The case of a Palestinian GP, imprisoned on remand in Northern Ireland for an alleged terror offence – after being trapped in an MI5 sting – has already attracted global attention. Dr Issam Bassalat, also known as Issam Hijjawi, is well known in Scotland and further afield as an outspoken advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people.
The prosecution claim that the doctor was part of a plot by the New IRA to source weapons from the Middle East. He has been charged with one count of preparatory acts of terrorism; nine other people – two women and seven men – have also been charged, many with directing terrorism and membership of the New IRA, a violent republican organisation.
The charges are connected to a carefully executed MI5 operation involving a Glasgow born agent, named in court as Dennis McFadden, who had been bedded in with the republican terror group for almost a decade. McFadden has since fled his home on the outskirts of Belfast and is believed to be living in protective custody.
While the use of the intelligence agencies to snare those still involved in violence in Northern Ireland is not an unusual occurrence, the arrest of the Palestinian GP has raised eyebrows. Born in the West Bank, the 62-year-old moved to the UK in 1995 to work as an NHS doctor specialising in ophthalmology. Settling in Edinburgh in 2010 he continued his medical work, while also speaking at rallies in defence of his homeland, as chair of the Palestinian Society, on one occasion addressing the Scottish Parliament as part of a cross party humanitarian group.
It was this high-profile work that is thought to have brought him to the attention of the dissident republican group Saoradh – meaning liberation – who asked him to speak at their 2016 Ard Fheis (AGM). Saoradh is widely believed to be the political wing of the New IRA.
The group is made up of disgruntled former Provisional IRA members, opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, but more recently has recruited younger members into their ranks. They have been involved in a number of high-profile terror attacks, including the 2018 murder of journalist Lyra McKee during a riot in Derry.
Bassalat claims at the time he had never heard of the party, nor was he particularly familiar with the political situation in Northern Ireland. When he arrived in Belfast he was greeted at the airport by McFadden. This was, he claims, his first meeting with the double agent. He was driven to a hotel in Newry, close to the border between Northern Ireland the Republic and made his public presentation. He was to speak at a second Ard Fheis and by now McFadden was in regular contact, acting as the go between, who approached Dr Bassalat to speak at events and organised travel and accommodation for his visits.
In March and July of this year, McFadden rented two houses in rural County Tyrone, about 60 miles outside of Belfast, for meetings of what police say was the leadership of the New IRA. The houses were bugged in advance by MI5 with both listening devices and cameras. Alleged members of the organisation, unaware of the sting, are said to introduce themselves by their rank and discussed future terror attacks. The technology used is so sophisticated, the recordings are said to be of ‘cinema quality’. If convicted those present could face up to 16 years in prison.
Bassalat attended the July meeting, however, he claims he was lured to Belfast on false pretences and spoke only of the political situation in Palestine
A plot that he claims began after he applied to have his daughter's passport renewed so his family could travel to Dubai, where he was planning to get married. Dr Bassalat’s defence claims he received a message from the passport office telling him to collect his daughter's travel documents from an office in Belfast.
Around this time, McFadden contacted the doctor and asked him to attend a public meeting in Belfast to speak about Palestine. He was told his accommodation would be paid for if he agreed. On 17 July Bassalat arrived in Belfast with his four children and the family’s dog. The doctor claims McFadden was waiting at the dockside and took him to a house close to Queen's University in Belfast which he had rented for him.
Two days later, McFadden arrived to take him to the meeting, but instead Bassalat claims, drove him to the house in Co Tyrone where the second New IRA meeting was alleged to have taken place. As part of his defence Bassalat claims he protested and said he was concerned for his children, left alone in a strange city, the eldest just 13 years old. McFadden said he would arrange for his wife to babysit them. This did not happen but a woman, thought to be an MI5 operative, did drop take away food in to the children.
During a recent court hearing Bassalat’s solicitor argued his client was a doctor who took the Hippocratic Oath and dedicated his life to healing, not hurting people. However, he was refused bail on the grounds that he was at risk of fleeing the jurisdiction. As of now he remains remanded in HMP Maghaberry, Northern Ireland’s only top security prison, which is home to both republican and loyalist terrorists.
The wheels of justice turn slowly in Northern Ireland, therefore unless granted bail by a higher court he is likely to spend many years on remand. His legal team continue to argue his detention is an attack on freedom of speech, whilst others will claim it shows a link between the Palestinian cause and violent guerrilla armies in other parts of the world.
Regardless of the outcome, this is a case that has attracted global interest and has shone a light into the role of MI5 and the undercover world of the intelligence agencies, raising questions as to how they continue to operate on these islands.