MI5 and West Midlands police set up a fake courier company to employ two men they were targeting in an undercover counter-terrorism operation, a court has heard.
An undercover police officer, referred to in court as “Vincent”, confirmed to the Old Bailey that he had posed as the manager of a fake business, Hero Couriers, between July and August 2016 as part of an elaborate operation to gather evidence on a Birmingham man, Khobaib Hussain, 25, and his associates.
Hussain is standing trial for preparing terrorist acts between May and August 2016 alongside Naweed Ali, 29, his next-door neighbour in Sparkhill, Birmingham, and Mohibur Rahman, 32, and Tahir Aziz, 38 of Stoke-on-Trent. All four men deny the charges. Ali, Rahman and Hussain described themselves as the “Three Musketeers” as they communicated via a group on the encrypted messaging service app Telegram.
The men were arrested in a series of raids in Birmingham and Stoke on 26 August 2016 after a vehicle driven by Ali was searched and a distinctive yellow, blue and green JD Sports bag was found under the seat. It contained what the prosecution describes as a “partially constructed” pipe bomb, an imitation handgun, a cleaver with the word “kafir” scratched on to it and shotgun shells. On the same day, a car belonging to Aziz was searched in Stoke and a “large bladed weapon” was found by the driver’s seat.
As part of the operation, officers hired premises in central Birmingham and drivers, who were given T-shirts and high-vis jackets with the Hero Couriers logo on them.
Prosecution barrister Gareth Patterson QC said Vincent contacted Hussain in July 2016. “You [told him you] believed he was looking for work, you were looking at his CV, you wanted to recruit drivers, and you were wondering if he fancied attending for an interview,” he said.
Vincent hired Hussain, paying him £100 a day to deliver luggage to UK airports and other sites around the country. He would hand over his car keys when he picked up the van at the start of each shift so that Vincent could park his car inside the depot.
In late July, Vincent mentioned that another potential hire had failed to turn up for an interview. “He told me he’d find somebody for me, and we had a conversation … [I said] I needed reliable people and he said he’d have a think,” Vincent told the court.
In late July, Ali called Vincent to see if more jobs were available at the company. On 1 August, at a debriefing with a senior officer, the scope of the operation was broadened to include gathering intelligence on Ali, and Vincent invited him for an interview and offered him a job.
Vincent told the court he had seen Hussain with the multicoloured JD sports bag several times.
The undercover officer’s evidence followed several days in which DS Ryan Chambers of the West Midlands police ran through a detailed timeline of the case. This included hundreds of messages sent by the defendants and others by text message, WhatsApp, and Telegram. It also recorded extensive surveillance of the four men.
The messages show the men debating the merits of different armed factions in the Syrian civil war, in which they were frequently critical of Isis and more supportive of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the al Qaida-linked group. The defendants were shown joking among themselves – at one point Ali is compared to a dopey character from Chris Morris’ jihadi comedy film, Four Lions – while in other messages Hussain fretted about whether he should marry and the defendants arranged to play Fifa online.
Ali’s barrister, Stephen Kamlish QC, said Ali told police after his arrest “he had never seen it [the JD Sports bag], never touched it. It wasn’t in his car … He’s essentially saying somebody else planted it in his car.”
Vincent was the only person to say he had seen Ali with the bag, Kamlish said. He added: “No DNA match for any of the four defendants has been made with that bag or any of its contents.”
Chambers agreed about the DNA evidence. He also agreed that no fingerprints matching the defendants’ had been found on the bag or its contents. Four fingerprints were found on the bag, but the person these belonged to had not been identified.
While the defendants had been seen carrying JD Sports bags during the surveillance operation in the months before the arrests, there was no record of Ali leaving his home with the distinctive bag found in the car, Kamlish said.
Chambers suggested that this could be because Ali, who lived with his family, hid the bag in his car to keep it secret.
The case continues.