Waris Ali, who was cleared of terror charges in a high-profile trial in 2008, reflects on his arrest, incarceration and trial, drawing lessons from his traumatic experiences for Muslim political activists today.
Today marks the 7th anniversary of my arrest, imprisonment, house arrest and eventual trial for terrorism offences.
Seven years ago that there was a knock on the door at 7am. My sister opened it, the agents came up into my room, told me to get dressed, said I was being arrested, read me my rights and slipped the handcuffs on me.
The last sight I would see of my mother for 5 weeks would be the image of her in the hallway, standing in tears as they led me away. This was the day I was supposed to start my first day at college, and I had been so looking forward to it.
For the next week I would be interrogated in Leeds Bridewell police station by CTU (Counter Terrorist) agents. After the first 2 days it was twice a day, usually 45 minutes each. At the end of the 7 days they charged me under section 57 and 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, namely the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism. They also charged me with possession of the “Anarchists Cookbook.”
From there I was taken in a police van to London, where they put me in the Feltham Youth offenders prison. This would be home to me for the next 2 and a half months.
They weren’t sure what to do with me for the first day, as I was a potentially a “CATEGORY A PRISONER” so after the first of many strip-searches they put me in the IBIS unit, which is basically isolation.
For 23 and a half hours I would stay in my cell, only to be let out to get food. Fortunately my lawyer Imran Khan (who represented the Lawrence family and numerous other very high profile cases) managed to get it sorted. So I was moved into “General population.”
There’s nothing like the first day of walking out of your cell in the morning into your new routine going down the stairs from the room and seeing dozens of prisoners in the same clothing, people of different colours and nationalities.
Prison was an interesting experience for different reasons, good and bad.
On the positive side we had music lessons and that’s where my love for the piano began. It was thanks to a fellow prisoner and our two excellent teachers that I became a little skilled at the drums too. But I digress.
Pretty much every week for over a month I was going back and forth between the prison and the City of Westminster court, mostly to try and get bail. From 6am in the freezing cold I’d be told to pack my things and bring them with me, you would be strip-searched before leaving and on returning to prison too.
I would spend up to 6-8 hours in Westminster Court, with a stone bed and literally nothing in the room. Pacing up and down in a small confined space. Something] I would also do a lot of when under House Arrest.
Eventually on the November 29, two weeks after I had gotten bail I returned home (the delay was because the police said they needed to install certain security measures and a telephone system in a room in my house).
For the last time I was told to pack my things and go with the guard, but I was unable to say goodbye to the people I had gotten to know during my time there.
I was weighed before I left, and I hadn’t realised but I’d lost 3 stone whilst I was inside, so I was now 9 stone and I guess, quite weak. The car ride was smooth and comfortable, we had an escort too.
Some hours later I was returned home. I walked into my garden, the garden I wouldn’t be let out of for months, at least not as a free man.
As part of my release conditions they’d taken away my liberty. For 24 hours a day, 7 days a week I was confined to my home. I could go into my small front and back garden but that was it.
I was on a tag. The special phone they installed would ring 5 times a day, at any time, voice-automated and I would have to repeat lines such as a “A penny for your thoughts.” Sometimes it didn’t work, other times the supposedly “infallible” G4S system didn’t recognise me as being in the house, as it thought I was out of the garden even when I had witnesses saying otherwise.
On two such occasions during my house arrest, the local police came for me, re-arrested me, took me to Dewsbury Police station, and I would have to spend another night in the police cells, until Imran sent someone who sorted it out in court the next day.
Every time I would see a police car coming down after this, I irrationally thought they were coming for me, to re-arrest me. Every time I saw a car come down my street and reverse from the car park which is literally outside my house, my heartbeat and breathing quickened and I got nervous.
The only time beyond that I got out of the garden was for my legal visits in London with my sister. For the rest of the time, I was on lockdown, quite bored most of the time. But I spent a lot of time reading books, playing the keyboard and drums, spending time with my adorable little cousins.
In October 2008, my 2 week trial at Leeds Crown court began. It was long and drawn-out with some fanciful accusations from the Prosecution, I was on the stand to give evidence for two hours; it was an interesting experience with everyone looking at you and the Prosecution trying to trip you up.
The interesting thing was the newspapers (as you can still read online) said it was an plot to “Blow up the BNP”, though without providing any details as to how that was to happen. Yet in court, nothing of the sort was being argued or alleged.
Most of the Prosecution case was based on the possibility that I was “thinking of doing something.” That was their angle, what that something was, to this day I really don’t know.
