The ease with which the eldest member of the 21 July terror cell bluffed his way into Britain was exposed yesterday, as Italian police said he secured a UK passport simply by posing as a Somali asylum seeker.
Hamdi Adus Issac hoodwinked the Home Office by inventing a name—Hussein Osman—and claimed he was fleeing the Somali war when he was in fact an Ethiopian who had spent five years living apparently peacefully in Italy.
The Italian police explained how they captured Issac yesterday and last night started the extradition process by charging him formally. But his legal challenge may delay his arrival in Britain until the winter.
The head of the Italian anti-terrorist police, Carlo De Stefano, said that Issac—wanted in connection with an attempted attack on Shepherd’s Bush Tube station—is an Ethiopian, speaking with a dialect from a region which borders Somalia. Like five of his brothers, he lived in Italy from 1991 to 1996, but decided to move to Britain.
“He falsely declared he was a Somali citizen to obtain the status of political refugee and economic assistance more easily,” he said, clearly implying that welfare was an attraction.
Claiming Somali status has been a common tactic among bogus asylum seekers. No documentation is needed and without it the Home Office could grant citizenship based on nothing more than the say-so of the applicant. An official said that language checks have now been introduced to ascertain Somalian status, and that each asylum seeker is screened for personal circumstance.
The Home Office added that it takes precautions to stop such bogus asylum claims and recently outlawed the common practice of destroying identity documents en route to Britain. “Normally, people destroy their documents because we cannot send them back without them, should their asylum claim fail,” said a spokesman.
Police described how they tracked down Issac, 27, by looking out for a mobile phone held by one of his brothers. On 26 July, the day that Issac slipped past British police and stepped on to the Eurostar train at Waterloo, checks were carried out on Italian phone numbers he had dialled in the past.
Scotland Yard had contacted Italian police, saying the suspect had made a call to Saudi Arabia and then to his brother in Rome. Italian investigators traced a mobile phone signal, thinking they were on to one of Issac’s brothers. But when the signal reappeared, it became clear that Issac was using his brother’s phone—and heading towards Rome. He seemed unconcerned that mobile usage would betray his whereabouts.
Last Wednesday, Italian police were able to record his voice and played it back to Scotland Yard for verification. On Friday, he was traced to an apartment in the suburb of Tor Pignatarra near Rome’s main train station. Italian police were able to confirm his identity by the presence of a wound on his right leg, which had been sustained during the failed Shepherd’s Bush attack.
British police said it was inflicted as he tried to jump over a barrier to escape the London underground station.
The Conservative Party said last night it would not criticise the government over Issac’s entry into the country as it has adopted a “consensual and constructive” approach and was corresponding with the Home Office “by letter, not through the media”.
But Sir Andrew Green, the head of the pressure group, Migration Watch , said it was an alarming development that posed serious questions about how carefully officials have been screening those claiming to be Somali asylum seekers.
“It’s only recently that the Home Office has started using language checks on Somalis,” he said. “This is a clear example of the exploitation of our asylum system by someone who had no claim at all.”
Those claiming Somali identity were the third-largest contributor nation to UK immigration in the first three months of the year with five arrivals a day. Iran remains number one, with ten a day. While scores of applications from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are rejected each week, only two Somali applications were rejected in the first three months of this year.
Identification has been a constant problem throughout the UK terrorism inquiries, with suspects using alibis and the first name being frequently mixed up with the surname.
Italian authorities last night stressed that extradition remains on the cards—and that the charges brought by its police are designed to help, not thwart, the extradition process.
Mr De Stefano said he believes that Issac will be in British custody soon, although, under Italian law, contested extradition requests can drag on for three months.
The Home Office said that the UK has not formally made an extradition request, although this “is in the pipeline”. It also seemed relaxed about Italy making its own charges. “That is totally up to them,” said a spokeswoman.
She added: “The whole idea of the European arrest warrant is so that the extradition procedure is quick and we would hope they would adhere to the spirit and the letter.”
Two prosecutors, Franco Ionta and Pietro Saviotti, visited the Regina Coeli prison in Rome where Issac is being held and said they were accusing him of international terrorism under Italian law.
He was charged with association with the aim of international terrorism and with possessing false documents, but it remained unclear what impact this would have on the extradition process. Antonietta Sonnessa, his lawyer, said nothing had been decided.
Issac’s brother Ramzi Issac, who was arrested along with the London suspect on Friday, was also charged with possessing false documents. A third brother, Fati Issac, is in custody in the northern Italian province of Brescia. It was unclear whether Italian charges would complicate extradition proceedings.
Asked if her client was co-operating with investigators, Ms Sonnessa said: “I wouldn’t say we’re talking about collaboration; he gave his statements.” She said she would appeal a judge’s decision to charge him.
Officials explained last night that being charged was a technicality, to facilitate rather than thwart his extradition request.
It was also confirmed that Issac made calls to Saudi Arabia before being caught. The Scotsman understands that Muktar Said-Ibrahim, the alleged bomber who tried to strike on the bus in Hackney, also visited Saudi Arabia two years ago.
Connections between the 7 July and 21 July terror exist in the form of literature for a white-water rafting school in Wales, which two of the successful suicide bombers attended.
Both attacks used the same substance to produce the home-made bombs.: TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, an improvised plastic explosive easy to prepare and difficult to detect.