I grew up in the far north of Norway, hundreds of kilometers above the Arctic Circle. As you might expect, my research interests and arctic origin do not intersect very often. Last time was back in 2004 when a plane on the way from my home town Narvik to Bodø was nearly brought down by an axe-swinging Algerian Islamist.
Last Saturday, however, the local newspaper in the nearby city of Tromsø – where I have spent many a drunken night in my youth – broke a remarkable story (hat tip: Tore Bjørgo). It was about Andrew Ibrahim Wenham, a British-Australian convert to Islam who has been living in Tromsø since 2002. The 46-year old Wenham is a respected leader in the local Muslim community and the founding director of the local Alnor mosque. He is married to a Norwegian convert from Tromsø and leads a quiet existence. However, as the newspaper Nordlys uncovered, Wenham has a somewhat murky past.
In the late 1990s, Andrew Wenham – aka Abu Ismail – was part of a network of Jemaah Islamiyah supporters in Australia. In 1999 he attended a JI training camp in Mindanao and even spent two days alone with JI leader Hambali in Kuala Lumpur. Wenham was friends with Jack Roche, who was arrested in Australia in 2002 for plotting terrorist attacks on behalf of al-Qaida. In April 2000, when Roche returned to Perth after training in al-Qaida camps and meeting Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan, Wenham greeted Roche at the airport and drove him home. Wenham’s name appeared several times in the trial against Roche. However, by the time of the 2004 trial, nobody knew what had become of Wenham. In mid-2001 he had left for Yemen, where his trail went cold. Australian terrorism expert Sally Neighbour tells Nordlys that she tried in vain to locate Wenham while researching her book In the Shadow of Swords. Little did she know that Abu Ismail had retreated to the Arctic.
Confronted with the evidence gathered by Nordlys, Wenham confirmed all the details of this story. In an open-hearted newspaper interview, he insists he did not know that his friends in Perth had terrorist connections. He says he went to the Mindanao camp for the adventure and that he did not know who Hambali was. At their Kuala Lumpur meeting, Wenham had the sense that Hambali was assessing him, but the two did not stay in touch. In the spring of 2000, Wenham learned from John Bennett (another convert and member of the Perth network) that Jack Roche was planning to bomb an embassy and assassinate a Jewish leader in Australia. Wenham says he was shocked and told the local imam about the plans, whereupon the imam became furious and called a meeting to dissuade the young men. At this point Wenham decided to break with his friends. In mid-2001 he and his wife Sandra left Australia for Yemen, where they spent 10 months before moving to Tromsø, Sandra’s home town.
Wenham is not a terrorist or an al-Qaida sleeper agent. If he had al-Qaida sympathies, he would have acted on them by now, or at least left a trail of suspicious behaviour or political statements. Wenham’s past activities must be viewed in proper context. His radical dealings occurred before 9/11, before Jemaah Islamiya had carried out any major international terrorist attacks, and before Hambali had risen to fame as a leading al-Qaida associate. Wenham’s departure to Yemen also occurred before the War on Terror, which suggests it was not an attempt to hide an al-Qaida connection. His subsequent silence about his past is obviously somewhat foolish, but perfectly understandable. In the witch-hunt that followed 9/11, many Muslims in the West had their lives ruined for less serious sins than Wenham’s. Andrew Wenham was lucky; had he stayed in Australia he would probably have been sucked into the Roche investigation, and had he gone to America instead of Norway in 2001, he might well have been in prison today.
Wenham’s story is a classic case of socially driven radicalization – what Marc Sageman calls the “bunch-of-guys” phenomenon. Wenham’s arrived in Perth in 1997 shortly after converting to Islam. As a new immigrant and fresh convert, he was on the lookout for new friends. He met fellow convert John Bennett, who introduced him to, well, a bunch of guys in the local Muslim community. The fifteen men socialized extensively; they played paintball together and took religious lessons. A couple of people in the group, the so-called “Ayub brothers”, had connections with Jemaah Islamiyah. After a while, the Ayub brothers suggested to their paintball buddies that they attend a real military training camp in Mindanao. Wenham accepted; “it was like a kind of adventure”, he now says.
As with other youth drawn into radicalism through friends, Wenham’s ideological commitment probably did not run very deep. If he was ideologically committed to anything, it was most likely to a form of “classical jihadism”, i.e. conventional warfare in confined theatres of war where Muslims fight non-Muslim occupying armies. In any case, Wenham broke with his jihadi friends in 2001 and has not done or said anything since to suggest he has radical leanings.
In the interview, Wenham now says he is scared that the latest revelations might cause trouble for his family and damage the reputation of his Tromsø mosque. Unfortunately, his concerns are partly justified. The story has broken at a time when local politicians are debating whether to allow the building a large mosque in Tromsø, to be paid for with a USD 3,3 million gift from a Saudi businessman. The Saudi connection has already made the project controversial, and the Wenham story is not going to help. Let us at least hope Wenham does not suffer too much personally for mistakes made in his youth. Wenham has been an examplary citizen during his time in Tromsø. I wish I could say the same about myself.