Grassing: the use and impact of informants in the war on terror

The British state is spying on Muslims

The use of “grasses” and the deployment of undercover police are at the centre of Britain’s counter-terrorism policy. These practices foster a culture of suspicion and have a profoundly damaging impact on British Muslim communities, writes Aviva Stahl from human rights organisation CagePrisoners.  

The issue of “grassing” in British Muslim communities is significant and worrying. It contributes to a broader trend in the War on Terror of a perceived two tiered system of justice – one for Muslims, and one for everyone else.

The story of “grassing” in British Muslim communities is inextricably linked to the events of 7 July 2007. There was a palpable sense of shock amongst the broader British public that the young men who committed the attacks had been born and raised in England. After 7/7, it was the internal threat of so-called “home-grown terrorism” that became an important concern of the British government, police and security services. “Grassing” was an obvious solution to the perceived radicalisation of the British Muslim community.

“Grassing” encompasses a wide range of agents and behaviour – from information on individuals gathered through radicalisation prevention programmes, to “moles” recruited in secret, to undercover police placed in communities, to others who agree to inform in exchange for reduced sentences. CagePrisoners has identified four ways in which “grassing” operates in and affects British Muslim communities.

Overt grassing: the Prevent strategy

Prevent is one of the four strands of CONTEST, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy that was first published in 2006. CagePrisoners believes that the Prevent strategy constitutes the British government’s most overt and systematic effort to gain information on Muslims for the stated aim of preventing radicalisation.

Prevent engagement officers are police staff, so the vast majority of Prevent activity enables and in fact requires the sharing of individual or community data with the police. Prevent helps the police and security services keep their “eyes and ears on the ground” in Muslim communities, particularly because British Muslims may encounter Prevent-trained staff in nearly every institution they come across in their daily lives.

In sum, Prevent works by using established institutions, organisations and public services within Muslim communities to gather information and identify Muslims who subscribe to the theological and political beliefs deemed “acceptable” by the state.

Case study: Rizwaan Sabir: In 2008, while studying for his Master’s degree at the University of Nottingham, Rizwaan Sabir downloaded an al-Qaida training manual from the US Department of Justice website in order to prepare for his research on Islamist terrorism. The manual was also available at the university library and could be purchased from WH Smith, Waterstones and Amazon.

Rizwaan Sabir
Rizwaan Sabir

Sabir emailed the manual and two related academic journal articles to a friend, Hicham Yezza, who had agreed to help him with his PhD proposal. This “dangerous” material was reported to the registrar of the University of Nottingham who was instructed by the Deputy Head of Security to call the police. In May 2008, both Sabir and his friend were arrested on campus on suspicion of possessing extremist materialand held without charge for seven days in solitary confinement before being released.

Sabir later sued the police for false imprisonment and racial discrimination. In a 2011 op-ed for al-Jazeera, Sabir wrote:

“Only weeks before the trial was to begin, the police – desperate to prevent embarrassment and criticism – settled the case out of court. They paid me £20,000 ($31,000) in compensation, all of my legal expenses and removed all the incorrect (and unnecessary) information that they held on my intelligence file. Documentation that stated I was a “convicted” terrorist, that I wore a black hoody with the words “Free Palestine” written on it and had an ‘attitude’ toward the police…”

In 2012, it was also revealed that the police had fabricated evidence in order to justify Sabir’s arrest, namely by recording false statements from an interview with a professor at Sabir’s university about why he had downloaded the document. Sabir commented:

“I have known that the police lied and deceived in order to justify my arrest and treatment and this has now been proven.”

Sabir’s case highlights the way in which Prevent monitors Muslims for assumed political or theological beliefs, instead of for potential criminal behavior. The state should not place on university staff, doctors and youth workers the responsibility to monitor Muslims on its behalf, a job which compromises theirprofessional roles.

Covert grassing: secret recruitment of community members

Some British Muslims are secretly recruited by the police and security services to provide information about potentially dangerous or radicalised individuals.

It is difficult to establish the frequency with which this practice takes place. There are very few community members willing to admit on record that they have provided information to the authorities – but on occasion previous or current “grasses“ have spoken to journalists and community advocates attempting to address the issue of informants in Muslim communities.

