Hassan Butt, ‘al-Qa’ida activist or charlatan’?
By Inayat Bunglawala
The Muslim News, 27 June 2008
We were told by the would-be book publishers that this was a story “that must be told”. Hassan Butt, a Wolverhampton University drop-out and one time ranting al-Muhajiroun activist was – with the help of an ambitious freelancer called Shiv Malik – going to reveal all about his al-Qa’ida associations and how he had finally come to his senses in a forthcoming book called Leaving-Al-Qaeda by Hassan-Butt and Shiv Malik.
The American network CBS had, back in March 2007, broadcast a lengthy interview with Hassan Butt on its flagship 60 Minutes programme in which viewers were told that Butt was revealing “what it was like to be inside that [al-Qa’ida] network for ten years” and told of his meeting with the ringleader of the 7/7 bombings, Mohammed Siddique Khan, but this book promised to be the most detailed account yet by a self-proclaimed al-Qa’ida insider.
In a couple of sceptical Guardian Comment is Free blogs [see here and here – ed.] I noted how at the end of 2001, after Butt first gained notoriety in the UK media with his calls from Pakistan on British Muslims to travel to Afghanistan and fight on behalf of the Taliban, he returned back to the UK and tried – unsuccessfully – to sell his story to the Daily Mirror for a cool £100,000. So, was this guy a real al-Qa’ida activist or merely an opportunist looking to make a quick buck? And if he really was an al-Qa’ida activist then why hadn’t he been prosecuted when other British Muslims have found themselves convicted on far more questionable grounds for having downloaded “al-Qa’ida manuals” which are easily available on the internet?
Later, following the 7/7 bombings, Butt renounced his former extremism and became a vocal critic of al-Qa’ida. Whereas in the past he had criticised mainstream Islamic organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain for being “sell-outs” he turned 180 degrees and declared that he now believed that they were in fact “extremists”. Unsurprisingly, he quickly gained the admiration and support of several prominent pro-Iraq war commentators with his curt dismissal of those who argued that Western warmongering and ongoing backing for Middle Eastern despots had a significant impact on the emerging terror threat.
This was the Sunday Telegraph‘s Alasdair Palmer’s view: “British foreign policy, which has been blamed for the creation of home-grown Islamic terrorists, has had very little to do with it (in fact, the idea that all we have to do is change Government policy and the problems will disappear is another way of avoiding the reality). Mr [Shiv] Malik is not the only one to notice this. Ed Husain and Hassan Butt, both of whom were ‘captured’ by violent Islamist ideology but who have now escaped from it, have also emphasised the point. Both have been threatened by the Islamists with death, and Mr Butt is now in hiding because an attempt was made to kill him.” (Sunday Telegraph, June 17, 2006)
Note that line: “An attempt was made to kill him”. Another prominent “ex-Islamist”, Ed Husain, elaborated on this in the New Statesman: “In Manchester in April , Hassan Butt, a one-time jihadist who is now opposed to extremism, was stabbed and beaten for speaking out against fanaticism. He now lives in hiding.” (New Statesman, June 14, 2007)
But something did not seem quite right and it was not just the fact that trial after trial has clearly shown that a key motivating factor behind planned terror acts has been the perception that Britain – alongside the US – is involved in perpetrating major human rights abuses against Muslims overseas.
After all, would an actual al-Qa’ida activist really court publicity and seek to draw attention to himself and his activities as Butt was so assiduously doing?
In addition, according to the blurb for his book which can still be read online as I write this, Butt was admitting that he was “coming to terms with the fact that I had spent a decade killing for killing’s sake.” Now that would seem like a pretty serious admission to me and I argued on the Guardian’s Cif site a couple of months ago that prodigal son or no, surely Butt should be telling all of this to the police, especially if he was genuinely repentant for his past actions?
So when the police arrested Butt and demanded that Shiv Malik hand over his notes so that they could investigate whether any actual crimes had been committed, I thought the police were definitely in the right. Would we allow other self-confessed killers to escape justice simply because they now expressed regret for their actions?
Some commentators, however, including Nick Cohen and the Tory Shadow Cabinet member Michael Gove, bitterly criticised the police. Cohen, in particular, argued in an Observer piece entitled “Scandal of the persecuted peacemakers” that Butt now had an “almost patriotic belief in the best values of Britain” and that he had “a higher success rate than the intelligence services” in turning extremists back on to the straight and narrow.
Cohen said that Butt was part of a new group of British Muslims that: “… help steer British Muslims away from violence while teaching wider society that radical Islam is not a rational reaction to Western provocation, but a totalitarian ideology with a life of its own. ‘How we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy,’ Butt recalled in an outburst that stuck in my mind. ‘By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the “Blair’s bombs” line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamist theology.'” (Observer, March 23, 2008)
On May 21, 2008, the Greater Manchester Police presented to the High Court the transcript of their recent interviews with Hassan Butt since he was arrested in which he, for the first time, admitted that he had “made up” all the stories of his al-Qa’ida involvement: “I’ve never met anyone from al-Qaida or anyone who claimed to be from al-Qaida in my entire life … I actually arranged for myself to be stabbed in the shoulder, sorry, in my arm and in my back because I knew if I said I had been attacked Shiv was going to ask for some proof so basically I stabbed myself … you know, it was just part of the whole scam.”
Butt also admitted that contrary to his past statements, he had never met, let alone had tea with the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks, Mohammed Siddique Khan.
Al Qa’ida activist or charlatan? It would appear from his own admission to the police – which can be seen in this C4 News clip – that Hassan Butt was indeed in the latter category. In my own conversations with some journalists they told me that they had long believed Butt was an “absolute stitch up merchant”, so how was it that Nick Cohen, Shiv Malik and Co fell for him so easily?
What is worrying is the thought of where we would now be if the Greater Manchester Police had not intervened and managed to get Hassan Butt to finally admit to being a liar and a fraud? Butt’s book would no doubt have been praised by all the warmongering fans of Ed Husain’s The Islamist and for very similar reasons. There is even talk of a movie about Butt’s life having been in the pipeline…
In the end, it is hard to avoid concluding that the reason Butt – along with the likes of Ed Husain etc – was being so assiduously promoted by the Islam-bashers was that he was more than willing to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.
Inayat Bunglawala is a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain