A male suspect in a major anti-terrorist investigation in Britain escaped capture by allegedly disguising himself as a Muslim woman dressed in a burka, The Times can reveal.
The man, who was wanted in connection with serious terrorist offences, evaded arrest for several days as police searched for him across the country.
The fact that a fugitive remained at large after disguising himself in an Islamic dress which covered his face will further fuel the debate sparked by Jack Straw, Leader of the House of Commons, about the wearing of the veil.
Details of the man’s true identity were circulated to ports and airports to try to prevent him leaving the country.
He was eventually caught and is now one of more than 90 suspects in British prisons awaiting trial on terror charges.
The suspect’s name and the detail of the offences he is accused of cannot be revealed because of the danger of prejudicing his forthcoming trial.
It is the first time that a male suspect has allegedly disguised himself as a Muslim woman in Britain. However, the tactic has been used frequently by Islamist fighters — including suicide bombers — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, often dressed in a burka to evade American forces hunting him.
Counter-terrorist agencies in Britain and Europe have long been concerned about the readiness of male Islamist terrorists to wear female clothing.
The issue of people hiding their faces under the burka, which covers the whole face, or behind the niqab, which exposes only the eyes, has also posed difficulties for banks, immigration authorities and benefit offices. But questions of security have tended to be overruled by the need to maintain good community relations.
Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, expressed concern that the issue could create unnecessary tension. “If this is true, then it is the first case of its kind in Britain and an isolated incident. We must not get hysterical about it. There have been many hundreds of cases where robberies have been committed by men wearing women’s stockings on their heads — but no one is talking about banning stockings.
“The important thing is that the police and the security services should feel comfortable and confident about stopping anyone who they have suspicions about, whatever they are wearing.”
Speaking on the BBC, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “I fear sometimes people might use it in a more prejudiced way and I am concerned it may damage relations rather than improve them.”
He added that he would not follow Mr Straw’s practice of asking Muslim women in constituency meetings to uncover their faces.
Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, also disagreed with Mr Straw’s stance. She said that in the past she had regarded the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression, but changed her mind after a meeting with a Muslim woman in her constituency. “She’d made the decision — not her parents or anybody else — that she wanted, as part of her statement of her faith, to wear the veil.”
However, Mr Straw was backed by Phil Woolas, the minister responsible for community cohesion, race and faith, whose Oldham constituency contains a large Muslim population. Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he said: “Most British-born Muslims who wear it do so as an assertion of their identity and religion. This can create fear and resentment among non-Muslims and lead to discrimination. Muslims then become even more determined to assert their identity, and so it becomes a vicious circle where the only beneficiaries are racists like the BNP.”
Anila Baig, a columnist on The Sun newspaper, reported that at Leeds-Bradford airport no member of security had asked her to remove her niqab to check her identity against her passport picture.
Muslim organisations have complained about receiving hate mail since Mr Straw referred to the veil as “a visible statement of separation” in his local newspaper. A spokesman for The Muslim Safety Forum said that there had been an increase in attacks against Muslims, and added: “We are concerned that Jack Straw’s comments will be picked up by certain elements of the community who want to spread Islamophobia.”