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Thursday, October 02, 2014 

Moazzam Begg and the incompetence of MI5.

The release of former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, 5 days before he was due to stand trial on terrorism charges, once again raises questions about the relationship between the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the intelligence agencies.  It also makes clear how political pressure is being put on banks to close the accounts of charities which have links, however tenuous, with those active on the ground in Syria.

Worth setting out from the start is Begg and Cage, the group he represents, were not completely honest about what he was doing in Syria.  In a lengthy piece for Cage prior to his arrest but after his passport had been confiscated, he maintained his visits were mainly aimed at gathering further evidence of US/UK complicity in torture, "accumulating testimony and information for a report on the situation of the current prisoners as well as the accounts of those who had been detained and tortured in the past."  There's no reason to doubt Begg on this count.  He did also however, as he was going to argue in his defence had the case proceeded to trial, train young men in how to "defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime", something apparently made clear by the titles of "electronic documents" he was also charged with being in possession of.

Begg's defence was set to argue that just as the UK government was providing non-lethal aid to the rebels, he was doing much the same only in a personal capacity.  Whether this would have won over a jury is open to question: it certainly didn't save Mashudur Choudhury, who was found guilty of preparing acts of terrorism in Syria despite his failure to so much as join up with a rebel group once out there.

Quite where the involvement of MI5 began is similarly indefinable.  Begg writes of a meeting with an officer where both sides had lawyers present, at the end of which it was made clear MI5 did not object to his travelling to Syria and would not stand in his way.  It seems difficult to believe the investigation by West Midlands police into Begg didn't involve collaboration with MI5 in some way, even if they didn't instigate it.  If as seems likely it was this meeting with Begg that belatedly led to his being released, why was it not communicated to the police and CPS sooner?  Why also did it then take a further two months before the case was dropped after the intelligence was communicated?

Predictably, this has seen claims made that Begg's release is more about behind the scenes efforts to free Alan Henning than it is the undermining of the evidence against Begg.  Quite how dropping the charges against Begg will make Islamic State more amenable isn't explained; far more likely is the Times' story has been planted to spare MI5's blushes.

As for whether Cage itself will receive an apology now that its outreach director has been freed remains to be seen.  Barclays closed Cage's bank account earlier in the year due to its association with Begg, as did the Co-op Bank.  At the heart of the issue remains the government's contradictory approach to Syria, still not cleared up by the joining of the attacks on Islamic State: it supports the rebels, but considers anyone who travels to the country a potential terrorist.  Little wonder the police and CPS themselves appear to be confused.

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