The Spy Who Came in From the Mosque
From the January 13, 2003 issue: Reda Hassaine fled Islamist Algeria. In London, he infiltrated bin Laden's network.
Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By JAKE TAPPER
"I'm very happy," Reda Hassaine says, a few minutes before almost breaking down in tears. His joy comes from his role in gathering evidence against Abu Qatada, an extremist Muslim cleric said to be a key al Qaeda figure, who was arrested in London in late October, just days before Hassaine and I talked. Hassaine, 41, is an Algerian Muslim who has spied on militant Islamist groups for the Algerian Secret Service, the French, Scotland Yard's Special Branch, and MI5, the British intelligence agency. He won't be completely happy, though, until another London-based Islamist--Abu Hamza--is also behind bars.
Qatada and Hamza, he says, "raise money, encourage people to kill, claim assassinations." Hassaine knows this firsthand, he says, having seen their handiwork in Algeria and spied on them for various European intelligence agencies. Hassaine has a sad face and a stammer that improves with each bottle of Chianti, though it is fast replaced by melancholy. He chain smokes, enjoying the meal I've bought him, while he talks me through his journey from up-and-coming Algerian reporter to down-on-his-luck London ex-spy.
Hassaine's story is a reminder that Muslims themselves have been the biggest victims of the rise of Islamist extremists. It's not difficult to discern the moral in his tale: that worldwide indifference to the horrors of Algeria in the 1990s helped pave Osama bin Laden's path to the World Trade Center. Moreover, Hassaine suggests that the West has been--and probably still is--unprepared to fend off the Islamist threat, though he is not without hope.
"On the 11th of September, I was happy in one way," he admits at one point. Not that he wasn't horrified by the attacks. It's just that "for years and years I've been trying to warn people about what the Islamists are doing," he says. "Now I know George Bush is with me. Now I know Tony Blair is with me. But I have been working on this for years and years."
IN THE EARLY 1990s, during Algeria's brief flirtation with democracy, Hassaine was part of the growing opposition to the government. "They were corrupt and only working for themselves," Hassaine says. In 1990, he was elected a party official in the populist hodgepodge of opposition known as the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS. But a few days later he resigned, after realizing that FIS leader Abassi Madani was a megalomaniac who "saw himself as the new caliph"--meaning a successor to the Prophet Muhammad and political, military, and administrative leader of the Muslim world.
"I met plenty of FIS people, and we talked about how the party should work, and then I found out what kind of people they are," he says. "They were using the election to get all the power and destroy the state." Hassaine says that after meeting Madani and the other FIS leaders he understood that they were planning on "going to war."
War? I ask. Against whom?
"Against the population," Hassaine replies.
When it became clear in late 1991 that Algeria's first multiparty election would bring the FIS to power, the military "canceled the election," Hassaine says. Soon the hotheaded pronouncements at FIS meetings were no longer just talk. The party's militant wing, the Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA, swung into violent action. "Then started the killing. The policemen first. Then the journalists. They had lists of people to be killed."
Hassaine's colleagues started getting assassinated. The first, in May 1993, was Tahar Djaout, editor in chief of a cultural weekly and an award-winning novelist. Other journalists--good men, Muslim men--were slaughtered. One of Hassaine's good friends--Mohamed Abderrahmani, editor in chief of the government's French-language daily--"left his home to take one of his kids to school," Hassaine recalls. His eyes fill with tears as he shapes his hand into a gun. "Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!"
Hassaine was working the night shift at a newspaper when he heard that Abderrahmani had been killed. He took a call from one of the terrorists responsible.
"We killed him," the caller said. "He should be now in hell!"
Then Mohamed Mekati, chief foreign editor of El-Moudjahidan, an established daily paper. "I never saw in my life a Muslim like him," Hassaine says. "I mean, I am a Muslim. But I drink." Mekati was something else--devout, pious, focused. "Like a ninja," Hassaine says. Islamists killed him, too.
