Father who spied on al-Qaida accuses Edinburgh school of discrimination

Exclusive: Inquiry opens into St George’s after Aimen Dean claims it singled out his daughter over fears he was a security risk

One of the UK’s leading private schools is under investigation after being accused of discrimination against the daughter of one of the west’s most important spies, a former al-Qaida bomb-maker credited with saving thousands of lives.

Aimen Dean, who spied for British intelligence inside the terrorist network for eight years, has made a formal complaint against St George’s School in Edinburgh, claiming it singled out his five-year-old daughter because other parents feared he was a security risk.

The Registrar of Independent Schools is investigating whether St George’s failed to adequately safeguard or promote his daughter’s welfare after Dean complained about a “toxic environment” at the school, using powers under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.

If the registrar, Alex O’Neill, finds that St George’s was either “objectionable” or at risk of being objectionable, Scottish ministers could impose stringent conditions on the school, ordering it to improve its policies and governance. It could also be subject to a formal inspection.

St George's School for girls in Edinburgh
St George's School for girls in Edinburgh Photograph: PR Image

St George’s said it “strongly disputed” Dean’s version of events, and was confident that the registrar would reject his allegations.

Dean has told the Guardian that as a result of their experience, he and his family are leaving the UK to find new schools in the Middle East for their daughter and three-year-old son, despite being granted British citizenship in return for his service to the UK.

Dean and his wife, Saadia, allege that the school insisted on different drop-off and pickup times for their daughter after a handful of parents complained last October that Dean was a security risk. Several weeks earlier, he had told a Channel 4 documentary about the 9/11 attacks that he was a former member of al-Qaida.

Dean said he had told the school about his past in December 2019, when it was given assurances from MI5 he posed no risk to the school’s security. After other parents complained, the couple understands that the headteacher, Alexandra Hems, again sought and received MI5’s assurances. Even so, they claim she said: “Do not expect a welcome here in Scotland” because of his past involvement with al-Qaida.

The couple said they complied with the change to their daughter’s school hours. When they tried in March this year to get their autistic son admitted to the nursery school, and offered to pay for extra support for him in class, they allege that staff said they would be better off returning to the Middle East for his education and “the wellbeing of both your kids”.

In his lengthy complaint to O’Neill, Dean said the “toxic environment” at St George’s made their daughter feel the school “hated” her. He told the Guardian she was shouted at to sit down by a member of staff for being late in class, and that they were often kept waiting outside the school gates before being buzzed in.

After an angry outburst on a parents’ WhatsApp group, Dean said he was banned from attending the school. That led to “significant harm to my daughter’s educational, emotional and psychological wellbeing”, he told O’Neill.

Dean has also set out his allegations against St George’s on the podcast Blethered with Sean McDonald, made by thebiglight.com in Glasgow.

British intelligence sources have confirmed that Dean became one of the UK’s most significant and highly prized spies, whose leaks to MI6 were shared with the prime minister’s security advisers in Downing Street, the CIA and US presidents.

After the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, he helped western intelligence locate al-Qaida bases, weapons dumps and safe houses in Afghanistan while working undercover inside the terrorist organisation. His intelligence led to the assassination of al-Qaida’s leader in Saudi Arabia, Yusaf al-Ayeri, and the exposure of a plot to detonate a chemical bomb in the New York subway in 2003.

Two former British intelligence officers who saw Dean’s intelligence while he was undercover, and have since worked with him, said they were shocked and upset that Dean and Saadia had decided to abandon their plans to settle permanently in the UK.

One said the UK had “a permanent debt” to Dean. “His commitment to democratic states with secular values in which people of faith can live in comfort and security … you can’t ask for any greater commitment, literally risking his life for years,” the former officer said.

St George’s said it could not respond in detail to Dean’s allegations while O’Neill was investigating. “We are cooperating with the inquiry and have every confidence that once the registrar has considered the matter, St George’s will be found to have acted fully in accordance with all relevant safeguarding and regulatory procedures,” it said.

Hems, who is now headteacher at another school, did not comment on Dean’s allegations, but is understood to vigorously reject his allegations.

In 2017, after an unrelated investigation by the registrar, ministers ordered another well-known private school in Edinburgh, George Watson’s, to improve its complaints handling and its governance after it was found to be at risk of being objectionable following a case of “sustained” bullying against a pupil there.


Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The GuardianTramp

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