The trial and conviction in the UK of Mohammed Hamid has been one of the most important counter-terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, say police. Prosecutors say this man was at the top of a network identifying and grooming young men to go abroad to fight – and possibly come back to Europe for acts of terrorism.
It started with a religious stall at Marble Arch in London – and was meant to end in battle in Afghanistan. Instead, it ended in a court room after one of the most important counter-terrorism trials since 2001.
The story of Mohammed Hamid and his training network stretches back years. It takes in radical preachers, paintballing trips and late-night brainwashing in the living room of an east London home.
Hamid was a key figure in the lives of the men who tried to blow themselves up in London on 21 July 2005. And even after he saw what had happened on that day, he continued to preach that violence was the solution to the woes of Muslims.
Hamid has had 50 years to decide what to do with his life. But many of those years were wasted in petty crime.
A former crack addict whose first marriage collapsed, he began to put his life in order when he turned to God.
By the mid 1990s he had opened his own bookshop in east London and was running regular “da’wa stalls” – leafleting and debating with passers-by – in central London.
Anger and politics had become core to his faith. He attended talks on the plight of Muslims around the world – in Bosnia, Kashmir, Palestine and later Chechnya. He saw this suffering for himself when Bosnian refugees moved into Hackney and began coming to his shop. He concluded Muslims were the victims of conspiracies.
Hamid was an occasional member of Abu Hamza’s congregation at Finsbury Park Mosque. His co-accused in the trial, Atilla Ahmet, had been Hamza’s right-hand man.
Other men at the mosque included some who had fought abroad in previous jihadi escapades – resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan or taking part in the bloody violence that tore apart Algeria.
So when Hamid took to standing on a ladder at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, his voice stood out because he had absorbed lessons from those he was mingling with.
Speaking in cockney slang, with British-Asian mannerisms and northern vowels, Hamid was different, engaging and charismatic. He told simple tales with easy answers to a complex world. And he talked of an inevitable war between Muslims and the West.
He told Muslims they must prepare to fight – and it was 9/11 he took as the signal to act.
Hamid told his trial that as war came again to Afghanistan, he organised seven 40-tonne containers of aid to Pakistan. From there, he took aid to refugee camps on the Afghan border and medical equipment into the heart of Taleban territory.
Returning home, Hamid picked up his da’wa mission with greater fervour with more late-night talks in his Hackney home.
Ramzi Mohammed and Hussein Osman were two of the young men who came to Hamid’s home. In time they also met Muktar Ibrahim, Yassin Omar and Adel Yayha.
Along with another man whom Hamid did not know, they became the 21/7 London bombers.
Every week, Hamid texted an invitation to his growing list of contacts. He estimates he may have met hundreds of people in his home or bookshop over the course of 12 years of preaching.
But the critical difference was that he found a way to bond people together. Hamid enjoyed the outdoor life and took some of his followers on camping trips to Scotland, Morocco and France.
Trip to the Lakes
The first camping trip known to have involved the 21/7 bombers took place in May 2004 in the Lake District.
Police officers covertly monitored a subsequent camp to the same site a few weeks later, seeing Hamid and his group leave London in two minibuses.
And by August 2004, MI5 were also involved with officers watching the camp.
Hamid was not himself part of Muktar Ibrahim’s 21/7 bomb plot. But investigators say he played a critical role in the radicalisation of the men who carried the devices.
The pair and another man were arrested in October 2004 in a row over their preaching stall in Oxford Street. Hamid allegedly told the arresting officer that his name was “Osama bin London” and “I’ve got a bomb and I’m going to blow you all up”.
David Farrell QC, prosecuting, told the court the true intention behind Hamid’s camps and talks were clear.
They were nothing short of “a grooming mechanism for disaffected Muslim men, slowly and sometimes subtly, preparing them and radicalising for jihad.”
During 2005, Hamid and Atilla Ahmet began holding more and more talks in the apparently relaxed environment of Hamid’s home.
We don’t know how much attention, if any, the police were paying to him at this stage. But an MI5 bug was put in the house two months after the 21/7 attacks. Police followed up by later sending an undercover officer to win Hamid’s trust and attend the talks.
The recordings appear at first to be rambling and incoherent, punctuated with the domestic noise of kids, tea cups and shuffling feet.
But time and again the same topics emerged: the Jews, Americans, Muslims under attack, Muslims who have sold out, Bush, Blair, war in Iraq and a claimed theological justification for violence to defend the global brotherhood.
The talks were combined with more camps during 2006, including a paintballing trip filmed by the BBC for a documentary.
And the jury agreed with the prosecution case that Hamid was providing terrorism training at these camps.
Hamid was attempting to sort the men from the boys – working out who was ready to take the next step, to perhaps go overseas to his claimed contacts for further training.
“Hamid’s purpose was to convert such men to his own fanatical and extreme believes,” said Mr Farrell in his prosecution.
“And having given them such a foundation, thereby enabling them to move on to join others in the pursuit of ‘jihad’ by acts of terrorism. The fact is that some did exactly as he desired.”
Hamid’s has been one of the most important counter-terrorism prosecutions since 9/11.
He and Atilla Ahmet go to jail for propagating an ideology of hatred and fear. The men convicted alongside them were not the only ones to attend talks at Hamid’s home and camps.
Detectives think Hamid may have been making up to 10 new contacts a month during the period they were watching him.
Many of these men would briefly listen to his theories and go on their way. Others would come to his home.
The question is how many of those left believing what they had heard – and where did they go?
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