Moazzam Begg, the British former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was one of four people arrested by police in dawn raids on their homes today on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offences.
Father-of-three Mr Begg, 45, from Hall Green in Birmingham, is suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas according to West Midlands Police. Counter-terrorism officers also arrested a 44-year-old woman and her son, aged 20, both from Sparkhill, Birmingham, and a 36-year-old man from Shirley, in Solihull, all on suspicion of facilitating terrorism overseas.
The homes were searched as vehicles and electronic equipment were removed for forensic analysis while the quartet were taken to a station and questioned following the “intelligence-led, pre-planned” operation. It is understood that Mr Begg is alleged to have attended a jihadist training camp in Syria and also to have acted as a liaison man between extremists in the UK and those in Syria.
The arrests are the latest part of a growing focus on UK-Syria links: last month alone, 16 people were arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences related to Syria compared with 24 arrests in the whole of last year.
A female family member who answered the door at the address of Mr Begg’s father Azmat, 74, in Sparkhill, said: “His father is a very ill man but we are all aware of what has happened. I was surprised but there’s lots of interest in him because of the Guantanamo link but that was eight years ago now. He’s unfairly marked because of his past.”
A neighbour of Mr Begg said he recently went away for six months and wife Sally Siksek, 42, had told her he had gone “somewhere that was having a war".
Satellite images show Syria devastation
Satellite images show Syria devastation
This combination of two satellite images released by Human Rights Watch shows the Masha al-Arbíeen,neighborhood in Hama, Syria on 28 September 2012, top and on 3 October 2012
This combination of two satellite images released by Human Rights Watch shows the Masha al-Arbíeen neighborhood in Hama, Syria on 28 September 2012, top and on 13 October 2012
This combination of two satellite images released by Human Rights Watch shows Six-story residential building on fire likely from artillery shelling in the Tadamoun neighborhood of Damascus, Syria on 16 July 2012, top and 22 September 2012 and a six-story residential building demolished with controlled explosives, as visible on 22 September 2012
This combination of two satellite images released by Human Rights Watch shows dozens of high-rise residential and commercial buildings along the main road between Mezzeh Air Base and Daraya, a Damascus, Syria suburb on 4 February 2013, top and on 1 July 2013
The woman, who did not wish to be named, said: “We hadn’t seen him around for a while but nobody knew where he had gone. He was away for a few months. His wife said he had gone for six months. I spoke to her very briefly a few months ago.
“She was very friendly. She said it was somewhere where there was a war at the time but she didn’t say where. I said ‘how are you managing with the kids?’ and she said ‘I’m used to it. He goes away a lot with his job’.
“They have a little boy and two teenagers, a boy and a girl. They keep themselves to themselves. He never speaks to anybody, not that I’ve ever seen. They are very quiet. No one had a clue what he does for a living though and she doesn’t work.”
Speaking about the raid this morning, she said a car came to take Mr Begg’s children away so officers could search the property.
Other neighbours reacted with shock. Mohammed Ashraf, 51, who lives next door to Mr Begg in an affluent part of the city, said he had no idea who his neighbour was. He said: “I’ve been here 12 years and he’s been here for about three years. I followed his case about Guantanamo Bay and didn't know he lived next door. On TV he looks more chubby. He looks thinner in real life.
“I spoke to him a few times and he’s very quiet. I didn’t know it was the same guy I had seen on TV. It’s come as quite a shock to hear he’s been arrested by terror police. That sort of thing does not happen around here.”
A spokeswoman for West Midlands Police said that naming Mr Begg does “not imply any guilt”. She said: “We can confirm that Moazzam Begg was arrested this morning. We are confirming this name as a result of the anticipated high public interest to accredited media.”
Detective Superintendent Shaun Edwards, Head of Investigations for West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, said: “All four arrests are connected. They were pre-planned and intelligence led. There was no immediate risk to public safety. We continue to urge anyone planning to travel to Syria to read the advice issued by the Foreign Office.”
Originally from Birmingham, Mr Begg moved to Afghanistan with his family in 2001 before taking them to Pakistan the following year when the war began. He was detained in Islamabad as an “enemy combatant” in January 2002 and was taken to the Bagram internment centre for about a year before being transferred to Guantanamo.
He was held on the US-run military prison for nearly three years until January 2005 when he was released without charge by then President George Bush. Although arrested by British police on his return to the UK he was later released without charge and subsequently claimed he had been tortured in Guantanamo Bay.
Mr Begg has made a number of visits to Syria in recent months where he has met prisoners of the Assad regime as well as refugees of the civil war. As well as witnessing British aid being brought in, he claimed he also met British fighters.
Mr Begg, now a director of campaign group Cage, has always maintained that he was only involved in charity business and that he has never been involved in any kind of terrorist activity.
Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage, which campaigns for the rights of people detained during counter-terrorism operations, said the group was “outraged” by the arrest. He said: “Cage calls on all defenders of civil liberties and the rule of law to stand up and protest against the serious curtailment of yet another victim. The message may be unpalatable to those who wish to shroud their abuse in secrecy but that can never justify an attack on the messengers.
“We are disgusted that Moazzam Begg is being re-traumatised with the same guilt by association accusations that resulted in his unlawful incarceration in Guantanamo Bay. We fully support our colleague and see his arrest as politically motivated and as part of a campaign to criminalise legitimate activism.”
Mr Begg blogged about his travels to Syria in an article published on the Cage website on Christmas Eve and earlier this month gave an interview after his passport was confiscated for the second time in eight years after he returned from South Africa.
Mr Begg wrote: “I was met upon arrival at Heathrow by officials who served me with a notice to seize my passport under the ‘Royal Prerogative’ stating that it was assessed my previous visits to Syria had constituted involvement in terrorism. No explanation other than that was given.
“I am certain that the only reason I am being continually harassed - something that began long before any visit to Syria - is because CagePrisoners and I are at the forefront of investigations and assertions based on hard evidence that British governments, past and present, have been wilfully complicit in torture.”
Mr Begg said his two trips to Syria were “to investigate leads into cases of British and American complicity in the rendition of terrorism suspects to the regime of Bashar al-Assad”.
Around 250 British-based extremists who went to train and fight in Syria have returned to the UK. Ministers have been told that over the past two years more than 400 Britons have gone to Syria and it is now thought just over half have returned.
The Birmingham arrests follow reports of British-based jihadist Abdul Waheed Majeed, 41, staging a suicide attack on a Syrian government prison in the country earlier this month.