In order to get a sense of the extent of the problem, I interviewed two people who have worked on this subject, Roshan Muhammed Salih of Press TV and Moazzam Begg of CagePrisoners. Salih and Begg said they have observed that the police and security services tend to target community leaders, especially youth workers. They both stressed that state agents are likely to use personal information about individuals that could jeopardise their standing in the community in order to pressure them into informing, for example by threatening to disclose an extra-marital affair. Both men also reported that non-British citizens often agree to inform after having their immigration status threatened.

Individuals may also be induced to inform through the promise of payments or lesser sentences for criminal offences. In the past, British police forces have paid more than £6 million a year to informants in exchange for information on criminal activity, although it is impossible to know what proportion of this sum has been paid to informants placed in Muslim communities.

Case study: Mahdi Hashi and the Kentish Town Community Organisation workers: In 2009, five Muslim community workers from North London publicly denounced MI5 for attempting to blackmail them into working as informants. The men, who all worked with disadvantaged youth at the Kentish Town Community Organisation, reported that they were told they would be detained and harassed as terror suspects if they refused to provide information to security services.

Mahdi Hashi
Mahdi Hashi

Three of the men were detained at foreign airports after leaving Britain, sent back to the UK and stopped by MI5 agents under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows an examining officer to stop, search, question and detain a person travelling through a port, airport or border area.

Two others claimed that after they returned from trips abroad, officers disguised as postmen approached them at their homes to ask them to spy on fellow Muslims. In a 2009 article published by The Independent, the men recounted their terrifying interactions with security service agents.

One of the men, Mahdi Hashi, told The Independent that upon arrival at Djibouti airport, he was held for 16 hours and then abruptly sent back to the UK. An officer allegedly told him that MI5 was responsible for his deportation and stressed that his “suspect” status would only be cleared if he agreed to co-operate with MI5.

Hashi recalls, “I told him ‘This is blatant blackmail’; he said ‘No, it’s just proving your innocence. By co-operating with us we know you’re not guilty.’…I looked at him and said ‘I don’t ever want to see you or hear from you again.’” Hashi was 19 years old at the time. According to his family, Hashi decided to move back to Somalia after being harassed by MI5. Last year, over the course of only a few months, he was stripped of his citizenship, kidnapped and imprisoned by the Djibouti authorities, then secretly transferred to US custody and charged with material support for terrorism. Hashi’s family, CagePrisoners, and other civil liberties advocates, believe that Mahdi was punished for refusing to “grass” on his community. The accounts of the Kentish Town Community Organisation care workers indicate the lengths to which MI5 agents may be willing to go in order to pressure Muslim community members to inform.

Undercover police in Muslim communities

We know from the experiences of the left in Britain that undercover officers are used to infiltrate suspect communities. In 2011, the trial of six people accused of trying to shut down the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire collapsed when an undercover policeman came forward and offered to testify in their defence.

One of the defendants explained the primary role played by the undercover officer: “We’re not talking about someone sitting at the back of the meeting taking notes – he was in the thick of it…Mark Stone was involved in organising this for months – they [the police] could have stopped it at the start.”

It has also been revealed that several male undercover officers placed in protest groups developed long-term intimate relationships with female activists they had met. Some of these relationships lasted years and in at least one case resulted in the birth of a child. We also know that the police sometimes used the names and identities of dead infants to create aliases for undercover officers.

Given what has been revealed about the actions of undercover officers in activist groups, it is not difficult to imagine that police officers may have similarly penetrated and established themselves in British Muslim communities. So far, there is only one known instance of undercover officers infiltrating Muslim communities.

Case study: Munir Farooqi: For about ten years, Munir Farooqi ran a da’wa (propagation) stall in Manchester that aimed to spread the message of Islam to non-believers. He provided information about Islam, sold CDs, DVDs and books, and encouraged individuals to take the shahadah (the Islamic testimony of faith).

In 2008, two undercover police officers approached the stall and expressed an interest in Islam. Munir’s son, Harris, explained to CagePrisoners how the two men gained the trust of the Farooqi family:

Munir Farooqi is serving four life terms for terrorism
Munir Farooqi is serving four life terms for terrorism

“Over the space of a year, they befriended me. I looked up to them because they were more practising than myself. They would encourage me to pray, they would encourage me to attend lectures and to do all sorts of good deeds. I felt embarrassed that these people who had come newly to Islam were teaching me…They took shahada, they would go the mosque and pray five times a day. They deceived the local community. They grew their beard, they would wear Islamic clothing, they would speak like the Muslims…”

The Farooqis invited the reverts into their home to eat and pray. According to the family’s account, which this author was not able to corroborate, the two men began to bring up political issues like Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Harris recalled: “I remember once he [the officer] cried in front of me because of the suffering of the Ummah (the Muslim community). I just told him to be patient.” Eventually, the undercover officers began asking Munir Farooqi and others if they knew how to go abroad to fight against British and American soldiers.

Harris told CagePrisoners that his father repeatedly told the two reverts that he was unable to advise them, but they pleaded with him to look into it and he eventually agreed. Little did the family know that hundreds of hours of conversations between Munir and the two reverts had been recorded, including the conversations about jihad. In September 2011, Munir Farooqi was convictedof preparing terrorist acts, soliciting to murder and disseminating terrorist literature. He was sentenced to four life sentences and will serve a minimum of nine years before being considered for parole.

The Farooqi case is the first known case in the UK in which undercover police were placed in a Muslim community for the purpose of facilitating a conviction. We know from the experiences of the left in Britain that the police and security services are willing to go to extreme lengths to gain the trust of members of suspect communities. Yet as Harris Farooqi remarked: “the fact that undercover officers pretended to be Muslim, that’s an insult to the Muslims. If an undercover officer had pretended to be a Christian, that would be an insult to Christianity.”

It is CagePrisoners’ view that it is absolutely unacceptable for officers to abuse the trust of the public they are supposed to serve, whether it is through engaging in sexual relationships or taking the shahada in front of a mosque congregation.

Recruting “grasses” through plea bargaining

The final way in which “grassing” has affected British Muslim communities is through plea bargains in the US. Nearly all criminal defendants in the US – about 97% of those indicted in federal courts and 94% of those who face charges in statecourts – choose to plead guilty rather than face a jury trial. Defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes have a particularly strong incentive to plead guilty since they are likely to face systemic due process improprieties during trial and a harsh sentencing regime.

When individuals claim to have information about terrorist cells or networks, prosecutors in the US have an immense incentive to offer them an attractive plea bargain in order to ensure their compliance with ongoing investigations or testimony in upcoming trials. Such deals are as yet illegal in the UK but, as the case study below highlights, “grasses” recruited through the American plea bargaining system can still shape the outcome of prosecutions in the UK.

Case study: Muhammad Junaid Babar: In 2001, just nine days after 9/11, naturalised US citizen Junaid Babar left New York for Pakistan in anticipation of a US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Babar claims he was responsible for setting up a training camp in Pakistan in July 2003 to help prepare individuals who wanted to fight against American, British and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan.

Several British citizens attended the training camp, including the leader of the 7 July 2007 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, at which time he is purported to have learned how to make the bombs used in the London attacks. Babar also maintains that he supplied several British men with aluminium powder and attempted to purchase ammonium nitrate on their behalf, “with the knowledge that it was going to be used for a plot somewhere in the U.K.”

Mohammed Junaid Babar
Mohammed Junaid Babar

Several years after leaving New York for Pakistan, Babar returned home and was arrested by the FBI. He was induced to become a source and agreed to cooperate in exchange for a dramatically reduced sentence – five years instead of life. He pleaded guilty to several counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, as well as charges of providing material support.

Babar gained fame as a “supergrass” for his testimony in the prosecution of several British men for the fertiliser bomb plot, known as Operation Crevice. Five of the seven accused were convicted, but not without doubts about the veracity of Babar’s testimony. According to one BBC reporter, “under rigorous cross-examination cracks began to appear in his carefully prepared account.”

Babar became uncertain about the details of a crucial meeting in Pakistan in which the group purportedly decided to attack targets on British soil. He also initially claimed that one of the defendants had given him a bag of detonators to take to the UK, but later seemed confused and unsure about how they were packaged.

Babar’s case provides an important insight into the potential benefits of recruiting “grasses” through plea bargaining in the USA, since they provide unparalleled access to the workings of terrorist cells.

The impact on British Muslims

The reach and breadth of Prevent suggests that tens of thousands of Muslims have likely engaged in some kind of Prevent activity since its inception, sometimes unknowingly. What is clear is that “grassing” is profoundly damaging to the innocent individuals who are spied on or harassed by state officials.

Moreover, the pervasive belief amongst Muslims that “someone is watching” has generated a perpetual state of fear; this allows the police and security services to more easily co-opt sections of the Muslim community. Prevent would not be possible without the close assistance of Muslims. Similarly, the state’s reliance on covert/informal informants is necessarily dependent on cooperation from community and youth workers. CagePrisoners believes that this strategy of divide and conquer works first and foremost because people are afraid.

The use of informants and undercover police has also made many Muslims wary of embracing reverts/converts to the faith. Harris Farooqi described his struggle with this issue: “My own brother-in-law is a revert and I wondered if he was not an agent. Of course, I know that he is not, but the fact that it even came to my mind…They destroyed the trust within the Muslim community.” This is a particularly pernicious effect given Muslims’ religious duty to teach reverts about the faith, welcome them into their homes and assist them in establishing a new life in Islam.

The Prevent policy explicitly states that aspiring to defend Muslim lands that are under attack is a potential marker of susceptibility to violence; it follows then that mosques, community groups and youth programmes are under pressure to curtail and shut down political discussions about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere.

Moreover, the widespread belief that there are undercover agents within the community (whether police or community members who are acting as informants) means that many Muslims feel unsafe discussing their political beliefs unless with trusted family or friends. Some people suspect that the true purpose of the use of informants is to shut down political discourse in Muslim communities since they would otherwise serve as the primary pool of resistance against Britain’s foreign policy.

Conclusion

CagePrisoners does not believe the police and security services current reliance on “grasses” to be beneficial to the fight against terrorism in the long run. If the state allows the police and security services to go to extreme lengths to infiltrate and spy on Muslim communities, for example by blackmailing youth workers or allowing undercover police to utter the holiest words in Islam, it cannot reasonably expect Muslims to continue to place trust in these institutions. Prevent similarly positions various state and non-state actors – such as doctors, university administrators and youth workers – as extensions of the security apparatus, and thus as individuals whom Muslims, especially young male Muslims, should fear.

Furthermore, policies like Prevent narrow the space that previously existed within Muslim communities to freely discuss and debate questions of Islamic law and practice that might better tackle radicalisation and terrorism. The individuals who committed 9/11 and 7/7 were motivated by their commitment to their faith. They believed that what they were doing was Islamically permissible and only a counter-argument rooted in Islam would have convinced them otherwise.

The people who are purportedly at risk of becoming terrorists should be encouraged to engage with the thousands of years of Islamic scholarship that addresses the question of jihad and the killing of civilians. These conversations can only happen if the state respects the right of Muslim communities to autonomously contest the meanings of Islamic texts and scholarship, without fearing that particular interpretations will lead to referrals to the police, security services or Prevent authorities.

As it now stands, the state is propping up particular theological positions as the “correct” ones, and the religious scholarship promoted by the state (e.g. individuals or institutions funded by Prevent) are not taken seriously. Britain’s counter-terrorism policy is simply encouraging the isolation and alienation of vulnerable Muslim community members by closing down the space for political and theological debate.

British Muslims feel under siege
British Muslims feel under siege

Finally, we cannot fully understand the purpose or impact of “grassing” in isolation from Britain’s broader counter-terrorism strategy. As the case of Mahdi Hashi demonstrates, the pressure to inform is closely linked to many other facets of counter-terrorism policy, from Schedule 7, to citizenship deprivation, to rendition.

Moreover, the belief that guides “grassing” in its various forms – from Prevent, to the covert recruitment of informants and the use of undercover police – is that Muslims should be treated first and foremost as “Others” worthy of the distrust of the broader British community. As CagePrisoners stated in its response to the 2011 review, “Prevent is the first British strategy that targets the entire Muslim community. It is perceived by Muslims to be a form of collective targeting for the acts of a few, and most resent being made to pay for someone else’s crimes.” British Muslims should be treated as equal members of British society, not with immediate suspicion on the basis of their faith.

The UK needs broad-based opposition to the use of “grasses” and existing counter-terrorism policies from Muslim communities, communities of colour, and activist groups. “Grassing” violates our civil liberties. It breaks down the trust that long existed within our communities, friends and families.

The very practice of “grassing” makes it harder for us to resist the government policies we oppose, from violent policing, to MI5 harassment, to climate change, to wars fought abroad. In short, “grassing” is far from merely a Muslim issue, although it undoubtedly has a grave effect on Muslim communities. Only by uniting across racial, religious and political lines will we be able to challenge the impact of “grassing” on the civil liberties and freedoms cherished by us all.

You can follow Aviva Stahl on Twitter @stahlidarity and the complete version of this article can be found on the link below:

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