Explosions, rapes, slaughters. Algeria was destroyed from the inside out. More than 120 foreign citizens were killed in the early days. Monks, church dignitaries, a bishop--murdered. Factories, schools, bridges--destroyed. A car bomb was driven into the national police headquarters in 1995, killing 42 and wounding 265. Entire villages were massacred. "They started to kill everyone," says Hassaine. "Kill, kill, as much as you can."
The State Department's 1998 human rights report is typical of a decade of horror: "Armed Islamists continued their widespread campaign of insurgency, targeting government officials and families of security members, as well as persons whose lifestyles they consider to be in conflict with Islamic values. Armed groups continued to kill numerous civilians, including infants, by massacres and small bombs. Armed Islamists particularly targeted women; there were numerous instances of kidnapping and rape. Bombs left in cars, cafes, and markets killed and maimed persons indiscriminately."
"How can I explain this to Westerners?" Hassaine asks. "These kind of people, they had been brainwashed in Afghanistan. When I left Algeria, people wanted to kill me. My closest friend, 35 of my colleagues, had been killed by Islamists in the GIA. They were taking babies and putting them in the ovens." Human rights organizations estimate that up to 100,000 Algerians have been killed in the civil war that began in 1992.
"Most of the world closed their embassies," Hassaine says. "For them it was a question of internal [Algerian politics]. The world, they didn't see the threat coming to them. 'Let them kill themselves, let them fight themselves, as long as they don't touch us.'"
But this attitude ignored the fact that Algeria was just one battlefield in a larger war, and that the GIA was one of the main organizations feeding Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. "That's why I was happy on the 11th of September, with all respect to the families who lost their loved ones," he says.
"My best friend--" he starts to say, then stops. He grows quiet and looks off in the distance. Tears well in his eyes. "These people want to destroy, not to build. They have nothing to offer. They offer 'paradise.' The Wahhabis--they killed Islam."
IN 1994, HASSAINE and his family fled to London. "I was not going to let my baby get put in an oven," he says. He was able to leave only by making a deal with Algerian security services to help them spy on the GIA. Then in 1998, as France began preparing to host the World Cup, its law enforcement agencies anticipated a terrorist attack. A man from the French Embassy in London whom Hassaine knew only as "Jerome" recruited him to obtain information about any possible attacks.
"They were giving me the chance to get revenge," Hassaine says. A bin Ladenist paper was set up, with Hassaine as editor. "People knew me as a journalist in Algeria. So it was a nice cover." He began providing the French with as much information as he could glean from days and nights spent praying, eating, talking with various extremists. When the French didn't come through with an offer of citizenship, Hassaine volunteered to help the British.
In 1999, the Special Branch asked Hassaine to infiltrate London's now-notorious Finsbury Park mosque, whose imam Abu Hamza preached jihad to the likes of shoebomber Richard Reid. Hassaine was already familiar with Hamza and his ally Abu Qatada--both of them among the top GIA supporters in London. He held them responsible, in no small way, for what had happened in Algeria.
"Hamza was the first spiritual leader of GIA," he says. "Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, they are responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of people." According to the BBC, Qatada has circulated a pamphlet reveling in the murders of Algerian policemen, while Hamza once issued a fatwa in favor of assassinating various Middle Eastern public figures as well as a 2-year-old Algerian child.
In December 1998, twelve Britons, two Australians, two Americans, and four local drivers were taken hostage by Yemeni terrorists, who telephoned Hamza within an hour of the kidnapping. The Yemeni government attempted a rescue, in which four of the hostages were killed. The Yemeni government, which also accused Hamza of sending ten jihadists (including his own son) there to attack Western targets in Aden, sought Hamza's extradition, "to be tried on charges of carrying out terrorist activities in Yemen and in several other Arab states."
The request was denied; the British government has no extradition agreement with Yemen, a fact that has rankled numerous governments ranging from Jordan to the United States in their attempts to fight terrorism. As this international struggle went on, British authorities asked Hassaine for reports on Hamza and his associates, as well as a detailed map of the Finsbury Park mosque and all its escape routes.