When they returned everything to my home some days after I was cleared of the charges, they never apologized. They never said they regretted it. Not the agent who dropped off my stuff, nor their HQ.
They really don’t care about the lives they ruin, the families they demonize, the hatred they increase and the divisions they cause.
To briefly give some context of what I was doing before my arrest and how this all came about, in Year 11 I was permanently excluded from my school for the artwork I was doing on Guantanamo and torture, something which our headmaster didn’t like.
They tried to muzzle me, I resisted, loudly, and not in any articulate way unfortunately.
However, I was allowed to come back for my exams, so I did, went to Pakistan after for a few months to chill and relax (no allegations were made against me during my Pakistan visit). I then came back in late September (weeks after I wanted to thanks to PIA) so I was unable to go to the college that I wanted to go to or do the A levels I wanted to do.
My acne came back with a vengeance. I had had severe acne during the last year of high school in particular, so I was bullied regularly, through verbal abuse and through being jumped by many people.
I wasn’t enjoying my time at the college and I had a couple of family issues. This was when I would begin to care for my father who is almost fully paralysed and has been since 1993.
I left the college in January 2007, thinking I’d start again in a different college in September. I tried to look for work, but couldn’t find anything suitable.
I was also interested in fireworks and pyrotechnics. I did research online, started making smoke bombs (glorified smoke pellets which produce fire and smoke, though pretty cool if I do say so myself.)
There are many videos on YouTube of people lighting them, so I was just one of many. Mostly I lit them in my street and outside of it, everyone knew what I was doing since I made no secret of it. I honestly, naively, thought that it was best to be open and honest and even if the police took an interest, they’d see I was just some teen having fun, like any other.
Alas I wasn’t white and politically-savvy although my political views were known, though last time I checked we had freedom of speech supposedly.
Anyway, after months of keeping an eye on me, I guess the newly formed CTU for the North East thought they should show something for all their expenditure. But rather than perhaps having a chat with me or dropping it, they arrested me instead.
So I was arrested based mainly on that and the Anarchist Cookbook which they found on my computer (freely available online, used and read by millions of white pranksters the world over). But for me it was a supposed “Terrorist Manual” and they decided to pursue me and that of course brings us full circle to the charges, prison, house arrest and then trial.
I was stupid…
Still however I was stupid, I should have known even then with the climate we were in, that if you’re Muslim, political and have a mouth, then you’re fair game.
Sure I had been a naïve and ignorant teenager, who shouted his mouth off, with anger at Western foreign policy with what was going on in Iraq, the slaughter of our people, and the torture and illegal imprisonment of our brothers in Guantanamo Bay.
They tried to use that in court, to portray me as some sort of an ideological extremist loon.
The effects it had on my family were devastating, amongst other things, my beautiful mother, who has known much pain, seen suffering and sacrificed greatly for us, cried regularly whilst I was imprisoned. This is something I will have to live with, putting her through all that.
My family worried but supported me all the way. When I needed them most, they stood by my side (presumably because they knew I was innocent, though a muppet at that).
I was branded a terrorist locally and nationally. The majority of the mosques of course, didn’t bother to care, though a couple of kind-hearted souls did offer words of support and advice to my family.
Why am I writing this?
If you’ve read this far, congratulations, I’m impressed you’ve got through this drivel. But now you may be wondering why in particular I’m telling you all this? Is their a purpose to it?
Well, I wanted to recall some of my own personal experiences from the last 7 years, a time during which many others were arrested, something which has continued to happen over the years.
With the vast majority never being charged, some of the minority within the minority who have been charged and convicted have been convicted for non-specific “Terrorism offences.” As in “no plot, no blueprints, no actual desire to kill people,” but guilty nevertheless because of the literature viewed (usually Islamic), books read, sermons listened to, or things said publicly.
Many such cases I can point to, ie the campaign I’m supporting now which is the @FreeMunir Campaign if you care to read and open your minds. Many have had their lives turned upside down by the draconian legislation now in force, in particular from the sections of the Terrorism Act 2006.
This is simply poorly-written legislation with vast scope. Now we even have citizenship deprivation of naturalized Britons. This is on top of the stripping of citizenship of British citizens with dual nationality, on the basis of SUSPICION, not charge or conviction.
This is not Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa, people have a right to defend themselves in open court in the vast majority of cases. To be tried by their peers.
We now have brothers returning from Syria, who have gone out there to help the suffering Syrian people, going to places where the UN themselves say they can’t/won’t go to, the most dire areas.
