Drones were not always the US’s go-to counter-terrorism tool in Somalia
Gamal Sakr blames government for son’s death. (Image: Susannah Ireland, Independent)
The parents of a British-born man killed by a US drone strike after being stripped of his UK citizenship have spoken out for the first time – to say they will never forgive the British Government for his death.
Mohamed Sakr was born and brought up in London before he was targeted and killed in February 2012 in Somalia.
Now his Egyptian-born parents Gamal and Eman Sakr, who have lived in Britain for 35 years, have accused ministers of betraying this country’s democratic values.
Speaking to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from their London home, the couple said they believe their son was left vulnerable to the attack after the government stripped him of his British citizenship months before he was killed.
“This is the hardest time we have ever come across in our family life,’ Mr Sakr said in tears. “I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son. They broke my family’s back.”
The comments follow the revelations by the Bureau and published in the Independent that the Home Secretary Theresa May has ramped up the use of powers allowing her to strip UK citizenship from dual nationals without first proving wrongdoing in the courts.
The investigation revealed the Coalition government has stripped 16 people, including five born in Britain, of their UK passports. Two, including Sakr, were later killed by drone strikes and one was secretly rendered to the United States.
The law states that the government cannot make someone stateless when it removes their citizenship. But Egyptian-born Mr and Mrs Sakr say their son Mohamed never had anything other than a British passport, despite in principle having dual nationality.
In September 2010 the family received notification that the government intended to remove their son’s British citizenship, on the grounds that he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’.
It was the first known instance in modern times of a British-born person being stripped of his nationality. His family insist that the action meant Mohamed, who was in Somalia, was left effectively stateless and stranded.
His mother still can’t quite believe it happened. ‘I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that something here in Britain would happen like this, especially as Mohamed had no other passport, no other nationality. He was brought up here, all his life is here.’
Mohamed’s parents were so worried that their other sons might also lose their British citizenship that they renounced the entire family’s dual Egyptian nationalities, shortly after they were told that Mohamed had been deprived of his citizenship.
‘I did this for the protection of the family, because they grew up here, they were all born here. And I felt that for them it was my responsibility to protect them. It was the only way I could protect them against that stupid law,’ says Mr Sakr.
‘No member of my family ever had an Egyptian passport,’ says Mr Sakr. ‘For the kids it never crossed my mind that they would have anything other than their British passports. I know they are British, born British, they are British, and carried their British passports.’
Mr and Mrs Sakr have thrived in Britain, running a successful business. They moved here from Egypt 35 years ago thinking it was a good place to raise a family.
‘It was democratic, and compared to where I was before in Egypt that was a big gap,’ Mr Sakr explains. ’There was no dictator here, no bad laws like there were back home, so we decided to start a new life.’
Mohamed was born in London in 1985 and grew up as a normal, sporty child. ‘He was very popular amongst his friends, yet very quiet at the same time, very polite, he was just a normal child,’ recalls Eman.
As he got older his parents had worried about him getting into trouble. ‘He loved going out, he loved to dress up, to wear the best clothes, he liked everything to be top range,’ recalls Mr Sakr.
‘I used to tell him, after midnight there’s no good news. So I’d say, “Make sure you are home before 12”. He said “OK, OK I’ll try, you know,”’ said his mother.
In his early twenties he calmed down and in 2007 set up an executive car valeting business. His parents thought their son would follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps.
But in the summer of the same year Mohamed travelled to Saudi Arabia on what his parents say was a pilgrimage ‘with a couple of friends and their wives’, before heading to Egypt to join his family on holiday. From there, the Sakrs say, Mohamed and his younger brother also visited the family of a girlfriend in Dubai.
His actions were innocent, the family insists. But Mohamed was questioned for ‘at least three hours’ by immigration officials on his return to the UK. The questions focused on the countries he had visited and his reasons for going there.
‘He told them, “I didn’t plan to visit all these countries - it’s just how my summer has happened,”’ his mother recalls.
It’s thought that UK counter-terrorism officials were becoming concerned that a group of radicalised young men was emerging in the capital, influenced by British Islamists who had returned home after fighting in Somalia.
The Sakrs both say that their eldest son became the subject of repeated police ‘harassment’ in which he was stopped on numerous occasions by plain-clothes officers.
After one incident Mohamed told his mother ‘They’re watching me momma, everywhere I go they watch me.’ The family became convinced that their phones were being tapped.
Mohamed was spending a lot of time with a friend he had met when he was 12 – Bilal al-Berjawi. The two had lived in adjacent flats.
The childhood friends would both lose their British citizenship weeks apart in 2010 – and would die weeks apart too, in covert US airstrikes.
