It is almost 25 years since a shocking but little remembered double car bombing in the middle of London, an attack that targeted the Israeli embassy and Balfour House which was occupied by several groups including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Israel Appeal and the World Zionist Organisation. The bombing injured 18 and there were fears that Middle East violence had come to the streets of the nation’s capital. But was the entire incident the work of Israel’s own security services? many think so.
The first blast occurred just after midday (12:10) on July 26, 1994, at the Israeli Embassy in South Kensington when an Audi car laden with between 20 and 30 pounds of explosives blew up minutes after the driver was seen to flee from the vehicle. The driver, described as a middle-aged woman of Mediterranean appearance, had been confronted by a security guard and was caught in the explosion before managing to make her escape.
Partially destroying the front of the building, between 13 and 18 people were injured inside and outside the premises during the blast, the number differing between reports. The force of the explosion was such that windows were blown out at the nearby Kensington Palace and the event was heard up to a mile away. While staff at the embassy were said to be “dazed and confused”, fortunately, the most serious injury was a broken arm, with most suffering from bruises and the effects of smoke inhalation.
Without any time for an investigation, then Israeli ambassador Moshe Raviv immediately blamed pro-Iranian groups linked to Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the attack was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan from Washington. The explosions came a day after the two met in the United States to discuss a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.
At 1 am the following morning, thirteen hours after the initial attack, a second bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the Jewish Philanthropic Institution for Israel at Balfour House in north London. Between four and eight people were injured during the second attack by flying glass and shrapnel, once again the number of the injured varies depending on the source.
A group calling itself the Palestinian Resistance Jaffa Group claimed responsibility for the two bombings in letters to two Arab newspapers, the letter having been posted the same afternoon as the attack at the embassy but before the Balfour House attack. No such group had been known to exist before the bombings and has never been heard from since. A motive was “established” of an objection to the meeting between Rabin and King Hussein the previous day. In January of 1995, six Palestinians were arrested over the attack and in December of the following year four persons were brought to trial – Jawad Botmeh, Samar Alami, Nadia Zekra and Mahmoud Naim Abu-Wardeh. Zekra was accused of being the woman in the car at the Israeli embassy after traces of explosives had allegedly been found on a table at her home.
The tabloid press reaction was atypically harsh and xenophobic, having found them guilty in the popular consciousness long before a verdict. Headlines and questions such as “had [they] used their student status in the United Kingdom as a cover” were asked, others asked whether the accused had “acquired scientific expertise at British universities to make bombs”. The four accused were said to be “salon revolutionaries” and “the offspring of elite families”.
Botmeh and Alami admitted at trial to being in possession of five pounds of the explosives alongside three handguns, stating that they were not intending to use the explosives in Britain, admitting that they had been carrying out experiments with explosives and passing the information back to groups in the occupied Palestinian territories. They were not accused of planting the bombs themselves but were accused of being members of a cell who had conspired to carry out the plot, being able to easily prove that they were nowhere near the scene of either attack.
Indeed, beyond the link to explosives allegedly used in the bombing, there seems to have been little to no evidence that linked them to the attacks. In just one example of how flimsy the case was, it was revealed early in the trial that what police contended was a map showing the Israeli Embassy was, in fact, a street map of Sidon in Lebanon.
Evidence given at their trial suggests that it was perhaps fanciful stuff to suggest that the accused were committed terrorists and potential murderers, seemingly being idealists more than anything else. The duo were working on experiments into the possibility of using remote-controlled toy aircraft to cross the Lebanon border to carry medical supplies, explosives or cameras, perhaps what we could almost consider an early version of a modern drone. The potential for such an attack was likely very limited and was said to be a complete failure, the “cell” only managing the grand achievement of blowing up a tree in the Peak District in a moment strangely reminiscent of the film Four Lions.
“The planes were a hobby. People would say, ‘Could you put a camera in it? Could this be used back home?’ Had we succeeded, we might have passed the information back. Our intention wasn’t to harm anybody, here or back home.”Jawad Botmeh
Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami were found guilty of “conspiracy to cause explosions” at the Old Bailey, receiving a 20-year sentence. Nadia Zekra and Mahmoud Naim Abu-Wardeh were acquitted of all charges. The 20-year sentence as Category A prisoners was seen an unduly harsh for mere conspiracy.
Botmeh and Alami lost their subsequent appeal in 2001 with the judge saying that there was “no reason to regard their convictions as unsafe”.
The “middle-aged woman of Mediterranean appearance” was never found and rather curiously CCTV at the Israeli embassy coincidentally wasn’t working on the day of the attack. The Israeli security guard that tackled the female Audi driver was transferred to Israel before he could speak with authorities. To add to the suspicion of collusion, not only were important staff missing from the embassy on the day of the attack, but the staff who were present were said to have collected debris from the crater. The bomb was said to be highly sophisticated and beyond even IRA capabilities, the “police never [finding] a speck” of the explosive that was used.
Both Botmeh and Alami were UK educated science students and have maintained their innocence to this day, having had appeals rejected by the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights. Amnesty International said in 2001 that Botmeh had been “denied [his] right to a fair trial”.
Botmeh and Alami were said to be “shaken” by the failure of their 2001 appeal, having maintained they were victims of a miscarriage of justice and appealed on grounds that the Crown didn’t disclose vital evidence at trial, plus new evidence that had come to light since 1996.
