British security service MI5 issued an urgent request for help across the Five Eyes intelligence community in July 2005 when the UK faced its own 9/11-like crisis.
MI5 was racing to identify the Islamist-inspired networks that attacked London’s transport system on July 7, killing more than 50 people and injuring 700 others. Four more copycat attacks followed two weeks later but the explosive devices malfunctioned. The suspects were on the run.
MI5’s top-secret Canadian spy
As MI5 riffled through thousands of CCTV images and forensic evidence, the Canadian spy who would soon help Britain unlock the case was 3,000 miles away in Ottawa listening to the BBC News: Huda Mukbil, a Black, Muslim female intelligence officer with top-secret clearance and rare East African language skills.
Mukbil, of Ethiopian and Yemeni origin, graduated with a law degree from Ottawa’s Carleton University and joined the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) a year after 9/11. She was the only CSIS officer who spoke Arabic during her first few years with the counterterrorism branch, so Huda was comfortable working at the sharp end of operations battling extremists. She was also the liaison officer for Canada’s CSE - the cybersecurity spies similar to America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ - so she knew her way around electronic signals intelligence. "MI5 had the evidence," she recalled, "but they just couldn't decipher all of it.”
Huda was dispatched to London with a special passport that frustratingly took an entire day to arrange. Everyone wanted her in London asap - yesterday, preferably. The British capital was shaken. The atmosphere was tense. Still, Huda didn’t expect to be greeted at MI5’s HQ by armed security guards who pointed their guns at her and shouted: “Stop! Freeze!”
MI5 spies on red alert
Huda stood perfectly still looking at the two armed guards, their knees bent for maximum flexibility. In her memoir, Agent of Change (2023), Huda explained that it was 10 pm. She’d rushed over to MI5 after a long flight - exhausted, anxious, and now afraid. Luckily, Huda’s escort to the British spy hub was ‘David’, CSIS head of station in London. “No, no!” David shouted at the guards while a thought flashed through Huda’s mind: Maybe now he’ll have an idea of what it feels like to be a Muslim intelligence officer.
There was no time for grudges, however. Huda took the elevator up to MI5’s glass-walled foreign-language office where she was welcomed by ‘Mike’ who offered an apology and introduction to the computer apps Huda would need to translate African dialects - Oromo, Amharic, Somali, Tigrinya, and Harari. “I can also work on any Arabic lines,” Huda offered.
For the next few days - blending into weeks and then months - Huda classified taped conversations, languages, and dialects for MI5 translators while working on the Harari (an Ethiopian Semitic language) and Arabic lines associated with Ethiopian-born Hussain Osman, one of the failed bombers in the July 21, 2005 attacks. The security services had identified Osman fleeing in the chaos of the failed attack on a train near Shepherd’s Bush ‘Tube’ in east London and hunted him down to his brother’s home in Italy by tracking Osman’s cell phone.
Huda’s job was to transcribe the recordings, determine how Osman became an extremist, and ID his support network. The authorities wanted to know why Osman was in Rome. Did his family support his views? Did they know about the failed bombings? Was Osman linked to an extremist network in Italy? MI5, GCHQ, MI6, Scotland Yard, and the Italian security services all waited anxiously. Huda’s answers could foil another attack.