Photo: U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May testifies to the Home Affairs Committee Oct. 15. (Screenshot from parliamentlive.tv)
Boy, does the U.K. government really not want to explain why an alleged Al-Qaeda terrorist was living in its green and pleasant land. A secrecy clampdown is on, strong enough to cow Parliament and result in zero media coverage of a huge revelation in the ever-deepening mystery of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai’s British residency at the time he allegedly helped blow up U.S. embassies in Africa.
The FBI, the New York Times and dozens of other major sources reported for over a decade that al-Ruqai had U.K. political asylum when he lived there in the 1990s during his alleged bomb-planning spree. And they were all wrong, U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May claimed in an Oct. 15 bombshell announcement to Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee.
“He was not given asylum here in the U.K.,” May testified. She apparently, according to a comment from a committee member, added in a private communciation to them that al-Ruqai, a native Libyan, had applied for the asylum.
So how, then, did al-Ruqai nonetheless end up living openly in the U.K., making pizzas and allegedly writing the “Manchester Manual” terrorism manual? Why was he not deported after an early, unsuccessful terrorism investigation targeted him? Why do his FBI wanted poster and scores of articles in the Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, etc., say he had asylum? Why did the U.K. government never before correct this supposed error during a 12-year manhunt when it might have been crucial to his capture?
And of course, the big question: Did al-Ruqai receive any kind of U.K. government favoritism in return for engaging in guerilla warfare against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as widely speculated?
Amazingly, the Home Affairs Committee asked none of these questions. A private communication from May to the committee earlier in the day somehow silenced its curiosity. What did that mystery message say? The U.K. Home Office and the committee refuse to tell me. They won’t even say what form it was in.
And press coverage of the revelation has been nil—not even a little correction notice, not even a month later. This, despite the fact that the committee session was widely written about in advance by such media as Sky News and the Daily Mail, with several stories quoting Chair Keith Vaz about how he would question May about al-Ruqai’s mysterious asylum.
I watched the Oct. 15 session on a live webstream in all of its bizarre glory. My jaw dropped when May announced the no-asylum claim, and dangled even further at the committee’s “move along, nothing to see here” response, brushing the whole affair off its table within minutes.
Vaz, who had asked sharp, testy questions about other topics earlier in the session, suddenly became downright sheepish. He mentioned May’s mystery communication, but not its details, like a chastened schoolboy hiding a bad report card. He asked a couple of generic questions about whether asylum-seekers are screened and tracked, and got generic answers. He nearly asked May whether she was going to tell the FBI it is wrong about al-Ruqai’s asylum, then almost comically caught himself and turned it into a suggestion instead, which May blankly ignored.
The FBI’s mention of the U.K. asylum claim certainly bears explaining. If al-Ruqai indeed never had asylum, it was stunningly incompetent of the British government to never tell that to the FBI. Yet the claim was right there on the FBI’s wanted poster for al-Ruqai, from 2001, when he was added to its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, to last month, when he was finally seized in Libya.
The FBI would not tell me whether it was aware of May’s claim or whether the British government had delivered any correction. The FBI did confirm it creates its own wanted posters and thus made the asylum claim itself.
“The FBI has no comment on the asylum matter,” said an FBI spokesperson in an email, noting the topic is moot to the agency because al-Ruqai is no longer “wanted.”
U.K. asylum might not be so moot in al-Ruqai’s pending criminal trial in New York City. His relationship with the British government and open residency in England at the time of his alleged Al-Qaeda involvement look like elements of a defense. But it remains unclear whether al-Ruqai himself believes he had asylum or is aware of May’s denial. His attorney, David Patton, did not respond to my questions.
Back in the U.K., government hostility to my questions about al-Ruqai’s non-asylum was telling. It was more “how dare you question Her Majesty” than “that’s a reasonable question in a free society, but sorry.”
A snippy press spokeswoman for the Home Office reminded me that this was the country that gave us “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” She tried every PR nonsense evasion in the book: pretending to not know what I was talking about; pretending it was crazy to ask a press office for press comment; pretending it’s silly to ask the Home Office about Home Office activity.
“That’s not for us to provide. It’s not for us to talk to journalists [about al-Ruqai’s asylum],” was her cheery opening salvo.
She talked to me anyway, but made it clear the details about al-Ruqai are not getting out.
“We wouldn’t comment on an individual asylum case,” she repeated, even when I pointed out that is exactly what May did, mysteriously, before Parliament. When I asked what al-Ruqai was doing in the country without asylum, she looped back to this no-comment, even though it supposedly isn’t an asylum case.
“This came up because of media reports,” the spokeswoman said about May’s testimony. But would the Home Office issue a correction to the media and the FBI? Why had it never done so before? No comment.
And what about the magic mystery message to the Home Affairs Committee that presumably explains everything? She outright refused to give it to me or describe its contents.
“You would have to go to the Home Affairs Committee for that,” she ordered. Of course, it was the committee that had sent me to her, logically calculating that the Home Office can provide Home Office messages.
Bureaucratically cornered, Home Affairs Committee spokesperson Alex Paterson told me it was straight-up censorship time.
“It was correcting a factual error in a press notice and so has not been treated it [sic] as evidence. We are not publishing it,” he said about May’s communication. When I asked to at least know what form the communication was in—email, official documents, whatever—he did not respond.
Whatever the message contains, it is hard to believe it fully answers all of the good questions Vaz raised in news reports prior to the session. But there is no sign of any follow-up by Parliament. Vaz, suddenly quiet on these matters, did not respond my questions.
The minimizing spin that May was just issuing a minor correction to some stray news report is absurd. Why would anyone keep a press correction secret instead of sending it to every media outlet in the country? Why have no press issued a correction? And we’re not just talking about media reports—we’re talking about the FBI, too.
That’s not to say the media couldn’t be wrong. The vagueness of media reports about al-Ruqai’s asylum is what spurred me to dig into it. Most stories only mention it in passing, with no source cited.
But not all them. Just last month, the Guardian cited a former Gaddafi government official saying that Libya had attempted to block al-Ruqai’s asylum bid in 1995, but failed. That’s a specific, sourced claim that indicates the Libyans also believed al-Ruqai had asylum. If it’s wrong, it demands a specific answer.
The only evidence right now that al-Ruqai did not have asylum is the Home Secretary basically saying, “Trust me.” Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he did.
But either way, surely U.K. citizens deserve to know what a suspected terrorist was doing living in their midst, and U.S. citizens should know why England was home to someone accused of helping to blow up their embassies.
The British government didn’t tell me that super-secret Home Secretary explanation is confidential or classified. They just said they don’t want you to see it. Whatever the truth of al-Ruqai’s British residency, I suspect it’s embarrassing at best and filthy dirty at worst.