Exclusive: Moazzam Begg tells Channel 4 News that MI5 gave him the green light to go to Syria. So why was he charged with terror offences and locked up for seven months?
When Moazzam Begg’s trial was suddenly abandoned just days before it was due to begin, it took many people by surprise. But not Mr Begg himself: “I knew that I would never have been convicted. Although I was glad to be freed, I also wish I had had my day in court. I was spoiling for a fight.”
Mr Begg was charged with terrorist offences, including attending a jihadi training camp, following two trips he made to Syria between 2012 and 2013.
And yet before he went, he had met with MI5 officers and discussed his plans. Speaking to me at his home in Birmingham, Mr Begg told me the security services had given him the “green light to go.” The meeting was documented by lawyers for both parties.
A year after his trip to Syria, during which time he had freely visited other countries, he was arrested and charged with seven counts under the terrorism act. Why did the security services fail to tell West Midlands Police about their meeting with him? It is understood that the force and prosecutors were furious at the late disclosure, with the CPS issuing a terse statement saying: “If we had been made aware of all of this information at the time of charging, we would not have charged.”
But Mr Begg told me he believes this was not the only reason his case was dropped. The 46-year-old believes it would also have raised uncomfortable questions about government policy on Syria and why not all Britons who go to fight there should be criminalised.
Mr Begg, who has previously attended jihadi camps in Bosnia and Afghanistan, admits he helped organise a training camp in Syria. “There were doctors, engineers, teachers, all sorts of volunteers opposed to the brutality of the Assad regime” he said. “But they were ordinary people and had no training. They would have been slaughtered.”
Mr Begg says the camp helped to train them in physical fitness and acquire the rudiments of first aid and military training.
Mr Begg insists this was not an act of terrorism. His trial would have focused on what he sees as an important distinction. “This was about helping people defend themselves against a murderous regime, war criminals who were gassing their own people.”
The security services have warned that British Muslims going to fight in Syria pose a direct threat to the UK and have warned that anyone going to fight faces arrest. The militant group Islamic State, which many Brits are known to have joined, have caused outrage at their tactics, including the murder of hostages. There is a concern that young men will be radicalised, and brutalised by what they have witnessed, come back here to plan attacks.
Mr Begg acknowledges this concern, but points out that at the time he went, the Islamic State group did not exist, nor did groups like the Al-quda affiliated Jabat Al Nusra. “Many British men went to join moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army, which at one time even the British Government was considering arming.
“They were on the same side as us. There are important distinctions and many Muslims believe they were doing an honourable thing.”
In one of his police statements, seen by Channel 4 News, Mr Begg noted that hundreds of different rebel groups had been formed in Syria to “provide what the outside world has failed to deliver… I do not believe that the actions of all of these groups can constitute terrorism.”
He added: “While the outside world has taken countless refugees, it has provided no defence whatsoever against state atrocities… I have been involved in no activity other than for the purpose of the protection of a defenceless population against the onslaught of a dictator.”