'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

Jerome Taylor
Sunday 06 January 2013 23:25 GMT

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.

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