The Magazine

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
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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.