The man who brought jihad to Britain, did so thanks to MI6
MI5 and MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, London

The man who brought jihad to Britain, did so thanks to MI6

A BBC ‘investigation’ into Deobandi extremism bears the hallmarks of Whitehall propaganda

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
21 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

“The radicalisation of Britain’s Muslim youth of Pakistani origin began in the mid-1990s with the full knowledge and complicity of British and US intelligence agencies.”

— B. Raman, former head of the counter-terrorism division at India’s foreign intelligence agency, RAW, from 1988 to 1994

Last week, BBC News ran what it described as an “investigation” by assistant editor Innes Bowen, purporting to uncover how a leading associate of Osama bin Laden “was once the VIP guest of Britain’s leading Islamic scholars.”

In August 1993, Masood Azhar, head of the Pakistani terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, had conducted a month-long speaking and fundraising tour of UK mosques.

Masood Azhar, chief of Pakistani al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed

“The story of Masood Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by Muslim community leaders and security experts alike,” concluded Bowen. “According to them, the spread of jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques.”

Bowen, author of a book seeking to map Muslim communities in Britain, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent (Hurst, 2014), claims that jihadist ideology, influenced by “Pakistan’s far right, religio-political movements is still deeply embedded in large parts of the Deobandi network in Britain.”

This, she suggests citing a former self-styled “founder member of al-Qaeda” turned security consultant, ‘Aimen Dean’, is a legacy of widespread sympathy for extremists among Deobandis both before and after 911.

“Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan to the hilt,” Dean told her, drawing on his alleged experience of having preached in many Deobandi mosques in the UK. “Even after 9/11, there were many mosques still stubborn in their support for the Taliban, because of the Deobandi solidarity.”

Bowen’s “investigation” made headlines across the national and international press, making the frontpage of The Times, with further regurgitation in the Daily Mail, Express, dozens of local newspapers across the country, and further pick-up as far afield as The Nation, the left-leaning liberal US newsmagazine.

But Bowen’s exclusive is deeply misleading — it offers a systematically selective reading of history, serving to reinforce the Conservative government’s discriminatory security policies toward British Muslims, while obscuring the role of British security services in fostering jihadism at home and abroad.

As such, Bowen’s piece fits conveniently into an accelerating British government propaganda drive to pave the way for an emerging policy of official hostility toward Britain’s Deobandi Muslim communities.

Evidence of that policy surfaced in February with the announcement of a Ministry of Justice inquiry into the preponderance of Muslim prison chaplains of Deobandi persuasion, comprising a risk of radicalisation in the prison system.

Separate to this, though, the government has secretly completed another wider internal report into Deobandi communities in Britain. Details of this are not publicly available — but its existence was confirmed in the BBC radio 4 show produced by Bowen’s team.

Scary, suspicious Deobandis everywhere

The first obvious hole in Bowen’s narrative is in her acknowledgement that:

“Azhar’s tour lasted a month and consisted of over 40 speeches.”

Assuming that each of Azhar’s speeches occurred at a separate Deobandi mosque, this indicates that Azhar was able to visit some 40 odd Deobandi mosques in Britain. But in Bowen’s own book, she estimates there are some 738 Deobandi mosques throughout the UK.

This means that Masood Azhar was greeted by only a tiny fraction of Britain’s Deobandi Muslim communities and mosques — 5% of them, to be precise. That’s also just 2% of all of Britain’s estimated 1,664 mosques.

Yet Bowen chooses not to mention this, instead inaccurately casting a shadow of suspicion as wide as possible over the Deobandi communities:

“… it was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain–and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it. The Deobandis control more than 40% of British mosques and provide most of the UK-based training of Islamic scholars.”


Bowen’s BBC report goes to pains to ignore perhaps the most significant material context of Masood Azhar’s ability to enter Britain in 1993, despite being connected to Osama bin Laden: state-sponsorship.

In 1993, Azhar was founding chief of the Pakistani militant group Harkat ul-Mujahedeen (HuM), previously called Harkat ul-Ansar (HuA). In both guises, Harkat was closely protected by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), due to its key role in the CIA-MI6 backed war to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan.

A core feature of this covert programme was the bastardisation of Islam: the financing of extremist preachers and the proliferation of thousands of madrasahs preaching violent jihadism.

So concerned were the West’s national security mandarins to ensure these burgeoning madrasahs taught the ‘right’ doctrines, they directly financed the printing of hundreds of thousands of textbooks supplied to Muslim school children, “filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings” in the words of the Washington Post.

