Thursday 19 July 2018

Irishman jailed for two-and-a-half years after fundraising for the Islamic State

  • Arrested by Gardai following a classic sting operation by a UK newspaper
  • First jailing under new legislation
File sketch of Hassan Bal in court Sketch: Alwyn Gillespie
File sketch of Hassan Bal in court Sketch: Alwyn Gillespie
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

AN IRISH father of one was jailed over fundraising for the Islamic State terrorist organisation after being arrested by Gardai following a classic sting operation by a UK newspaper which targeted an ISIS figure known as 'the Supermarket Jihadi'.

Hassan Bal (26) was jailed for two and a half years years at Waterford Circuit Court after he pleaded guilty to two charges of providing and attempting to provide funding for ISIS.

It was the first time anyone was ever jailed under tough new anti-terrorism funding legislation.

Judge Eugene O'Kelly imposed a four and a half year sentence on Bal but suspended the final two years.

His sentence was backdated to April 2017 when he was first taken into custody.

"We are unfortunately all too well aware of the escalation of acts of terror around the world," he said.

"A few hundred Euros in the hands of a ruthless and dedicated terrorist could be used to deadly effect."

But the judge also warned that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Ireland do not support such radical ideologies.

He stressed that the rise of Islamophobia should have "no place in our society."

He warned that Islamophobia in any society simply serves to generate support amongst the young, the vulnerable and the marginalised for such radical groups.

Judge O'Kelly said there were a number of aggravating factors involved including the offence being part of a group activity, his deceit of own brother and the subsequent ruin of his brother's London business, significant Internet preparation for the funds over a period of time, the use of fake names and an encrypted messaging service, 

But he gave Bal credit for his early plea, his efforts to reform, his remorse and his previous good character.

Bal had tried to travel to Syria to fight for the ISIS Caliphate in 2015 but was sent home by the Turkish authorities.

Supt Anthony Pettit told Judge O'Kelly that Hassan Bal was first arrested by Gardaí in Waterford after an undercover operation by Omar Wahid, an investigative journalist working for a UK newspaper.

The investigation was focused on a senior ISIS official in the UK known as 'Omar Hussain' who was nicknamed the 'Supermarket Jihadi'.

Gardaí described Omar as a medium to high level operative within the terrorist group.

The journalist made contact with Omar in 2015 via a special encrypted social media messaging service known as KIK and posed as an ISIS sympathiser.

He indicated that money might be available for ISIS.

Omar replied that funding was vitally needed for ISIS as part of their fight to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to support fighters families.

The ISIS official then asked the reporter, who was operating under a false name, to transfer the money electronically.

When this was refused by the reporter for security reasons during 435 KIK messages, arrangements were made for contact with an ISIS operative called 'Abu Issa Amriki' in Syria and "a brother" in the UK.

The UK operative was referred to as 'Abdul Britani' but this was later found to be Hassan Bal who was, in fact, in Ireland.

In a sting operation, an envelope which did not contain cash but a street guide was left at a builder's providers yard in London in October 2015.

This was collected by Omar Bal, Hassan Bal's brother, who it transpired had no idea what was involved.

Supt Pettit said an unwitting Omar Bal was simply asked by his brother Hassan to collect the envelope as a favour.

The reporter then notified anti-terrorist police in the UK who passed the information to the Irish authorities.

Gardaí arrested Hassan Bal, formerly of O'Connell Street, Waterford in December 2015 for questioning.

UK police brought no charges against Omar Bal given he knew nothing about what was going on.

Hassan Bal was arrested a second time in April 2017 by which time detectives had obtained downloads of all information on his seized phone.

Bal had initially indicated the money - some St£1,000 - was being sought as part of a fraud on his part or for local charities.

During his second arrest, when confronted with information from his phone, he admitted the money was actually intended for Islamic State.

Bal's phone also contained a photograph of him in army-type fatigues and holding a fake pistol.

Gardaí found a Western Union money transfer receipt in the bedroom of his Waterford home.

It emerged the €400 sent to Bosnia - which was Mr Bal's own money - had been transferred so it could be forwarded to ISIS.

Bal's phone was also found to contain information on travelling to Syria, how to manage airport security, how to cross the Turkish border as well as propaganda material about ISIS suicide bombings and executions.

The court was told that Bal tried to travel to Syria in April 2015 but was stopped at Ataturk Airport in Turkey and returned home.

Judge O'Kelly was told Bal felt like "a coward" and had "pathological guilt" for not doing more to help Muslims suffering in Syria's brutal civil war.

