through the trial the vocal campaign on behalf of the Yemen Eight effectively collapsed. The Muslim business community in England stopped raising money for their defence, charities began to shy away and the fighting fund ground to a halt at pounds 26,000. Three of the Aden lawyers left the team because there were not enough funds to pay them.

The turning point came with the unearthing of a videotape showing Mohsin Ghailan and Mustafa Kamal toting guns in Albania with men the Yemeni prosecution said were members of the mujahedin, warriors who had fought for Islam from Afghanistan and Kashmir to the Balkans. The Yemeni authorities also showed off mines, rockets and TNT which they claimed the defendants had intended to use.

The two young men were also linked to a man who, from his base in Finsbury Park, North London, has cast a long shadow over the proceedings. Mustafa was the son, and Mohsin, the godson, of Abu Hamza, a night-club bouncer turned militant Muslim cleric, who preaches the overthrow of Muslim governments who have refused to enforce Islamic law, and supposedly sold out to the godless West.

Abu Hamza, who says he lost both hands fighting in Afghanistan, has criss-crossed Britain on a Friday afternoon prayer circuit, spreading the word that the young should take up the sword of Islam. One of his stops was in Birmingham and among those listening were some of the young men who are starting prison sentenced in Yemen today.

Their presence at his meetings was a reaction against their liberal, secular upbringing in Britain. Among some young Muslims there was mounting anger that, throughout the world, Islam was being oppressed and traduced. Abu Hamza told them they should do something about it.

Selim Nasruddin, a young engineer, who went to some of these meetings, recalled the atmosphere of fervour: "Many young British Muslims have a feeling of disenchantment and being hard done by. They see fellow Muslims suffering in places like Bosnia and Kosovo and Palestine, and Muslim governments which are corrupt and not following the laws of Allah. Going off to fight for such a cause can be quite appealing for kids leading boring lives and who can be easily indoctrinated."

Abu Hamza ran an organisation called the Supporters of Shariah which, as well as advocating Islamic revolution, ran food convoys to Muslim refugees in the Balkans. It is claimed that some of these trips were covers for establishing links with the mujahedin, planning operations and training. Samad Ahmed had become heavily involved with the SoS, it is claimed, as had Malik Nasser.

Abu Hamza is a bit of a Walter Mitty, boasting guerrilla experience and international connections that he did not have. Nevertheless, the eight young men, with varying degrees of connection to the cleric all ended up in the Yemen. The defendants say they were there for a variety of reasons, from holidays to arranging a haj - a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Yemeni authorities say the real reason was to establish contact with the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA). Abu Hamza is supposed to have met its leader, Zen al-Abidine al-Mihdar, when he spent some time in Yemen after leaving Afghanistan. Last September a member of the IAA gave a lecture in Abu Hamza's Finsbury Park mosque, and handed out recruiting literature.

Al-Mihdar and his men had already made headlines across the world when they kidnapped 16 Western tourists. A botched rescue attempt led to the deaths of four hostages, three Britons and an Australian. The prosecution claimed the Britons had been dispatched by Abu Hamza to train at one of Al-Mihdar's secret desert camps.

But after a traffic offence one night last December the plan started to unravel. Three of the young Britons were stopped by a policeman. They bolted, abandoning their car and fleeing on foot. By next morning, five of them had been hauled out of their hotel rooms by police.

Three others fled into the desert and hid out for a week before being betrayed by a local sheikh.

The journey which had started in the mosques of London and Birmingham was coming to its grim end.

How Case Unfolded

3 July 1998

Malik Nasser, first of the eight in Yemen, arrives with mother, to visit relatives at his father's village, Yafa'i

13 November to 18 December

Other seven arrive and book into hotels and villa

23/24 December

Five Britons and man with French passport arrested after police chase

7 January 1999

Yemenis tells Foreign Office Britons being held

15 January

Detainees charged with "association with armed gangs ... to commit murder, explosions and destruction, and possession of weapons"

23 January

Britons tell lawyer they have been tortured, sexually abused and forced to confess

27 January

Mustafa Kamel, Shazad Nabi and Iyaz Hussein arrested and charged. Trial begins in Aden

31 January

British pathologist Chris Milroy says torture claims "very persuasive"

10 February

Bid to dismiss charges on torture grounds fails

9 May

Gulam Hussain, asthma sufferer, released on bail on health grounds

22 June

Trial ends. Verdict awaited

9 August

Court finds men guilty