These violent doctrines successfully subverted the conservative teachings of countless Islamic seminaries within the spectrum of Deobandi and Salafi schools of thought. Far from jihadist ideology being an automatic product of those traditions, the toxic climate of the Cold War provided an unprecedented material boost to a violent extremist fringe, who were now empowered to dominate Islamic discourses.

Masood Azhar’s great British Bosnian adventure

When Masood Azhar decided to pop up in Britain in 1993, it was at the behest of British security services. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Bowen’s BBC story.

It’s widely assumed, even by those who should know better, that Western patronage of Islamist mujahideen ended decisively with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In reality, US and British intelligence agencies continued to see potential utility for bin Laden’s Islamist brigades in the post-Cold War period to continue rolling back Russian and Chinese geopolitical influence.

That appears to have been one reason the US and British governments used Azhar’s HuM to recruit British Muslims into the unfolding war in Bosnia.

According to 26-year intelligence veteran, the late B. Raman, head of the counter-terrorism division of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), which he co-founded:

“The radicalisation of Britain’s Muslim youth of Pakistani origin began in the mid-1990s with the full knowledge and complicity of British and US intelligence agencies… In the mid-1990s, the Pakistan-based jihadi group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM — previously known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar, HuA) sent a contingent to help Bosnian Muslims in their fight against the Serbs. They were sent by the government of Benazir Bhutto at the request of the Bill Clinton administration.”

Raman had firsthand access to Indian intelligence on these matters, having retired in 1994 from his post as Additional Secretary in the Indian government’s Cabinet Secretariat, where he was in charge of counter-terrorism.

This contingent of about 200 British Muslims of mostly Pakistani origin, reported Raman, “was raised and trained by Lieutenant General (retired) Hamid Gul, former director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who himself used to visit Bosnia.”

They “received training in the camps of the HuA [Masood Azhar’s Harkat ul-Mujahideen], and joined the HuA in Bosnia with the blessings of London and Washington. Among them was Omar Sheikh, who went on to mastermind the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002… Thus began the radicalisation process of Muslim youth of Pakistani origin in western Europe.”

MI6’s “favoured son”

Innes Bowen points out that British Muslim Omar Sheikh (full name: Ahmed Omar Sheikh Saeed) had been jailed in India in 1999 with Masood Azhar.

Ahmed Omar Sheikh Saeed, Masood Azhar’s right-hand man, Osama bin Laden’s finance chief, and alleged MI6 favourite

But she doesn’t acknowledge the evidence that under the tutelage of MI6, Omar Sheikh was among Azhar’s earliest recruits to his HuM, having joined after attending a training camp in Waziristan 1993.

The following year Sheikh met Osama bin Laden, who described him as his “favoured son.” He quickly became Masood Azhar’s right-hand man, and one of bin Laden’s most senior lieutenants.

In 1994, Omar Sheikh, Masood Azhar, and other HuM operatives were arrested and imprisoned in India for kidnappings of Western tourists. In 1999, they were freed by the Indian government in a hostage exchange after Islamist terrorists demanded their release by hijacking an Indian airliner.

Sheikh would go on to scale the ranks of al-Qaeda, becoming one of its senior financial managers.

Yet throughout this period, intelligence sources say that Sheikh was both an ISI and MI6 informant.

On the ISI patronage, Pakistani government officials confirm that Sheikh’s Pakistani intelligence handler was Brigadier Ijaz Shah, who was also reportedly Osama bin Laden’s ISI handler.

On the MI6 connection, General Pervez Musharraf’s memoirs, In the Line of Fire (p. 225), recount:

“… while Omar Sheikh was at the LSE [London School of Economics] he was recruited by the British intelligence agency MI6. It is said that MI6 persuaded him to take an active part in demonstrations against Serbian aggression in Bosnia and even sent him to Kosovo to join the jihad. At some point he probably became a rogue or double agent.”

The continuation of British intelligence’s fascination with Omar Sheikh was further apparent from a Times report (16th July 2002), ‘London schoolboy who graduated to terrorism’:

“British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was secretly offered an amnesty by British officials in 1999 if he would betray his links with al-Qaeda.”

The Times claimed that Sheikh refused the offer, but in practice, the British Foreign Office proceeded to repeatedly allow Azhar’s right-hand man back into the UK without being investigated or charged for his crimes. Sheikh ended up travelling to Britain in January 2000, and again in early 2001 — despite having founded a new terrorist outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed, with Azhar.