The information presumably proved useful when Scotland Yard arrested Hamza and two other men in a morning raid in March 1999. But four days later they were released. The authorities didn't feel the case was strong enough. "I was shocked," Hassaine says. "There is a big problem in the law here in London." Islamists "can claim assassinations, they can do propaganda. And all these things are 'freedom of expression'--even if you call for killing of people. The law is very, very weak. If these people had been in France, they would be in jail a long time ago."
HAVING SPLIT FROM HIS WIFE, at least partly out of concern for her and their two children, and still seeking non-Algerian citizenship, Hassaine was assured that his asylum application would soon be taken care of. In the meantime the Special Branch passed his name on to MI5, which soon had him hanging out with Algerian extremists in London plotting various attacks.
He saw a lot--from the inside. Abu Qatada recruited shoe-bomber Richard Reid and "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui, Hassaine says. "I saw them. Abu Qatada is the best brainwasher there is."
In April 2000, Hassaine, working with his MI5 handlers, "went to check on information about somebody who went to Afghanistan to meet with Osama bin Laden." At the Finsbury Park mosque, he stumbled onto an odd gathering of the most hard-core congregants and some "strange" talk of martyrdom and holy warriors. Hassaine was chased down and beaten. "They tried to kill me," he says.
Had his cover been blown? I ask. Who told them he was working for the government? What was his mistake?
"I didn't have time to ask them why they were doing it," says an exasperated Hassaine. "I lost two teeth. See this?" he points to a scar on his nose. "I was very scared," he says. MI5 wasn't interested in pursuing his attackers. "They told me, what do you want? Do you want the guy who beat you or Abu Qatada?" MI5 told him that he had been compromised, that he should be quiet for awhile.
Seeing Hamza walk the London streets infuriates Hassaine, as does reading his comments quoted in the newspaper. Just recently, Hassaine says, one of the leaders of the Finsbury Park mosque "was calling for people to do jihad against Americans and even the British if they attack Iraq. So they are still free in Finsbury Park and saying what they want. And doing what they want. And as long as Abu Hamza is free the threat is here. Because his aim is to be killed one day by doing jihad."
Although Hamza's assets have been frozen because of his alleged membership in the Islamic Army of Aden--which has been linked to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole--he remains a free man, and an outspoken one. After the al Qaeda bombing of Israeli tourists in Kenya, Hamza told reporters that "by forcing al Qaeda to scatter around the world, Mr. Bush has made a mistake. He has given the inspiration for a global jihad." Qatada, meanwhile, is in prison in London, one of 10 individuals being held by British authorities under the 2001 anti-terrorism act.
Unfortunately for Hassaine, as his usefulness as a spy evaporated, so too did the British government's pledge to honor his request for asylum, which was rejected, convincing him to go to the British press with the story of his exploits two years ago. He is permitted to stay in the U.K., but unlike Hamza--a British citizen since 1985--Hassaine is subject to deportation at any time.
"My life is f--ed," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do with my life now."
Hassaine reserves his animosity for Islamists. I tell him that I think it odd and not a little disappointing that someone like him isn't being utilized by the British and French governments, not to mention ours, but all he'll say in response is that Algerians like him do have a lot experience with Islamic extremists.
"The British and the Americans--of course they are doing their job, they are trying to solve the problem," he says. "But it will not be easy. They need the help of Arab people. If they think that the technology or the power or the arms or something like that, yes, it does help. But it will not be enough."
But in the end they didn't treat you that well, I say. And it doesn't sound like they had that firm a grasp on what they were doing. Didn't he think that they should have treated him better?
"Me? I don't know," he says. "I did what I had to do. By myself. Nobody told me to do it." He says he doesn't fear for his safety anymore.
"If I will be killed," he says, "PFFFT! It will be as a martyr."
Jake Tapper is a reporter and commentator living in New York City.