(2017 update) The testimony here from the local Islamics has been proved wrong by the number of locals since travelling over to participate in Islamic State.
Spy vs spy: Charles Wardle says he found the SIS egotistical and aimless.
Testimony from a man serving a life sentence for his role in the Mumbai terror attacks revealed a Kiwi connection. Michael Field meets the man who once trained to be a terrorist before becoming an SIS spy.
The way Charles Wardle tells it, a warehouse converted into a mosque is where jihad might some day be launched on New Zealand.
Wardle’s quietly told story is almost beyond verification but it has left New Zealand’s 36,000-strong Islamic community severely embarrassed and distressed that the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) is targeting them over claims of a holy war they say does not exist.
Wardle, 28, said he was working for the SIS when he joined Manukau’s Masjid At-Taqwa and that was when he heard the mosque youth talking jihad and going on hikes together to get ready for it.
But At-Taqwa youth organisation head Fauzan Ali reckoned it was all a set-up, saying Wardle was trying to incite jihad.
“Before I went to Saudi Arabia, [Wardle] was still coming to our mosque and he told me that he used to do all these things in Saudi Arabia and he said he would give me contacts for people to go and see to speak about jihad,” Ali said. “He was trying to incite me.”
Wardle was in Pakistan during the 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001 and, although not Muslim, tried to join groups fighting in Afghanistan.
He said he was persuaded to convert to Islam by Sajid Mir, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), known as LeT. Mir was heard on phone intercepts directing the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that left 166 dead and 308 wounded.
Wardle met him at LeT headquarters near Lahore.
“He is one of the most charismatic people I have met in my life. He was so busy you would hardly ever meet him and yet when you meet him you get the impression he really likes you and is interested in you,” Wardle said.
Mir did not trust him because he was not Muslim so Wardle converted, even undergoing circumcision. “He should have trusted me after that.”
He was sent to northern Iraq with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), escaping with his life after an American bombing, after which he asked to go to Afghanistan. “But [Mir] wanted us foreigners to go back to our home countries and conduct terrorist attacks.”
He was then sent for explosives training in Ajman, in the United Arab Emirates, with the aim that he return to New Zealand and launch terror attacks here. But with a World Bank conference due to take place in Ajman he was expelled by the authorities and sent back to New Zealand in 2003, where the Police Special Intelligence Group questioned him.
He was asked if he was willing to talk to the SIS and says he met a woman in the Hyatt, and after several meetings, agreed to work with them, controlled by a staffer whose business card describes him only as being with the New Zealand government.
The man, on the electoral roll as “employee”, answered the phone number given on the card but hung up.
Wardle signed secrecy provisions of the Official Information Act and said he had no contract, was paid in cash, starting at $25 per hour and later $450 per week. He was told his pay was tax-free and it would not affect his student allowance.
He says his handler told him after a year that he was one of the most highly paid agents, but the SIS gave him no training and was vague about what it wanted.
He was part of a group that set up an Islamic centre in Mt Eden, giving him inside contact with Muslim leaders. But the SIS would not give clear directions or pay to develop the operation. “They didn’t want to put money into anything except evidence collection.”
Wardle said he would meet his handler each month at a restaurant. His interest centred on the At-Taqwa mosque and a room above a Mt Roskill supermarket where mainly Bosnian and Chechen Muslims discussed jihad.
“They had all sorts of good qualities, they are not into stealing, drink driving… I didn’t see any of them as bad. But there’s definitely something you need to change about them. You need to investigate.
“They sit around and watch jihadist videos and talk about jihad, and one time they set up some training, but my concern is that it will take only one or two to attack and the whole community will suffer.”
He questioned his SIS superiors, saying their standards were poor. “Their oversight is minimal. The policeman I talked to said there were big egos. That was the impression I got, too. They didn’t send out guidance for me except on the people they wanted to investigate.”
Wardle said he discovered that men at the Mt Roskill site were going on a training camp. He wanted to attend and his handler agreed, but the SIS could not agree on what to do.
“When they started doing the training for jihad I asked the SIS what they wanted me to do. They couldn’t tell me anything. I was pretty much left to my own devices.”
He said the SIS got him to supply jihadist material to Muslims, which Fauzan Ali saw as entrapment.
“We thought he was like a normal person, we thought he was a Muslim. We thought of him as a friendly and amazing person.”
But when they learned Wardle was with the SIS “it was a shock to all of us in the community and a shame to the SIS for the kind of work they were doing. It was a big shame and was ridiculous, using these kind of people to get into our mosques.”
IN JUNE 2009, Wardle told his handler he was quitting because of the stress of being undercover.
He said he wrote to Prime Minister John Key describing SIS failures but received no answer. Key’s office declined comment. “We don’t comment on security and intelligence matters,” a spokesman said.