9/11 money man

That impunity is particularly extraordinary given that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, intelligence sources discovered that Azhar’s right-hand man had wired $100,000 directly to chief 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, on the instructions of former Pakistani ISI chief, General Mahmoud Ahmed.

From around June 2000 — in precisely the period when he was travelling to and from the UK with the FCO’s blessings — Omar Sheikh overall became the main conduit for the total of $500,000 funds wired in separate tranches to the 9/11 hijackers.

Yet it remains “a curious concern that neither Ahmed nor Sheikh have been charged and brought to trial over this incident,” said MJ Gohel, who serves on the United Nations Roster of Terrorism Experts, in evidence submitted in 2007 to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Still, Innes Bowen goes on to make much of Azhar’s and Sheikh’s influence on major UK terrorist plots like 7/7, 21/7, and the 2006 liquid bomb plot, which manifested “the consequences of the British Deobandi link with Masood Azhar.”

But Innes Bowen’s selective account allows her to avoid asking the most pressing question of all, regarding the HuM’s extraordinary freedom of movement in the UK.

The freedom of movement granted to Ahmed Omar Sheikh Saeed was a direct consequence of British intelligence’s determination that Masood Azhar’s militant movement would be a useful tools for ongoing dubious covert operations in the Balkans and beyond.

According to former US Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus, in 1996, MI6 had continued to recruit British Muslims to fight in the Balkans, specifically in Kosovo, through al-Muhajiroun. Founded that year by Omar Bakri Mohammed, al-Muhajiroun retained close working ties with Masood Azhar, using HuM camps to send Britons for terror training. The network is currently run under a new name by Bakri’s right-hand man, Anjem Choudary.

The Kosovo war, of course, broke out fully in 1998, culminating in the NATO intervention in March 1999.

Corroborating Loftus’ claim, Pulitizer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind obtained confirmation from a senior MI5 source — and I from a senior British terrorism lawyer — that Bakri had indeed been a longtime British intelligence informant.

7/7 enigma

In 1999, while Omar Sheikh was being courted by MI6, his HuM underlings were training a nexus of UK terrorists, some of whom went on to launch the 7/7 suicide attacks in London.

Chief 7/7 bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan and his friend Waheed Ali, who was jailed for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007, had first trained at a HuM camp in late 2001, near Kashmir in Pakistan and a Taliban camp in Bagram, Afghanistan, just before 9/11.

“In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organisation to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan),” reports Rafaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Others connected to the 7/7 cell had received training even earlier. In 1999, Mohammed Shakil, who was jailed alongside Waheed Ali, “spent three days at a low-level training camp” in Kashmir. “Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell… ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir.”

It’s no wonder, then, that a year after 7/7, Ahmed Omar Sheikh was being interrogated by a joint team of senior Pakistani intelligence officers, who wanted answers to questions forwarded by British intelligence concerning the 7/7 bombings.

The MI6 spy who ‘founded’ al-Qaeda

But the BBC isn’t interested in probing British intelligence’s largesse to the Masood Azhar network, as opposed to casting aspersions on Deobandi communities in Britain.

“The views of Britain’s Deobandi congregations towards Masood Azhar after his alliance with al-Qaeda are not revealed in the archive of jihadist publications seen by the BBC,” writes Bowen. “Did British support for him evaporate or just go underground?”

To answer her question, Bowen speaks to a man who calls himself ‘Aimen Dean’, who is quoted apparently casting a wide net of suspicion on British Muslim Deobandi communities.

Bowen describes Dean as “a founder member of al-Qaeda, who changed tack in 1998 and became a spy for Britain’s security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6.” He worked undercover in the UK for eight years while maintaining ties to the Taliban.

Aimen Dean, who is a former al-Qaeda member

The BBC’s depiction of Dean as a founding member of al-Qaeda who rejected its ideology in 1998, however, is incoherent.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, al-Qaeda did not even exist in 1998. Osama bin Laden himself did not refer to the name ‘al-Qaeda’ until after 9/11. As noted by Adam Dolnik, director of terrorism studies at the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, what we had instead was still a loose, dispersed array of groups with varying degrees of relationship to bin Laden’s mujahideen:

“In the current context of Osama bin Laden’s terror network, this name was imposed externally by Western officials and media sources.”