What do they get on their return? Arrests, questioning, harassment of their families from the PREVENT muppets, threats of citizenship stripping/passport removal. All because our mass-murdering, dictatorship-supporting, posh boys say so.
They don’t of course want people to talk about foreign policy and their support of dictators, support for Israel in murdering Palestinians, as they don’t want that to enter the mainstream discourse. Lord knows they’ve done a good job of dumbing it down at the university level.
But just to be clear, if people are found to plan to kill, blow up, murder people then of course they should and (are) arrested, charged and convicted in a court of law and generally given lengthy life sentences.
Criminalisation of Islam
These days it’s ISIS who are the “biggest threat” that the government use to justify what they’re doing.
So we have our mainstream beliefs under attack, we are told now what we can and can’t believe in, what is “moderate” and what is “extreme.” Well I for one will not be pigeonholed by their labels, they are not qualified enough frankly to label anyone.
But know this, House Muslims like Maajid Nawaaz and their ilk, The Quilliam Foundation, government stooges who tow the line, the “moderates” who are somehow supposed to represent us. It’s laughable if it weren’t so serious. These are the enemies from within, far more dangerous, than the right wing, neo-cons like Douglas Murray and co.
Those who question the status quo, question the false narratives pushed by our policy-makers, present an alternative, they are the ones labelled as “Islamist extremists.” It is time for us to wake up and smell what’s cooking. If we don’t in the years to come, whether you think it now or not, it will affect every single one of us as is already happening en masse, through our mosques, schools, targeting of Muslim organisations like Hhugs and Cage, the targeting and imprisonment of Muslim activists, heroes of our time such as Moazzam Begg.
But we have to take responsibility for the serious predicaments we are now in, rather than simply blaming others. I am crystal clear when it comes to many of our our mosques, (in West Yorkshire at least) our so-called leaders and those of influence.
We have remained on the margins of the public and public debate about our faith and place in modern Britain for too long, with Muslim participation in media and politics remaining woefully low, though it is increasing with our own alternative media coming through. 5Pillarz being an example of this.
At the same time we are being attacked on every level, continuously through the mainstream media, being portrayed as “extremists.” Muslim political activists are targeted, our faith demonised, continuously stated to be inferior, oppressive, violent and so on.
The PREVENT initiative’s job it is to basically spy on Muslims, limit and constrain our voices, not allow us to develop ourselves without fear of the consequences, to be critical of domestic and foreign policies and the UK’s continued support of tyrannical regimes in Muslim-majority countries.
Our mosques are targeted, infilitrated, Uncle Toms have been inserted and those who speak out are vilified. The time has come for us to stand against the tyrannical oppression that we are all facing, not just Muslims, but the poor, the disabled, those on benefits, immigrants, asylum seekers.
There are people, however, who are standing up and fighting our corner and we need to be supporting them and building our own grassroots movement here in West Yorkshire. This isn’t about focusing on any one issue or cause, it’s about understanding how the system works, how we can use the means available to benefit us, how we can protect our rights which are being steadily taken away, how we can influence media and get our collective voices across.
I have not come here to state that democracy in its current form is the way forward, nor am I some idealist who says we can stop these wars, stop the oppression, stop the terrible domestic policies that are being inflicted upon us.
There are many non-Muslims who think as we do when it comes to such issues and want an alternative. But this is the system we live under and we have to participate, otherwise we allow ourselves to be dictated to, vilified and marginalized.
We are a minority in this country. If we do not involve ourselves, via all the different ways and means available to us, then things are only going to get far worse. The Trojan Hoax being a classic example of this. By empowering our people, we can make a change, by focusing on the broader issues and thinking of the long-term picture.
Naturally we won’t agree totally and that’s fine, I don’t expect anyone to. But we can agree on the basics. For those who remain quiet on such things, who don’t bother to look at the context, who don’t look beyond the narratives pushed by our governments and media, yet get all excited and jump on the bandwgaon when it comes around, you know who you are.
Just save it. I don’t need your views and quite frankly I don’t have time for your crap.
May Allah bless all the amazing activists and organisations out there, who are tirelessly working, campaigning and making great sacrifices for the rest of us. These people don’t ask for gratitude, but they don’t need our nit-picking of the work they do. They need our support, they need us to give them space to do the work they do, in conjunction with all of us.
Together we can build a long-term future. So unless you’re willing to stand up and be counted in some way, shape or form. In the nicest possible way, please shove it with the armchair criticisms. Thank you.
You can follow Waris Ali on Twitter @WarisAli90