Vol. 5 Num 479 Fri. September 30, 2005  

Laden considered seeking asylum in UK: Ex-minister

He might be the self-professed enemy of the West, but a decade ago terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden considered seeking asylum in Britain, the country's interior minister of the time has said.

Michael Howard told The Times on Thursday that the request from the al-Qaeda chief appeared to be serious.

According to the newspaper, in 1995 bin Laden wanted to abandon his then-base in Sudan and asked some of his followers in London to sound out whether he would be able to move to Britain.

At the time, the Saudi-born radical was little known in the West, although al-Qaeda had already planned an abortive plot to destroy a series of airliners, seen as a precursor to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

A number of bin Laden's brothers and other members of the wealthy family construction empire owned properties in London at that time, the paper added.

"In truth, I knew little about him, but we picked up information that bin Laden was very interested in coming to Britain," Howard, now leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, told the paper.

"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?"

Howard noted that if bin Laden had come to Britain to plot the September 11 attacks, in theory he could not have been sent for trial to the United States as British laws prevent the extradition of suspects to countries where they could face the death penalty.

However, no application was made as Home Office officials investigated bin Laden and Howard issued an immediate banning order under immigration laws.

The Times cited Home Office officials as saying bin Laden used a Saudi businessman, Khaled al-Fawwaz, to sound out his chances of coming to Britain.

Fawwaz was described by British security officials as bin Laden's "de facto ambassador" in Britain, the paper added.

According to some reports, the teenage bin Laden went round Europe with his family, even becoming a fan of London football club Arsenal, although there is no concrete evidence to back this up.