According to the late former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, the term ‘al-Qaeda’ was, from the beginning a Western intelligence invention:

“Al-Qaida, literally ‘the database’, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.”*

*(al-Qaeda, which means ‘the base’, is in this sense shorthand for al-qaeda ma’aloomat, meaning ‘database’)

While a loose international network of terrorist operatives inspired by and to some extent loyal to Osama bin Laden obviously existed, it was only in the run-up to 9/11 that it coalesced into a more formalised command and control structure, identifiable as ‘al-Qaeda’ precisely due to the network’s loyalty to bin Laden’s CIA-trained mujahideen.

Dean claims that his journey into bin Laden’s inner circle began with the Bosnian war, where he was encountered the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and ended up swearing fealty to Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

This was in the early to mid-90s: too late to take credit for founding bin Laden’s anti-Soviet database of mujahideen, and too early to take credit for founding al-Qaeda as a concrete entity which, at that time, still did not really exist.

He rejected al-Qaeda, he claims, after the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar as-Salam, leaving for medical treatment in the Gulf, whereupon by December 1998, he had been fully turned by MI5 and MI6 handlers.

Seven months later, Dean was dispatched by MI6 back to Afghanistan as a ‘penetration agent.’

In other words, by the BBC’s account, he left ‘al-Qaeda’ before it was even ‘founded,’ and in the ensuing eight years, whatever work he did to ‘found’ al-Qaeda was done with the full knowledge and complicity of British intelligence.

In my own interview with Aimen Dean, however, he flatly contradicted the way in which the BBC had characterised his career.

“I never claimed on any platform or forum that I was a ‘founding member of AQ [Al-Qaeda]’… Never said that anywhere and I was annoyed and puzzled by the BBC choice of title... People like me who joined in 1997 (post Bin Laden’s return from Sudan to Afghanistan) are just the new cadre.”

Dean indicated that he had raised concerns about the mischaracterisation a year ago, without success.

Fostering jihad to fight jihad

In last year’s BBC interview, Dean admitted encouraging young British Muslims to become jihadists, and perhaps facilitating the activities of the 7/7 attack planners.

As part of his ‘cover’, Aimen Dean played the role of a radical preacher, encouraging British Muslims to join al-Qaeda’s jihad, and elaborating theological justifications for al-Qaeda’s terrorist activity.

“You had to play along with them obviously?” asked the BBC’s Peter Marshall.

“Of course. I was still preaching, I was still stating how committed I am to the cause,” replied Dean.

“That must be tricky, though, because in some ways because you’re there preaching, you’re again giving theological justification for some of the bad things that you know that they’re up to,” noted Marshall.

Dean explained: “Yes, but at the end of the day if you want to catch rats, you have to go into the sewage system basically and get dirty yourself.”

In the name of catching rats, though, Dean was unleashing rats into the global jihad.

“… you have to keep up this pretence by talking to people at the mosque, you have to encourage them to join the jihad?” asked Marshall.

“Yes… although there are limits. I was aware of my boundaries basically about how much you can incite. You use guarded words about general rather than specific incitement,” Dean said.

Marshall: Do you ever feel guilty about having encouraged somebody to go to jihad?

Dean: Yes.

Marshall: Are there many occasions that this might have happened?

Dean: There were some occasions where that happened.

During his time undercover, reported Marshall, Dean “even relayed hints of the 9/11 attacks.”

“There were indications,” Dean told Marshall:

“Abu Hafs al-Masri said, ‘Something big is about to happen.’ And I was told to relay a message to four individuals in London in July 2001 telling them they have to leave and come to Afghanistan before September 1.”

As we now know, Sidique Khan and others linked to the 7/7 cell made their way to Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks, where they attended a Taliban training camp.

In his interview, Dean did not elaborate on what MI5 or MI6 did with his intelligence revealing that senior al-Qaeda officials were communicating with and training a cell of four Britons five years before the London bombings. Marshall did not care to ask, either.

Neocon merchant?

Perhaps the most glaring omission from Innes Bowen’s decision to quote Aimen Dean as a credible authority on the state of British Muslim mosques, is his connection to the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a neoconservative think-tank in London with close ties to the Bush administration officials who spearheaded the 2003 Iraq War.

The American far-right’s trojan horse in Westminster
There is a violent extremist fifth column operating at the heart of power inBritain, and they stand against everything we hold dear in Western democracies: civil liberties, equality, peace, diplomacy and the rule of law. You wouldn’t think so at first glance. In fact, you might be taken in by the…

Dean is managing director of Five Dimensions Consultants, a security contractor based in the United Arab Emirates.

