When journalists asked Hani al-Sibai why he was in London living off social security benefits, the Egyptian- born preacher replied: “Ask David Cameron, don’t ask me.” The response was the correct one on more than one count.
Mr Sibai had become the subject of media attention because he was an ideologue of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist extremist group linked to al-Qaeda. Seifeddine Rezgui, who slaughtered 38 tourists on a Tunisian beach had, at one stage, supported Ansar, although he had switched his allegiance to Isis before carrying out the attack in Sousse.
The UK Government, we are told, has been trying for the past 15 years to have Mr Sibai deported back to Egypt, but he has avoided this by the use of the European human rights laws. But just how strenuous, in reality, were the efforts to deport this dangerous cleric?
We now know, from High Court documents, that as early as 2009 the Government had tried to get Mr Sibai off a UN watchlist of al-Qaeda suspects, and that this was thwarted by the US at the behest of the Egyptian authorities. We learn, from WikiLeaks, that Ashraf Mohsen, Egypt’s co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, believed that British intelligence may have been trying to “turn” Mr Sibai, using the United Nations de-listing as an inducement.
A US embassy cable from Cairo added: “Mohsen scoffed at the idea that the British would be able to recruit al-Sibai, claiming the government of Egypt had tried and failed.”
We do not know if Mr Sibai was, in fact, “turned” and subsequently provided important information to MI5. But there are plenty of examples of notorious extremist clerics having contacts with the security and intelligence services in this country, and the strong likelihood that some of them have become informants.
Officers from MI5 and Special Branch had regular contact, for instance, with Abu Hamza al-Masri when he was based in the UK. After deportation to the US on terrorism charges, the cleric claimed at his trial that he had been working secretly with the authorities “to keep the streets of London” safe.
Abu Qatada al-Filistini, described as Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, disappeared from his home in west London just as new laws were being brought in after the 9/11 attacks to allow holding foreign terrorism suspects without trial. Several Western intelligence agencies were adamant that MI5 was using Abu Qatada as an informer against extremist groups and had helped him disappear. A senior French official declared at the time that “British intelligence is saying they have no idea where he is, but we know where he is and if we know, I am sure they do too.” The cleric was found several months later in a council house in Bermondsey. He was later deported to Jordan where he was cleared of terrorism charges.
Infiltrating terrorist groups is an essential part of the job of the security and intelligence services, and claims made by those such as the hostage killer Mohammed Emwazi, or “Jihadi John”, and Michael Adebolajo, one of the two murderers of Fusillier Lee Rigby, that they had somehow been driven to their dreadful acts by attempts to recruit them by the agencies – claims repeated by apologists on their behalf – are risible and need to be treated with contempt. The UK had, in the past, allowed Islamist groups to set up bases in this country. This was in the belief that they could be monitored and also that they would not bomb their own homes. There was even a name for this accommodation – “the covenant of security”.
In return, some of the extremist leaders supplied information which saved lives in this country. At the same time, however, their followers were taking lives abroad. In the end, we discovered in the 7/7 and other attacks that Islamist extremists would blow up their own homes as well as carrying out attacks abroad. This is, thus, a war where there can be terrible consequences when a high-risk strategy backfires.
And such are the rules of this war that not everything – such as the sight of a “hate preacher living on benefits” – may be quite what it seems.