“Myself and Samar had an unfair trial that was followed, after a long wait, by an unfair appeal. This was a political trial from day one and we are totally innocent. The real perpetrators still remain free. We were only convenient scapegoats. A huge amount of evidence is still hidden, all of which points away from us. We will carry on the struggle for our freedom and justice as part of the larger struggle for our people’s freedom. I’ve got to call my parents in the West Bank now and I’m dreading telling them the news.”Jawad Botmeh
“Today justice has lost, injustice has won, again. The judgment further perverts justice, the judges seem to have blindness in their hearts and minds. I will never regret being part of the Palestinian people’s struggle for justice and basic rights, for life with a minimum of dignity, humanity and freedom.”Samar Alami
Those who campaigned for the duo included Tory peer Lord Gilmour, the late and great Tony Benn and the now Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“I supported Jawad’s case inside parliament and outside including meetings/demonstrations; Jawad’s case is, I believe, a miscarriage of justice”.Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn signed five letters of support for the pair after the failure of their 2001 appeal, writing between 2002 and 2006 and challenging then Home Secretary David Blunkett over the case.
Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami believed that they had been set-up as patsies for the attack by a man they knew as Reda Moghrabi, an individual who was unknown to every resistance group in the occupied territories. Insisting that the bombing was detrimental to the Palestinian cause, Botmeh and Alami were both able to describe the man in detail to a professional sketch artist in entirely separate sittings commissioned by The Independent in 1999. During their 1996 trial, the judge, Mr Justice Garland, stated that as far as Botmeh and Alami were concerned, Moghrabi “could have been a Mossad agent or a police informer.”
“Moghrabi or someone with him set us up from the beginning, either deliberately or to protect themselves from being caught”Samar Alami
Despite agreeing that the accused didn’t carry out the bombings, police and the security services were said to have made little effort to find “Moghrabi”, taking little interest in his activities and not even asking for a sketch to be provided of the suspect, despite being clearly identified as the bomber by the rest of the accused.
“Given the fact that two of their [the bombers’] cronies are in jail, that’s probably taken the wind out of their sails.”Israeli Embassy statement on the lack of action over Moghrabi
Alami maintained that she had taken care of the firearms that were found in her possession for a Palestinian friend who has feared assassination in London and that it was Moghrabi who had offered her and Botmeh the explosives to use in the duo’s experiments surrounding remote-controlled aircraft attacks. She was given the explosives just days before the Israeli embassy attack.
“He had phoned me… saying he was leaving Britain and he might leave a few things for me. He said that he had been doing experiments, that he had products he no longer needed… and thought of giving them to me. I wasn’t sure how to react but somehow couldn’t say no.”Samar Alami
Alami had met “Moghrabi” in 1992 after both attended a lecture on the Middle East situation and began discussing issues surrounding the Palestinian resistance with Alami and Botmeh in 1993. The discussions progressed to bomb-making by 1994, with Moghrabi said to be knowledgable in such matters. In June of 1994, one month before the bombings, Moghrabi sought Botmeh’s assistance in buying a second-hand Audi vehicle that would be later used in the bombing. Botmeh’s fingerprints weren’t found on the vehicle’s documents, yet a set was discovered all the same. Botmeh contends they belong to Moghrabi, having given his name as “George Davies” in this instance. A man by that same name purchased the vehicle used to attack Balfour House two days prior and on that occasion he was alone.
Writing in The Independent in 1999, Robert Fisk constructed a biography of Moghrabi from statements made by Alami and Botmeh. How much is true and how much was “backstory” for a character that Moghrabi may have been playing is open to debate.
Born in the West Bank around 1950, and to parents who had abandoned their home on the coast during the 1948 flight of Palestinians from what became Israel, Moghrabi grew up in Nablus or Ramallah. Arrested by the Israelis for “resistance activities” in 1978 or 1979, he moved to Jordan where he taught at the Barqaa refugee camp.
In early June 1982, Moghrabi fought Israeli invasion forces on the Lebanese coast road south of Sidon. Falling out with both Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Arafat’s opponents in Damascus, he left Lebanon via Syria and Cyprus for Britain where – through refugee status or marriage to an Englishwoman – he went into business with Gulf contacts. In the mid-Eighties, he moved to Kuwait but then fled when Iraq invaded in 1990, returning to Britain to live in Birmingham.
While mental illness and negative portrayals in the media have served to obscure the validity of his early revelations surrounding the shadowy world of the security services, former MI5 agent David Shayler alleged to Paul Foot of The Guardian in 1997 that MI5 had prior knowledge of the attacks and could have prevented the explosions, adding that he had seen documentation that suggested Israel had been responsible for the attacks. The British government served an injunction on the claims before it was lifted in November of that year.
“Mr. Shayler told Mr. Foot that he had seen a memorandum written by a senior MI6 ‘line officer’ suggesting the Israelis may have done it themselves in order to prompt the British into providing increased security to Israeli and Jewish offices in Britain.”Lebanese Daily Star
Shayler wasn’t alone in his claims that MI5 had received prior knowledge of the attacks, with both Arab and Israeli diplomats and the Jewish Board of Deputies in London saying that they had all given warnings to MI5 surrounding imminent attacks on Jewish targets in Britain, all of which were ignored.
Nor was Shayler alone in believing that the Israelis themselves were responsible for the attack, even amongst other former MI5 officers. Annie Machon, who left the service at the same time as Shayler with the intent of whistleblowing on crimes committed by the security services, agreed that Israeli intelligence was responsible.
Machon alleges that the senior MI5 officer who was assigned to the case wrote in his formal assessment of the affair that Mossad had bombed their own embassy.
The reasons given for the “attack” were to push MI5 into increasing security around Israeli installations and interests around London, particularly in light of the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and to frame and break the Palestinian activist network in London.
Jawad Botmeh was finally released from prison in 2008 and found work as a researcher at London Metropolitan University, he lives happily in London with his wife and daughter Zeina who was born in 2009. Samar Alami, who was said to have suffered a breakdown through her experiences in detention, was released in April of 2009 and deported to Lebanon where she was reunited with her parents, family and friends.