Berjawi’s Lebanese parents had brought him to London as a baby, and like Sakr, Berjawi had drawn the attention of Britain’s counter-terrorism agencies.
The Sakr family insists they were not aware of any wrongdoing on Mohamed’s part, despite frequent trouble with the police.
In February 2009 Berjawi and Sakr visited Kenya for what they told their families was a ‘safari’.
Both were detained in Nairobi, where they were said to have been interrogated by British intelligence officials. The authorities suspected them of terrorism-related activities.
They were released and only deported back to the UK because both, at that time, still had their British citizenship.
While the two were still being detained in Kenya, police arrived at the London family home with a search warrant.
Cards left behind by officers identify them as members of SO15, the Met’s counter-terrorism squad. Mr Sakr says he was shocked to be told that the family might have to vacate their home for up to two weeks while officers searched. The indignant family found themselves put up in the nearby Hilton hotel.
Two days later the family was allowed home. And shortly afterwards Mohamed and Bilal were deported back to Britain.
Mr Sakr challenged his son: ‘I was asking questions, why has this happened and Mohamed said “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.” So I just put a cap on it and continued with a normal life.’
Mohamed’s mother insisted on accompanying him to a mosque so she could hear the sermons he was listening to.
‘I wanted to hear what they’re saying, I was always on top of this, always. I wanted to know why the police were after him, why?’ says Mrs Sakr. ‘So he used to take me to different mosques, and the sermons were normal, nothing unusual.’
In October 2009, with ever-growing trouble with the British authorities, Mohamed and Berjawi decided to slip out of the country. Neither told their families that they were leaving, or where they were going.
‘The police came asking “Where is Mohamed?” And I said “I don’t know.” That was the honest answer, I didn’t know where my son was,’ says Mr Sakr.
Months later Mohamed phoned his parents from Somalia. Both he and Berjawi were now living in a country gripped by civil war between radical Islamists and a rump UN-backed government.
While it’s been reported that both men were drawn to terrorist-linked groups, the Sakrs say the pair had innocent connections with the troubled east African nation. Berjawi had married a Somali woman in London, and Sakr at one time had also been engaged to marry a Somali girl.
Although both were killed by the US, most of the allegations against Sakr and Berjawi remain secret.
Some information has emerged, however. In November 2009, the pair were named along with a third British man in a Ugandan manhunt, accused of ‘sneaking into the country’ to plot terrorist activities. Later the men were linked to deadly bombings in that country’s capital.
The letter seen by the Bureau informing Mohamed’s family that he was losing his citizenship states he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’ and for having links with ‘Islamist extremists’, including his friend Bilal al-Berjawi.
The Sakrs remain defensive about these claims. ‘Have they done anything? Have they been caught in anything? Have they been caught in any action? Do they have any evidence against them that they have been involved in this or that? I haven’t seen. And they haven’t come up with it,’ says Mr Sakr.
‘It says they took his freedom away because he knew Bilal! Does it mean that because I know a bad person it means I’m bad, or know good people that I’m good? He’d known Bilal since he was 12 years old!,’ says Mohamed’s mother.
At first Mohamed wanted to fight the deprivation order, and his family hired lawyers in the UK. But they were told that in order to mount an effective appeal Mohamed would need to return to Britain.
His parents say he was too scared to come back.
‘He said, “Daddy, it is impossible for me,”’ says Mr Sakr. “He said, “If I go from here, they’ve already taken my passport from me, maybe they will catch me somewhere, and you will never hear from me again.” He knew something could happen to him.’
In February 2012, news agencies reported that a high-ranking Egyptian al Qaeda official had been killed in a US drone strike in Somalia.
It would be days before the family realised those reports actually referred to their son.
Mr Sakr says: ‘Their hands were washed. And that’s what they claimed when the news first came. They announced that Mohamed was Egyptian [cries]. That’s why they tried to show to the rest of the world, “He’s an Egyptian. He’s not British.”
‘Intelligence killed millions of Iraqis on the basis of wrong information. If we go and kill everyone based on intelligence information, then we are not living in the world of democracy and justice. We are living in the world of “Who has the power and who has the weapons to kill,”’ Mr Sakr rails.
‘If you’re not happy about a dictator or about rules or freedom of speech, and then you come to a country like Britain which we know for hundreds and hundreds of years has talked of democracy and freedom, and laws and justice. And suddenly you find there’s no justice, no freedom of speech, no democracy.’
In response to the Bureau’s original report, a Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘Citizenship is a privilege not a right. The Home Secretary has the power to remove citizenship from individuals where she considers it is conducive to the public good.’
Asked whether intelligence was provided to foreign governments, she said: ‘We don’t comment on intelligence issues. Drone strikes are a matter for the states concerned.’
A version of this piece was published in the Independent newspaper.
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