Former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg among four Britons arrested on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism

Father-of-three suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas

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".

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions