Skip to comments.Gambling habit led Briton into deadly clutches of Al-Qaeda
Posted on 05/11/2004 6:37:11 AM PDT by giotto
THE disastrous journey that led a waiter at a curry house in Manchester to the United States to hijack a plane for Al-Qaeda began not in a mosque but at a roulette table.
Every night when we closed up at the Sher Khan, we would drive around the casinos, he said.
One night I thought I would go in with the others to see what it was like.
His decision that rainy Manchester night seven years ago was one that he believes he will always regret. Soon he was gambling almost every night and ran up debts that allowed Al-Qaeda to recruit him with an offer to pay them off.
He now believes that had he not given himself up to the FBI in 2000, he would have become the only British hijacker among those who crashed planes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 2,800 people.
Living with this conviction has left the 29-year-old British Muslim with a haunted face and a constant tic in his right cheek. A knock on the black iron door that leads up the rubbish-strewn steps to his flat sends his eyes darting around and he visibly trembles, fearing that Al-Qaeda has caught up with him.
If someone gives you money, lots of it, and asks you to do a job and you dont do it, they have unfinished business with you, he said.
I think all my life I will worry that they will come after me.
Ive moved hundreds of miles away so those people cant find me, but Im scared all the time.
His story is an alarming tale of failure by both the American and British authorities to follow a lead that might have enabled them to prevent the September 11 attacks.
It also gives a fascinating insight into how Al-Qaeda recruits its members in Britain. Far from searching out the religious fanatics who might be known to the authorities, the terrorists talent-spotters frequent mosques to seek out those involved in petty crime or those who are in such trouble that they might feel their lives are not worth living. Al-Qaeda preys on these weaknesses.
The young man who had dreamt of becoming a cricketer but instead found himself drowning in debt was in many ways an ideal candidate. Short and mild-mannered, he has handsome, almost pretty, features and a British passport that allowed him to enter the United States with no visa.
Born in Burnley, Lancashire, the third of four children, he was still a baby when his family moved back to their home village near Attock in Pakistan. Not far away across the Indus River is the Haqqania madrasah, the religious school where many of the Taliban leadership studied.
His father, who described him as a quiet, well-behaved child, earned a living transporting goods and sent him to a secular school.
In 1990, when he was 16, the family returned to Britain, buying a house in Oldham. He went to Oldham sixth form college and did a part-time English course before drifting through a series of odd jobs as a waiter and a mini-cab driver.
He seemed destined for what he wistfully describes as a normal kind of life until he followed his friends into the Manchester casinos.
He was soon going three times a week or more, playing roulette and blackjack and losing larger and larger sums of money, sometimes as much as £3,000 in a go.
Its bad, he said. After a while, even when you win, its bad. It took over my life.
He began borrowing money and by early 1999 was about £15,000 in debt, without a job to help him to repay it. His family sent him to Pakistan for an arranged marriage to a woman he had never met. Soon she was pregnant and impending fatherhood drove him into panic.
Although he had never been religious, he often attended Friday prayers at Werneth mosque in Oldham. It had a radical new imam, Shafiq ur Rehman, and for the first time the unemployed waiter found himself listening.
He still has the tapes he recorded of diatribes against the sex-craving pig Bill Clinton and calls for Muslims to go to fight jihad in Kashmir or Afghanistan. Afterwards the mullah asked for money for the Taliban and everyone used to give money £2, £5, £10 which was sent to Karachi, he said. It used to be very open.
Rehman was issued with a Home Office deportation order in 1999 but this was overturned by the House of Lords. Im not recruiting, Rehman said last week. There are no extremists in my mosque.
The unemployed waiter found himself attracted by the idea that fighting jihad would mean a place in paradise. My life had fallen apart anyway and it seemed a way out, he said.
There are a lot of young boys in this country like I was frustrated with their lives and then inside their heart they feel all these people are killing Muslims in Afghanistan or Iraq, so why not do something to help? If your life has no colour and a mullah says you can be a hero by dying, why not? His increasingly eager attendance at the mosque attracted attention. One day a bearded man who had fought in Afghanistan approached him and offered money in return for a job. He gave him about £5,000 and arranged for him to return to Pakistan.
He was taken to an intensive training school in Lahore with one other British Muslim and taught how to hijack a plane. The school was in a house behind a high wall and he was blindfolded every morning and evening on a 45-minute journey there and back.
We were taught all about the cockpit of a 767 plane, shown a model with all the switches and what they did. We were given some physical training about the best way to attack someone, and also some religious instruction about the situation in Afghanistan and other places.
The intentions of the organisation as he always refers to Al-Qaeda were becoming clear. I knew they wanted me to do some kind of operation in which I would die but my life was such a mess that in my mind I was already dead, he said.