In his letter to Key, Wardle complained that at the time he was becoming involved in training for jihad. He wanted to stick it out but the SIS were cutting off his expenses.
Three months later Auckland police raided his home, taking computers, books and the handler’s business card. All the property was later returned.
The raid was reported at the time, but no mention was made of Wardle’s SIS role and police instead implied they were checking out his terrorist background. Wardle said he was being open about his past because he believes New Zealand needs a better security service and the SIS is failing in its role.
“You don’t want an intelligence organisation that doesn’t know where to go, where to get information from and who it needs to look at. If you have an intelligence agency that isn’t well-informed, they’re going to be targeting everyone and missing people.”
Other than a business card and phone numbers, Wardle has no proof he worked for the SIS. But he wrote to Intelligence and Security inspector-general Paul Neazor in 2009 complaining the SIS had not paid “the annual bonus and travel that had been verbally contracted”.
Neazor replied he would discuss the matter with the SIS director “and once I have sorted out what I can properly deal with, will respond further”. So far Neazor hasn’t.
KICKBOXER WAS A TRAINEE
TALL AND fit, Charles Wardle is a skilled kickboxer and cage-fighter.
The 28-year-old Auckland born and educated man says he was something of a troubled teen, angry with the world and the United States in particular.
Unemployed, he did the military’s limited services volunteer course – no combat training but plenty of discipline, exercise and education.
After his Middle Eastern adventures, he completed a BA in psychology and management at the University of Auckland and is now doing a BSc in biology.
He did not come to the Star-Times with his tale, he came to notice ahead of the trial in Chicago next month of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, an associate of an American Pakistani, David Headley, who scouted targets in Mumbai for terror group LeT.
Headley pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence for the Mumbai killing, but Hussain denies involvement.
Headley, in interrogations last year with Indian authorities, spoke of going to a training camp in Pakistan around August 2002.
“During this training there was a trainee from New Zealand and he had a lot of difficulty following the training as he was a recent convert.”
Wardle says he was the New Zealander involved.
As a result, Indian and US security officials have a real interest in knowing who he met, and what role they played.
Prominent is Sajid Mir, the terrifying head of LeT, whose voice was heard on phone intercepts directing the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
During the attacks, one of the terrorists had 50-year-old Norma Rabinovich held hostage.
On the phone Mir told the terrorist: “Stand her up this side of your door. Shoot her such that the bullet goes right through her head and out the other side. Do it. I’m listening. Do it, in God’s name.”
Wardle has no memory of Headley, but remembers Caribbean-Frenchman Willie Brigitte, a member of alQaeda, who planned to attack the Lucas Heights nuclear plant outside Sydney.
He was caught and deported, and in 2007 was sentenced to nine years’ jail. Without explanation, Brigitte was released last September.
Wardle was lucky US forces didn’t catch up with him in Iraq.
Australian David Hicks, who took a similar route, was captured in Afghanistan on the same jihad, and spent six years in solitary at Guantanamo Bay.
NO NEED TO SPY ON KIWI MOSQUES AND ISLAMIC GROUPS
MUSLIM LEADERS say the SIS does not need to spy on mosques and Islamic groups.
Fauzan Ali, the head of the At-Taqwa youth organisation, said his mosque was open at any time to the public and the SIS was welcome to come along.
“I have been interviewed by the SIS a few times, when they wanted to speak to me, they wanted to meet me in a restaurant or cafe. I said no, if it related to my religion come and see me at my mosque.”
Ali, who feared his phone was tapped, said SIS officers had asked him about jihad and whether he watched DVDs on it.
He replied: “If it’s available and it is legal, I will watch it.”
Federation of Islamic Association president Anwar-ul Ghani has also met SIS officials, who had sought comments at various times on issues they were concerned about.
“The liaison between the community and the various agencies is pretty strong. We ourselves want to ensure our community remains as peaceful as it has been.”
Asked if Islamic groups were a legitimate SIS target, he replied it would depend on the severity of allegations: “So far in New Zealand we do not have any of those issues and I do not believe we will have.”
Ghani said the term jihad, used in mosques around the world, did not necessarily mean holy war.
An individual’s personal struggle to make a life, maintain their religion and raise their families was also jihad.
Last year, Abdul Qadir Siddiquei, the iman or mufti at New Zealand’s biggest mosque, the South Auckland Islamic Centre, left for Pakistan when he lost his visa after members of the mosque objected to his teachings.
“I am not a terrorist, I do not believe in terrorist things,” he said.
On their website, the SIS says counter-terrorism is an important part of their work with individuals and groups in New Zealand with links to overseas organisations.
“There are extremists who advocate using violence to impress their own political, ethnic or religious viewpoint on others.”