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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 01:25 GMT
The convert and the control order
Cerie Bullivant

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

A man who last year sparked a national manhunt has spoken exclusively to the BBC, saying he is not the man the security services say he is.

On a summer's day in 2006, Cerie Bullivant was laying a patio with friends.

Plain-clothed police officers approached, asked him to confirm his name and handed him documents. They had served a counter-terrorism control order.

The Home Secretary had concluded the British convert to Islam was an extremist who may head to Iraq. He could become a suicide bomber - and had to be stopped.

Special powers introduced to restrict a suspect's movements. They include tags, bans on contacts and curfews. They rely on secret evidence in cases where police say they can't charge someone with an offence

But today, after a collapsed marriage, self-harm incidents and legal challenges involving an MI5 witness, Cerie Bullivant is walking around a free man.

Over the course of three months, an Old Bailey jury has accepted his reasons for going on the run - and then a High Court judge quashed a fresh order to tag him and impose a curfew.

"The last two years of my life have been utterly devastated and controlled," he told the BBC in his home in Dagenham, Essex.

"It devastates and dismantles every aspect of your life and what makes you a person. Friends would not talk to me anymore. I had only been put on it because of association - and the same thing could happen to them."

I'm not a threat to national security - I'm British, I was born in this country - I have never been involved in anything that would harm the security of this country or the security of other countries
Cerie Bullivant

The story of Cerie Bullivant begins in 2004. It was a difficult time in his life, drifting through bit jobs and struggling to care for his ill mother. A couple of old Asian schoolmates said Islam offered answers. The Harrogate-born 25-year-old was keen to learn - and he soon converted.

"For me it was the best moment of my life," he says. "I'm not the sort of person who speaks of great white lights - but that was the first time in my life I had felt a lifting. I had made the right decision."

He lost some of his old friends - but made new ones. Among those were two brothers, Lamine and Ibrahim Adam, whom Bullivant met playing football in 2005.

Lamine was associated with a group of would-be bombers, one of which was his other brother, who would later be jailed in the massive "Operation Crevice" prosecution. Lamine, a London Tube driver, had considered joining the new jihad in Afghanistan, according to court evidence.

Airport stop

In January 2006 police officers stopped Bullivant and the Adam brothers from heading to Syria.

Cerie Bullivant and his mother
Close: Cerie Bullivant's mother was unaware of the order
MI5 assessed the trio were really heading for Iraq. Security service papers suggest "martyrdom operations" - suicide bombings against British or US troops.

Bullivant says he was "baffled" and insists his trip was a backpacking adventure. The Home Office placed the brothers under control orders - and months later Bullivant joined them after MI5 expressed concern over his plans to go to Bangladesh.

He handed over his passport, his computer and other belongings were taken. He was obliged to sign in daily at a police station. He complained to the Home Office this prevented him properly studying. He didn't dare tell his mother. The strain began to show and his marriage to a Muslim woman began to crack.

On the run

In May 2007 Cerie Bullivant went on the run in what he now calls his "moment of madness".

The police wanted poster
Wanted: Trio on the run, Cerie Bullivant second from right
He and the Adam brothers disappeared, sparking a national manhunt, front page headlines and political pressure on the Home Office over the use of the orders.

Four weeks later Bullivant had a change of heart, left the London flat where he says they were hiding out watching DVDs, and turned himself in. The Adam brothers have not been seen again - before they disappeared police say they were trying to obtain false passports.

The nine months since then has seen a legal rollercoaster take the 25-year-old from being one of the most wanted men in Britain to the rare position of having challenged counter-terrorism laws and won.

Cleared in court

When an Old Bailey jury cleared him of breaching his order, the Home Office imposed more restrictions, including an electronic tag and a home curfew.

I am satisfied the decision to make a control order was justified on the material available at the time ... however I am equally satisfied that reasonable grounds for suspicion do not now exist
Mr Justice Collins, January 2008

But last month a senior High Court judge quashed that more restrictive order, ruling that while the Home Secretary originally had reasonable grounds for suspicion - those no longer existed.

So what had happened? Was he someone who had learnt the hard way not to flirt with extremism?

"The Home Office would say that I was involved in radical Islamist groups, but I never went to any speeches or talks of any of the scholars that are now in prison," he says. "I had tapes of talks by scholars - but they were mainstream.

What about material from preachers now known to have spearheaded radicalisation?

A police document with material blacked out
Secret evidence: Intelligence assessments in the case
"No Abu Hamza, no Omar Bakri, no Shaikh Faisal. I have not heard any of those talks other than what I have heard in the media."

We asked him what he thought of jihadi thinking - that Muslims have an obligation to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan

"I know that both me and Lamine were completely opposed to market place bombs and killing of innocents, wholesale slaughter, those kinds of things.

"But it is common sense that if you go and invade a country the native people are going to try to defend themselves.

"I can't speak for anyone else but the trip to Syria was just a bit of backpacking, an adventure. MI5 says our plans were vague. In a way I can accept that. It wasn't a package holiday. But I know my own barrister arrived years ago in Marseille backpacking and slept on the streets.

"This idea that we were going out there to bunk the border and fight in Iraq baffles me, it really does. I fail to see the romance in fighting."

Cerie Bullivant said he wanted his case to be public because he believes it exposes the fragility of intelligence assessments.

He argues that once he fell under suspicion because of his friendship with Lamine Adam, the system was unable to accept they had the wrong man.

However, Lord Carlile, the terrorism laws watchdog, says that controversial control order cases have in fact proved the opposite - that legal safeguards are working.

He has reviewed the decision-making in every control order and has read all the same MI5 papers seen by the Home Secretary. He says security-cleared special advocates, lawyers who argue for suspects in secret judicial hearings, are clearly proving their worth, even if the suspects themselves can't see the material.

The Home Office says it was disappointed that the control order was quashed. But in a first for a British-born controllee, it says it will not appeal the decision.

Whatever the state of Cerie Bullivant's mind now, was he ever a threat to national security, contemplating a "martyrdom operation" as a bomber?

He shakes his head and answers quietly.

"The only time I have ever been close to suicide is since they put me on these orders and I was at my lowest point," he says.

"I'm not a threat to national security. I'm British, I was born in this country. I have never been involved in anything that would harm the security of this country or the security of other countries."

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