At that time, if they had told me to strap a bomb to my body and blow myself up, I would have done it as easily as taking a glass of water to drink.
He returned to Oldham and gambling. At the end of the year his daughter was born. In March 2000 he was provided with another £5,000 and a British Airways ticket to New York where he was told he would be met at John F Kennedy airport and given instructions.
They said I would live there for a while and meet some other people and we would hijack a plane from JFK and fly it into a building, he said.
But I didnt know where I would live, who I would meet or when the operation would be or what we would hit.
When he said goodbye to his wife, he told her he was going away in connection with a job. He knew he would probably never return: I never thought about hurting anyone else, just about hurting myself.
He had not even told his parents he was going away and after two weeks they reported him missing.
On the flight he started having second thoughts, however: I couldnt think about anything else. I didnt know what to do. It felt like my life was ruined either way and whatever I did I was in trouble.
But I had a wife and child and when the plane landed I knew I couldnt do it. So I got out of the airport quickly and got straight on the bus instead of going to the meeting point.
After a brief stay at a boarding house in New York he took a bus to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he soon lost all the money that Al-Qaeda had given him.
With nothing left, he gave himself up to Atlantic City police: I told them I had come to America to hijack a plane and they didnt believe me.
It was hard for someone to believe those things then. I told them there was a plot but I didnt know exactly what and they passed me over to the FBI.
He repeated his story to two agents from the FBIs counter-terrorism taskforce in Newark. We were incredulous, said one of the agents, now retired. Flying a plane into a building sounded crazy but we polygraphed him and he passed.
He was arrested and held in a safe house in Newark, undergoing interrogation: At one stage I thought the best thing was to commit suicide because I feared either Al-Qaeda would come after me or I would be put in prison and that would be a dirty place.
He was not considered dangerous and was never handcuffed. The agents even played cricket with him. We always felt he was a nice guy who got caught up in all of this, said the retired agent.
Had this been after September 11 it would have been very different. We would have put him in a maximum security prison.
His father was horrified when he received a phone call from the FBI to say they were holding his son. To this day, he says, he does not know who his son was mixed up with. They are very hard people, not like him, he added.
After three weeks the instruction came from FBI headquarters for two agents to fly him to Britain where he was handed over to security officials just before Easter 2000. He was released after a day of questioning and reunited with his wife.
On September 11, 2001 he switched on the television to see two planes flying into the World Trade Center. I felt terrible, he said. I was crying, watching it over and over again.
I am sure in my mind that was what I was supposed to be part of. What else could it be? I was perfect, I had a British passport so could fly straight to America, no questions asked.
He telephoned the FBI agents who had questioned him, using the numbers on their business cards: I left messages on their answerphones, saying how sorry I was.
In the chaos after September 11, the FBIs counter-terrorism taskforce was inundated with work. But on September 13 an urgent message was sent to London to find out what had happened to the unemployed waiter. No reply was received.
The agents concerned were busy with other inquiries, although it preyed on their minds.
Im really angry about it, said one. We handed the man over to the British authorities and it seems they just lost him.
Now the case has been reopened as questions are being asked about whether the attacks could have been prevented.
The British recruit is mystified that the authorities let him go so easily, although after September 11 an officer from Scotland Yard did return once to question him.
I told the police I could help them but they didnt seem interested, he said. Maybe they are watching me to see if the organisation makes contact.
For the past three years he has been struggling to get his life together. A relation lent him a tow-truck to start up a rescue service and he says that his mother and aunt have helped him to stop gambling.
His wife, whose English is poor, still does not know about his involvement with Al-Qaeda. Last year their first son was born and the family lives in a shabby two-bedroom flat.
A pile of post includes overdue bills and summonses for court appearances about an irregularly sold van that was used in a hit-and-run accident. Last week he was arrested for allegedly stealing a car.
He insists that he is trying to make an innocent living. My missus says it doesnt matter, even if I only make £1 a week she doesnt care.
But if I was not married I think I could do very bad things. I guess I have had an escape, but I will never stop being scared they will come back for me.
Typo fix - please ignore. ;-) (Bump!)
I wouldn't be surprised if Clinton deliberately arranged it so that he wouldn't know about things like this. After all, if he knew there was a plot like this, he would have to do something about it--make a decision--not exactly his forte. Also, if he prevented a disaster like OKC, he would forfeit the opportunity to be the Strong Leader, with a glistening tear on his cheek, consoling widows and vowing stoutly to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Whatever his motivation, defending the country from foreign enemies was not high on Clinton's list of priorities. He was too busy defending himself from his domestic enemies--us.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.