The day when Osama bin Laden applied for asylum – in Britain

The Times, Great Britain/September 29, 2005
By Daniel McGrory

He claims to hate everything the West stands for. But yesterday it emerged that Osama bin Laden sought asylum in Britain even as he was planning the September 11 attacks on the US.

The al-Qaeda leader wanted to abandon his base in Sudan at the end of 1995 and asked some of his followers in London to sound out whether he would be able to move to Britain.

Michael Howard, who was then Home Secretary, recalls how his aides told him of the asylum request from the Saudi-born militant of whom the world knew little of ten years ago. A number of his brothers and other relatives, all members of the wealthy bin Laden construction empire, owned properties in London by the mid-1990s.

The teenage bin Laden had reportedly toured Europe with his family and became an Arsenal fan, though there is no record of his ever having been to a match at Highbury.

The astonishing approach to the British authorities happened only months after bin Laden had secretly organised a terror summit in Manila in January 1995 to begin planning how hijackers would turn passenger planes into flying bombs. He called it the “Bojinka plot”, which is Arabic slang for an explosion.

By this time bin Laden had also transferred some of his considerable personal fortune to London for his followers to establish terror cells here and across Europe.

His name rarely appeared in the British media even though by late 1995 his network had already bombed a number of US army bases abroad and plotted assassination attempts against Pope John Paul II and President Clinton.

Mr Howard said yesterday: “In truth, I knew little about him, but we picked up information that bin Laden was very interested in coming to Britain. It was apparently a serious request. He already had people operating here, and who knows how history could have been rewritten if he had turned up here?”

Bin Laden never got a chance to make a formal application as Home Office officials investigated him and Mr Howard issued an immediate banning order under Britain’s immigration laws.

It was not until June 1998 — two months before attacks on US embassies in Africa — that bin Laden was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Mr Howard said: “If he had come here to plot the attacks on the twin towers and the US had subsequently asked for his extradition, then by then, under the Labour Government’s laws, he could not have been sent because they refuse to extradite to a country which has the death penalty.”

Bin Laden had, according to Home Office officials, used a Saudi businessman, Khaled al-Fawwaz, to sound out his chances of coming to Britain.

Fawwaz, 41, had arrived in 1994 and was described by security chiefs as his “de facto ambassador” in Britain.

Intelligence experts say that at the time of the asylum request, bin Laden was not enjoying his exile in Sudan, where he had moved after fleeing Afghanistan. The Sudanese authorities were making noises about expelling him.

The CIA and MI6 first came across the former civil engineer in the 1980s, when after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he fought alongside the Mujahidin and was on the same side as Western powers who were to become his avowed enemies. Bin Laden had returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 supposedly to work in the family construction empire, but by 1991 he was under house arrest in Jedda because of his opposition to the Royal Family.

In 1991 he fled to Afghanistan and then to Khartoum, where a fundamentalist Islamic regime had come to power. He lived there for five years until Sudan expelled him and he slipped back to Afghanistan.


  • December 29, 1992 Bin Laden-trained terrorists bomb hotel in Aden used by US troops being sent to Somalia. Two Austrian tourists killed
  • February 1993 US investigators claim bin Laden is linked to the attempted van basement bombing of the World Trade Centre
  • June 1993 accused of masterminding attempted assassination of Jordan’s Crown Prince Abdullah and Egypt’s President Mubarak. Plots assassination of John Paul II and President Clinton on their visits to Philippines
  • November 1995 bombed a military complex in Riyadh. Five Americans killed
  • June 1996 lorry driven into US barracks at Khobar Towers in Dharhan, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 US servicemen
  • November 1996 Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan bombed, killing 17 people
  • August 7, 1998 simultaneous lorry bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224, including 12 US nationals
  • October 2000 17 servicemen die in bombing of USS Cole, in Aden harbour
  • September 11, 2001 named by US authorities as “prime suspect” for masterminding attacks on New York and Washington

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