Thursday, November 23, 2006
Retired spies group claims scalpsLONDON, England (Reuters) -- It says its members brought about the conviction of radical Egyptian-born cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, uncovered insurgent tactics in Iraq and are now working to provide intelligence from North Korea.
The organization is not the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or Britain's security agency MI6 but "Vigil", a shadowy network of retired spies, senior military personnel, anti-terrorism specialists and banking experts.
The group's director Dominic Whiteman said he set up Vigil with two other businessmen last year to act as an interface between retired spies who were still party to good, raw intelligence, and the police and security services.
"This evidence was just getting lost in the system," Whiteman told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Vigil numbers more than 30 members and is spread across the globe from India to the United States, working with contacts ranging from a maid in Bangkok and a Mumbai train driver to senior intelligence figures.
"We just recruited a guy who's a senior figure in police training in Iraq," Whiteman said.
Sixty percent of Vigil's work involves gaining information via the Internet, by infiltrating online chatrooms, while the remainder is face-to-face or telephone work.
The information gleaned is passed on to authorities like the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York Intelligence Unit and British police's Counter Terrorism Command (CTC).
A CTC spokeswoman said the group was treated seriously.
"The CTC is working closely with Vigil and in particular its director and spokesman who has made officers aware of chatroom material," she said.
Whiteman said: "We generally don't drop stuff off until it's pretty well formed and ready for them to use.
"It's quite a faceless relationship. You can never really tell if some of the evidence you hand over is behind some of the arrests that have been security service-inspired."
One member of Vigil is credited with helping bring about the conviction of cleric Hamza, jailed in London in February for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder, and wanted in the United States on terrorism charges.
Glen Jenvey said he tricked Hamza into handing over videos and audio tapes which were used by U.S. authorities in their case against James Ujaama who pleaded guilty in 2004 to trying to help al Qaeda militants.
Ujaama's conviction led to an arrest warrant for Hamza and ultimately the discovery of the material that led to his trial.
Jenvey said he previously worked for Sri Lanka's intelligence service infiltrating the London base of the Tamil Tigers. He describes himself as an amateur spy "like Miss Marple," the elderly sleuth created by author Agatha Christie.
"It sounds more insulting to the terrorists," he told Reuters.
His latest undercover work has involved another hardline Muslim cleric, Omar Bakri Mohammed, banned from Britain in August as part of a crackdown on so-called "preachers of hate".
Jenvey's revelation that Bakri had been delivering nightly sermons via an Internet chatroom from his exile in Lebanon was reported prominently in Britain's media this week.
"What he wasn't aware of is we recorded everything for the last six months and then handed it over to the anti-terrorist squad and MI5 (the UK domestic spy agency)," he said.
"When you listen to a whole lecture ... it's a pretty fair assessment he's inciting terrorism, calling for terrorism, supporting terrorism and he's Mr Terrorism himself."
Jenvey said one of the chatroom's regular participants, a man since convicted of inciting racist hatred, had also called for the killing of Queen Elizabeth. Others had targeted U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Anjem Choudary, a close friend of Bakri, denied there was anything sinister about the sermons and said the talks in "no way encourage or incite" British Muslims.
London, where four British Islamists blew themselves up on the city's transport network last year, remained a focal point, Whiteman said.
MI5's chief Eliza Manningham-Buller said recently Muslim extremists were plotting at least 30 attacks and there were some 1,600 suspects being monitored.
Whiteman said a very trusted contact who had a "key security role in the UK" had revealed that 70 percent of information given in a daily briefing to President Bush by U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte centred on the British capital.
Vigil has now turned its sights on two groups prominent in Britain: Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary organization that is planning to build Britain's largest mosque in east London, and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an organization Britain announced it would ban after the July 7, 2005 London bomb attacks.
Both groups say they do not have links to militants and say they promote peace. Media reports have often linked them to terrorism investigations.
"We wanted to find out more," Whiteman said, adding that his group had already infiltrated the organizations. "There's nothing to suggest that they will be banned, but there are definitely a few rotten apples that need to be looked at."
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