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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 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.