"He made important and material admissions," Supt Pettit said about Bal's assistance to Gardaí.

"He was very talkative and very knowledgeable. He was very easy to deal with in that context."

However, a number of phone messages were missing from the key period when the reporter's sting operation reached its climax.

One message obtained did reflect the frustration of those involved when they suspected they had been duped by an undercover reporter.

"I swear, brother, get me some toys and I will go straight to (the newspaper)", one message on Bal's phone said.

Judge O'Kelly was told that the UK journalist, after the conclusion of the sting operation, received "messages that were sinister and threatening in nature" from others including Omar

A search of Bal's Waterford home also found a fake photojournalist identification with his photo and bearing the name 'David Fahy.'

Judge O'Kelly was told Bal was very active in the Waterford mosque and was trusted by the local Islamic community.

However, they had no idea of his ISIS contacts.

"We have been supported in any of our inquiries by that (Islamic) community," Supt Pettit said.

Judge O’Kelly was told by Noel Whelan BL, for the State, that Bal had no previous convictions.

An expert report was prepared by European expert on radicalisation, Dr Daniel Koelher of the German Institute of Radicalisation and De-Radicalisaion Studies (GIRDS).

Defence counsel Giollaiosa O'Lideadha SC said Mr Koelher had been given access to all interviews with Mr Bal and any associated documents.

Supt Pettit pointed out that the report highlighted some information which Bal did not disclose.

"There are a number of matters which Mr Bal did not mention but the family did," he said.

The report found that Bal suffered from guilt and identity issues.

His father, who was Turkish, separated from his mother who was born in the UK but is of Irish descent.

He had been raised in a strict Muslim family home but, when his father left, Bal came to believe he was not a good enough Muslim and was living a Western-style life.

A trip overseas led to him becoming radicalised.

Bal also knew some people who had travelled to Syria and had died there.

He felt guilty he was not doing enough to support his fellow Muslims who were fighting and dying in Syra.

"He wanted to redeem himself from his guilt and shame," the report found.

Supt Pettit said he believed having a wife and child would be a stabilising factor for Bal.

However, the Gardaí pointed out that Bal's sister-in-law and brother-in-law, both from the UK, had travelled to Syria.

Bal's brother-in-law was subsequently killed fighting in Syria.

The superintendent insisted there was not a Jihadi group in Waterford.

However, Gardaí said they were concerned with the contacts the young man might have with some in the UK.

Bal appeared in court wearing a black suit, white shirt and dark tie.

In a letter to Judge O'Kelly, he expressed remorse and pleaded for mercy.

"I don't know how to put into words how sorry and remorseful I am," Bal wrote.

"I have come to my senses. I regret what I did. I was feeling like a coward (over Syria). I became close minded to all the wrong (ISIS) were doing. I believed it was my duty religiously and morally to support them."

"But I want you to know, Judge, I have truly changed."

Bal said he understand now that ISIS and all those who back a violent ideology must be opposed.

"I am so deeply sorry for my crimes. I would ask, Judge, for your mercy. All I want to do is go home."

Bal has been in custody since he was arrested by Gardaí at his rented Waterford home in April 2017.

Judge O'Kelly raised concerns over suggestions Bal indicated he had been the victim of Islamophobia while in custody.

Bal pleaded guilty last January to two counts relating to the funding and attempted funding of Islamic State.

The accused was born in England.

However, he moved to Ireland with his family when he was 14 years old.

He was initially based in Wexford before he relocated to Waterford in 2007.

Mr Bal holds an Irish passport.

At the time of his detention last year, he was training to work as an electrician.

Bal's wife gave birth to their first child, a baby girl, while he was in custody.

His wife was similarly born in England.

Last January he admitted unlawfully providing funds, to the amount of €400, using an An Post/Western Union money transfer, in Waterford on October 2 2015 to a Stevo Maksimovic in the city of Brako in Bosnia-Herzegovina, knowing or intending that the funds would be used in whole or in part for the benefit or purposes of the terrorist group known as Islamic State or 'Daesh'.

Bal also pleaded guilty to unlawfully and wilfully attempting to collect or receive cash from a person by means of telephonic communications and an intermediary at an address at 2 Geron Way, London NW2 6GJ, knowing or suspecting that the funds would be used in whole or in part for the benefit or purposes of Islamic State.

The second offence involves a date of October 23 2015.

The two charges were brought contrary to section 13 (3)(a) and section 13 (4) of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act of 2005.

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