'We're happy to help MI5 – but coercing us to spy is unacceptable': British Somalis say intelligence agents asking for too much

It's not just Mo Farah who gets stopped at the airport – but, as prominent Somalis tell Jerome Taylor, the security services' 'use of threats' is alienating the whole community

Whenever Aar Maanta travels abroad he keeps an eye out for the men in suits. For most travellers, the worst inconvenience might be a cancelled flight or an over-zealous security check. But Maanta is a prominent British Somali singer and when he leaves or returns to Britain, he claims he is often taken aside by these mysterious officials asking unusual questions.

In an interview last week the London Olympics hero Mo Farah angrily explained how he was stopped at an airport in Oregon on suspicion of being a terrorist. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "Because of my Somali origin I get detained every time I come through US Customs."

But in Maanta's case, it isn't usually customs or security people who want a word. "You can tell it's not the immigration people," recalls the softly spoken singer, who fled civil war in his homeland in the late 1980s. "It's like there's a note on the computer and they make you sit in a side room. Then the guys in suits come along. Their general approach is, 'we can help you if you help us'."

For many of Britain's estimated 400,000 Somalis, such experiences are depressingly familiar and there is growing anger about how they are treated at Britain's ports. Top of their list of complaints is the allegation that pressure is being put on young Somali men in particular to spy on their own community.

Mohammed Elmi, the head of Somali Diaspora UK, told The Independent that the problem of coercive spying had become so bad that Somali elders in London felt compelled to hold a gathering shortly before Christmas to discuss the issue. Out of the 33 boroughs represented, 17 said they had community members who felt pressured to spy.

"The community is very keen to cooperate with the UK Government and security. What is unacceptable is any form of coercion or pressure."

The Independent first revealed concerns about such tactics being used by the security services in 2009, when five east African Muslim men said they were harangued by MI5 officers who wanted them to work as informants, and were threatened with sanctions if they refused to co-operate. Three of the five were approached after returning from family holidays. One of the men, Mahdi Hashi, had his citizenship revoked late last year by the Home Office and was suddenly rendered from a jail in Djibouti to the United States – an incident which has caused consternation among many British Somalis.

Airports have long been fertile territory for Britain's security services looking to make first contact with potential sources, because airlines keep detailed records of passengers, enabling our spies to keep a close eye on who is coming in and out of the country.

The cultivation of sources is key for national security, and many Somalis work with MI5 and MI6 to combat militant groups such a al-Shabaab. But there are fears that stories of coercion are starting to backfire on the intelligence-gathering community.

Jamal Osman, a British filmmaker who has won awards for his reports from his war-torn homeland, says he has often been approached by security officials at airports. And he regularly hears reports that Somalis are threatened with having their passports taken away if they don't co-operate – something he believes works against the intelligence community because it will dissuade Somalis from coming forward when they do have information.

Mr Osman said: "When they say, 'We gave this to you, we can take it away from you whenever we want', it sends a terrible signal. It shows Somalis they'll never be part of the nation. You might have been born here, you might have been brought up here, but we can take it all away from you."

Maanta, whose songs of longing for his homeland and struggling to fit in resonate with young Somali immigrants, got so fed up with the regular checks that for his single Deeqa he made a music video in which he re-enacts being questioned at Heathrow. "The problem is you risk alienating young British Somalis," he says. "Anyone with common sense would go to the authorities if they knew something bad was going on. It's your duty to do that. But they shouldn't be forcing people to spy."

The security services do not usually comment on intelligence matters and declined to respond to The Independent last night, but MI5 has previously denied on its website that Muslims are harassed by its officers.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses papparrazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
tech
News
people
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
News
i100
News
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
News
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
media
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
film
Sport
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Organisational Change/ Transition Project Manager

£500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Accountacy Tutor

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Randstad Education is looking...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis