Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee and director of advocacy group CAGE, was one of four people arrested this morning on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offences, police have confirmed.
Three men and a woman from the West Midlands were taken into custody, police said.
Begg is being held on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. The others, a man aged 36 from Solihull, and a 44-year-old woman and her son aged 20 from Birmingham, were detained on suspicion of assisting terrorism overseas. All four are being held at a police station in the West Midlands area.
A West Midlands Police spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that Moazzam Begg was arrested this morning. This is an arrest, not a charge, and… our naming does not imply any guilt.”
The three homes were being searched by officers from the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, while vehicles and electronic equipment were being removed for forensic analysis.
“All four arrests are connected,” said Detective Superintendent Shaun Edwards, the WM CTU head of investigations. “They were pre-planned and intelligence-led.”
In a statement CAGE said it is “outraged by the arrest of our Outreach Director, Moazzam Begg. A former Guantanamo Bay detainee, he has been campaigning for due process and the human rights of victims, despite suffering over three years of torture and abuse by the US government with the complicity of the British.
“This arrest forms a part of the general approach by the UK security agencies which considers any travel to Syria as suspicious. There has been a concerted campaign of harassment against Muslim individuals and charities who get involved in supporting the victims of the Syrian crisis. We do not accept involvement by Moazzam Begg in any form of terrorism.
“He is simply one of many individuals and charities involved in Syria being viewed with suspicion in an effort to send a message to the wider Muslim community that working in Syria is no go area for them. Moazzam is a leading figure internationally on issues relating to due process and human rights. His advocacy on behalf of the Guantanamo Bay detainees has been recognised across the world, resulting in government’s accepting detainees who could not be returned to their countries of origin.
“Moazzam has been very open about all of his travel and all of his objectives with regards to that travel including exposing British complicity in rendition and torture. CAGE challenges the timing of Moazzam’s arrest given his travel to Syria took place in December 2012. CAGE is worried that the timing coincides with the planned release of our report on Syria and a major news piece that was due to be televised soon.
“We are also concerned that the Police and the security services are using the wide scope of terrorism laws, and applying them in Syria to set precedents that will make legitimate activity unlawful in future.”
Begg was held by the US government at Guantanamo for nearly three years after being arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda. He was released without charge in January 2005 and later won substantial damages from the British government over his treatment.
Late last year the Home Office confiscated Begg’s passport after he visited Syria in 2012. Begg has written openly about his visit saying he was researching leads about British and American complicity in rendition and torture in Syria. He has said he is being harassed by the authorities because of the work he is doing exposing oppression of Muslims at home and abroad.
Recently CAGE has been very vocal about the “criminalisation” of British Muslims going to Syria. It is thought that several hundred British Muslims have gone to fight in Syria and many of them have linked up with al Qaeda-related groups. The British government fears that they will one day come back home radicalised, trained and with a grudge against the state.
But in a recent article Begg said British Muslims fighting in Syria are doing so to topple a dictatorship and are not going there to join Al Qaeda.
He wrote: “It is not hard to understand why Muslims would want to go out to Syria to help. Scores of them go every month on humanitarian aid missions and face endless questioning at ports by British police under schedule 7 anti-terrorism powers. It is also understandable why people want to go out and fight for what they believe is a just cause, even if the wisdom of them doing so can be questioned…
“It is widely accepted that foreign fighters, including Britons, have been battling and dying alongside Syria’s rebels since 2011 and their numbers have increased over the last year. What is not established with any veracity is the suggestion that there has been a single act of terrorism carried out on British – or European – soil connected to Britons returning from Syria. Not a single one.”
Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told 5Pillarz that Begg is not a terrorist, an extremist or a takfiri, and that the British state should bear responsibility for the confusion that Muslims feel about travelling to Syria to deliver aid or to fight.
He said: “On the one hand the government here is saying what a tyrant Assad is, they’re helping the Syrian rebels and they’re letting people go to Syria. And then suddenly in the last few months their policy changes like the weather and now they’re arresting people who go to Syria. No wonder British Muslims are confused.”
Film-maker Hassan Ghani, who recently interviewed Begg about why his passport was confiscated said: “Moazzam had discovered clear evidence that the British government was complicit in rendering individuals to Syria where they were tortured. He’d documented his trip in detail and even informed the intelligence services of what he was doing to remain above board.
“If, as many Muslims feel, his arrest is the result of his investigative work, it is an extremely worrying development for journalists and activists alike.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all travel to Syria.
On its website it says: “British nationals in Syria should leave now by any practical means. The FCO is not able to provide consular services, and won’t be able to help your evacuation from the country. In June 2013, the Syrian government issued a new law stating that individuals who enter Syrian territories illegally will be punished by a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years and/or a fine of 5 to 10 million Syrian pounds.
“There is widespread fighting throughout Syria, including in Damascus and its suburbs. Full scale military operations involving the use of small arms, tanks, artillery and aircraft are ongoing. In Aleppo and elsewhere, the regime has been undertaking an indiscriminate campaign of aerial bombardment since mid-December using so called ‘barrel’ bombs – huge containers packed with explosives and shards of metal dropped by helicopter – against largely civilian targets. The situation remains extremely volatile.
“There have been reports of chemical weapons usage in Syria for which no group has claimed responsibility. On 21 August, an alleged conventional and chemical weapons attack was reported in the suburbs of Damascus. Fighting has caused the temporary suspension of commercial flights, closed roads, impeded access to land border crossing points and led to the closure of some border crossings.
“There is a high threat from terrorism. There are continued attacks across Syria including in major cities, leaving large numbers of people dead or injured. There is a very high risk of kidnapping throughout Syria. There have been a number of kidnappings, including of British nationals and other Westerners. There has been an increase in the number of reported kidnaps of NGO workers in the last few months.
“According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, there has been a significant increase in the mass execution and unlawful killing of civilians and detainees in northern Syria in recent weeks.”
More details to follow…