Are British taxpayers supporting a radical cleric?

CEP Research Analyst


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I recently wrote about Ahmad Jibril, an Islamist preacher in Michigan who has become one of the most influential cheerleaders for foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Jibril is not the only Islamist preacher living in relative comfort under Western tolerance, however. British authorities recently arrested Islamist cleric Anjem Choudary for providing support to ISIS. But just as Jibril remains free in the United States, there is another Islamist in the United Kingdom who not only lives freely, but also reportedly receives government welfare support.

Hani al-Sibai is an Egyptian-born cleric who trained as a defense attorney and reportedly provided legal defense to Egyptian Islamist groups before moving to England in 1994. He also has a long relationship with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who previously led the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad before it allied with al-Qaeda in 2001. Al-Sibai was also reportedly the mentor of ISIS executioner Jihadi John, identified as the British citizen Mohammed Emwazi. The United States and the United Nations have both designated al-Sibai as part of al-Qaeda. The United States accuses him of “training and providing material support” to the terrorist group, as well as “conspiring to commit terrorist acts.” Al-Sibai denies all ties to al-Qaeda.

Al-Sibai requested asylum in Great Britain in 1994 after an Egyptian court convicted him in absentia of plotting terrorist attacks. Al-Sibai claimed he had been tortured because of his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Britain denied his request for asylum but has been unable to carry out his deportation, despite calls from lawmakers, because of a legal prohibition on deporting people who could face torture or death upon their return.

Since making his home in England, Al-Sibai has repeatedly praised terrorism against the West and called the 7/7 bombings in London a “great victory” for al-Qaeda. He has called Osama bin Laden “one of the lions of Islam.” Jihad, he believes, is “mandatory” for all Muslims “when Muslim land is occupied by non-believers.”

Al-Sibai is also the founder and director of the Maqreze Center for Historical Studies in London, which he runs out of his home. The center’s website—which has since shut down—hosted a number of al-Sibai’s lectures and videos and reportedly influenced young British jihadists, such as Emwazi. In appearances on Al Jazeera and other programs, al-Sibai claims he is merely a Middle Eastern political analyst as he praises Islamist fighters and denigrates the West. In March, he appeared on a Lebanese news program, but female host Rima Karaki refused to give al-Sibai a soapbox. The interview devolved into an argument after Karaki tried to steer al-Sibai back to the topic. He proceeded to tell Karaki to shut up and yelled that he could say whatever he wanted because it was “beneath” him to be interviewed by her. Karaki then cut his microphone.

Al-Sibai’s exploits are well known to the British government and public, and yet he remains a free man who reportedly lives with his wife and five children in a west London home worth £1 million. He and his wife also reportedly collect disability payments from the British government. Al-Sibai allegedly receives £50,000 a year.

This is not the first time the United Kingdom has faced this problem. The Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada fought British deportation for more than a decade while undergoing multiple arrests for ties to terrorism. Jordan had accused him of involvement in two terrorist plots in that country. Qatada had also been tied to Chechen terrorists, and he had once been described as Osama bin Laden’s “spiritual ambassador in Europe.” Britain finally negotiated a deal last year with Jordan to guarantee Qatada a fair trial upon his return. Two Jordanian courts subsequently acquitted him.

In a response to CEP inquires, dated August 28, the British Home Office confirmed that al-Sibai remains on the United Kingdom’s consolidated list of financial sanctions targets and that it “actively” pursues the removal of people such as al-Sibai “whose presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good….”

The Home Office also noted the UK’s “proud tradition over many years of providing a place of safety for refugees who need protection. It does not do so lightly….” Asylum applicants are subject to “a series of background and security checks.”

This is likely why al-Sibai was initially denied asylum. As the Home Office points out, the United Kingdom is “sometimes faced with individuals who do not qualify for asylum but who we are unable to return because of the situation in their home country.” Britain keeps events in the home country “under review” in order to “quickly try to remove the individual if circumstances change.”

Perhaps, as it did with Jordan and Abu Qatada, Britain can negotiate an agreement with Egypt to deport al-Sibai, internationally recognized as an al-Qaeda adherent. Or perhaps it is time for the United Kingdom to recognize that al-Sibai is in the country for the foreseeable future and enforce its other laws that would treat him like the criminal he is.

As of early July, al-Sibai was under investigation for benefits fraud. Well, that’s a start.