Over the last few years, Aimen Dean’s firm has been a ‘gold sponsor’ of conferences organised by HJS’ risk analysis arm, Strategic Analysis (SA). As I exposed in a Guardian investigation in 2014, the latter is basically about serving the needs of Western corporate oil and gas interests in the Middle East.

That year, Aimen Dean was one of the opening speakers of a HJS conference he had co-sponsored at the Chartered Insurance Institute about ‘Political Risk and Business Interruption Exposures: Mitigating the Risk Post-“Arab Spring.”’ Joining his panel were former MI6 chief (2004–2009) Sir John Scarlett; Sir William Patey, who had served as UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iraq; HJS associate director Douglas Murray; and Telegraph defence editor, Con Coughlin.

Coughlin is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, a rightwing think-tank in New York that, according to the Center for American Progress, is part of a “networked group of misinformation experts” that “peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam”, funded by philanthropist Nina Rosenwald.

Alongside Coughlin among Gatestone’s senior fellows is HJS director Douglas Murray, who has, among other things, called for all Muslim immigration to Europe to be banned; demanded that “conditions for Muslims in Europe… be made harder across the board”; justified the mass deportation of European Muslims who condone indigenous resistance against Western military interventions; and repeatedly endorsed Frank Gaffney, the anti-Muslim bigot who notoriously inspired Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigration to America.

When I asked Dean about his association with HJS, he stated that this was one of his “biggest regrets. I’m not fond of neocons at all and loathe those who generalise against Muslims.”

He confirmed that the decision was made by his business associate at his consultancy firm, due to the focus on security for the oil industry. Since then, however, he has severed ties with the think-tank:

“I can’t in clear conscience support a think tank that has a blatant anti Muslim agenda like that. So since 2014 there was no association whatsoever.”

I further asked Dean whether he agreed with the premise of Innes Bowen’s BBC piece that large sections of the British Muslim Deobandi communities and mainstream mosques could be supportive of al-Qaeda terrorism.

“I never implied that at all,” he said.

“In the end I was not looking at it only from what I saw in the UK, but also what I saw in Afghanistan,” he added. “There were several camps of ‘Harakat al-Ansar’ [or Harkat ul-Mujahideen] in Afghanistan that received dozens of UK citizens, all Deobandis from London, Luton, Blackburn, Bradford.”

As the late Indian counter-terrorism intelligence chief, B. Raman, had noted, that funnel of Britons into the mujahideen network was opened up under the auspices of the CIA and MI6.

Defence contractor

Since 2013, Aimen Dean has also been a Senior Associate at Beechwood International, a British strategic defence consultancy, where — according to his LinkedIn profile — he provides “subject matter expertise on all terror groups spanning the different Islamic sects.”

Beechwood International is a leading US and UK government contractor, providing strategic support for US and UK military, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency policies.

Screenshot from Beechwood International’s website

This includes advising the British Army, NATO, and the UN; mapping future threat scenarios for the UK homeland as well as foreign theatres like Libya and Iraq for the Ministry of Defence and UK Joint Forces Command; as well as designing and running war-games for American and British security agencies.

Screenshot from Beechwood International’s website on red-teaming and war-gaming exercises it has conducted under government contracts

At worst, Bowen’s chief source for understanding the views toward extremism among Britain’s Deobandi mosques is a government defence contractor who has funded a virulently anti-Muslim think-tank, and who previously promoted jihadism in the very same mosques.

At best, the BBC systematically and selectively mispresented Aimen Dean’s background and views on British Muslim Deobandi communities today.

Innes Bowen

Bowen’s unabashed credulity toward Aimen Dean appears to emerge from her connections with the British government’s Organisation for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office.

The BBC’s Innes Bowen, author of the Masood Azhar UK tour story

In 2008, the Guardian obtained a classified document from the OSCT’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) identifying a BBC World Service radio programme as one among numerous UK media outlets being subjected to a Whitehall propaganda drive. The RICU report stated:

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg, a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media… It is aimed primarily (but not exclusively) at those working with overseas influencers and opinion formers.”

In response to the story, the BBC issued a statement conceding that “the programme in question must be the 7 August edition of Analysis, presented by the BBC’s Security Correspondent Frank Gardner” and produced by none other than Innes Bowen.

