A SUSPECTED al-Qaeda leader and his family are living under the protection of MI5 in a safe house in the north of England, it was claimed yesterday.
Abu Qatada, a radical Muslim cleric who is accused of acting as Osama bin Laden’s ambassador in Europe, disappeared from his home in London last December.
The Home Office yesterday confirmed he has not been arrested but refused to comment on reports he was being interviewed by intelligence officers in a safe house, saying it was a "security matter".
Qatada is one of the world’s most wanted men and has been accused of inciting terrorism in eight countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Spain.
His name was on the list of suspected Islamic terrorists issued by the United Nations after videos made by him were found in a Hamburg flat used by three of the 11 September hijackers, including the group’s leader, Mohammed Atta.
He was last seen at his home in Acton, west London, on 15 December, a matter of hours before new legislation was passed that would have allowed police to arrest and detain terrorist suspects.
European intelligence officials were astonished that the authorities in Britain had allowed Qatada to slip away, but in the past three months, there have been suggestions that his disappearance was connected to a deal with MI5.
Qatada, who came to Britain from Jordan in 1993, is anxious to avoid being deported back to the country where he has been sentenced in his absence to 15 years in jail for funding terrorism.
The suspicion that he had turned supergrass was raised in April with the arrest of eight al-Qaeda terrorists in Germany. Prosecutors said Qatada had acted as "spiritual leader" to the men and incited them to join the holy war.
A report by Time magazine yesterday quoted sources in European intelligence agencies as saying that Qatada and his family were being lodged, fed and clothed by MI5 officers in northern England.
"The deal is that Abu Qatada is deprived of contact with extremists in London and Europe but can’t be arrested or expelled because no-one officially knows where he is," a source told the magazine. "The British win because the last thing they want is a hot potato they can’t extradite for fear of al-Qaeda reprisals but whose presence contradicts London’s support of the war on terror." The magazine said the claims had been corroborated by French authorities.
Qatada, who was born in Bethlehem, was living in Acton with his wife and four children, claiming income support, housing benefit and child benefit. His benefits were stopped and his assets frozen after the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, named him among 38 suspected of financing terrorist activities from Britain. Treasury investigators discovered he was holding 180,000 in a bank account.
Qatada was described by a Spanish judge as being the "spiritual head of the mujahideen in Britain" and his name has cropped up in terrorist investigations across the globe.
Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, is said to have attended prayers led by Qatada at a community centre near Baker Street when they both lived in London. He is believed to have met bin Laden during a visit to Peshawar and to be a member of bin Laden’s fatwa committee, which provides Islamic justification for al-Qaeda’s terrorist actions.
Qatada has consistently denied any involvement in terrorism.
Dr Magnus Ranstorp, the deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, said: "Abu Qatada is at the epicentre of the al-Qaeda network, according to French, Spanish, German and Jordanian intelligence officials.
"There has been a lot of pressure on Britain to deal with the issue of Qatada and the leaking of this information should be seen in that light.
"The French, in particular, are anxious for this to be resolved."
He continued: "The question as to where he is has been unresolved for a long time, but the British authorities will not publicly admit that he has gone missing.
"He is a man whose physical appearance does not lend itself easily to being concealed. He is very large and distinctive.
"If he is in hiding in Britain, it is very embarrassing for the British authorities, but it is possible he has been co-operating with the intelligence services."
Dr Ranstorp added: "Qatada is a hot political potato and this sort of leak will only place pressure on the security services."
A Home Office spokesman said: "We never comment on the activities of the security services."