Although denying that the programme was a result of a “push” from RICU, the BBC admitted:

“Frank and Innes did have some contact with RICU during the course of making the programme and went to see three members of the unit after they had finished recording all their interviews. The people from RICU gave them some briefing materials but those weren’t used in the programme.”

However, as the Guardian noted in a follow up report, the work of two anti-al-Qaeda theologians highlighted in the RICU document was also featured in Gardner’s BBC radio report produced by Bowen.

It so happens that Bowen was also the BBC editor who introduced Aimen Dean’s personal story to mainstream media through Radio 4 in January 2015, producing an interview with him by Peter Marshall on the inner workings of the Islamic State.

According to sources who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, Bowen has continued to maintain regular contact with Whitehall counter-terrorism officials, and has even briefed them on her findings in her own book.

I asked her whether this was indeed the case. In a written response via the BBC’s press office, Bowen confirmed that she had provided a briefing to the Ministry of Justice on 12th February 2016, attended by 50 Whitehall officials. The briefing was based on the findings of her book, and included discussion of Muslim chaplaincy in the British prison system:

“Since the publication of my book in July 2014 I have given a number of talks on its basic findings about which groups run UK mosques and seminaries. A civil servant who attended one such public talk at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) invited me to give the same talk on 12th February 2016 to civil servants at the Ministry of Justice/National Offender Management Service. This talk was widely publicised to civil servants and attended by around 50 people. The talk was based largely on the one I gave at the IPPR — but also referred to the findings published by Sophie Gilliat-Ray and Mansur Ali in their book Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy.”

Bowen’s talk at the Ministry of Justice occurred just five days after The Times (which last week featured her Masood Azhar story on the frontpage) cited senior Whitehall officials describing a Ministry of Justice review of the ‘anti-western values’ of Deobandi Muslim prison chaplains.

In other words, the same Ministry of Justice officials who had briefed The Times on the alleged danger of Deobandis amongst Muslim chaplains, appear to have arranged for Innes Bowen to address the department around the same time the story would break.

I also asked Bowen whether she had “continued to have meetings and engagements with Whitehall counter-terrorism officials and civil servants” since the meetings with RICU in 2008, and engaged “with the government at all in relation to the subject of British Muslim Deobandi communities?”

Bowen did not directly answer these questions. She explicitly denied having had any contact with RICU further to the meetings disclosed in 2008, but did not respond to the broader questions about meetings and engagements with government.

She added:

“The BBC’s research into the Deobandi network has been done completely independently of government: the BBC has not contributed to the government’s research in this area, neither has the BBC had access to any of the government’s research.”

I also asked whether her BBC team had been assured by British government officials of the accuracy of Aimen Dean’s personal story. She replied:

The BBC independently verified the key parts of Aimen Dean’s story before his account of his time spent in Al Qaeda/working for British intelligence was broadcast. We did this through two separate non-governmental sources.

Notably, Bowen did not deny receiving assurances from government officials about Dean, confirming only that “key parts” of his story — rather than the whole story — were verified through two different non-governmental sources.

Given that she has form in producing BBC radio content that just happens to mirror Whitehall propaganda, the coincidence between the launch of a secret internal government inquiry into Britain’s Deobandi’s communities and Bowen’s new ‘investigation’ looks like a case of déjà vu.

Whatever the shortfalls of Bowen’s book covering this subject (and there are many), it remains far more balanced than the misleading non-story she put out last week. In her opening chapter on Britain’s Deobandis, she refers to Masood Azhar’s British mosque tour, but concedes:

“Jaish-e-Mohammed’s association with al-Qaeda means it is not endorsed by the mainstream Deobandi ulema in Britain. Senior Deobandi ulema in Britain have given a clear condemnation of al-Qaeda’s methods… If the success of Deobandi Islam raises any further issues for wider society, it is one of social cohesion, not violent extremism. The flirtation with jihadi groups in the 1990s can now be seen as an aberration for a network dominated by the apolitical, pietistic strand of Islam.”

So why did Bowen ignore her own findings, promoting a fear-mongering narrative that obscures British security services’ fostering of jihadist ideologues, and amplifying the claims of an ex-spook embedded in a network of far-right, anti-Muslim policy wonks?

No doubt, the BBC will insist that Innes Bowen’s partiality to entertaining briefings to and from Whitehall officials has no bearing on her editorial independence.

This article was amended on 13th April 2016 to incorporate comments received from the BBC in response to queries after publication. It was further amended on 14th April to incorporate additional comments by Aimen Dean.

Member discussion