Under cover Mahmood at police gun point as the gang is arrested
How many of the reporters who wrote scathingly of the News of the World’s revelation that an Eastern European gang was allegedly plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham had put their own lives on the line for a story, asked editor Rebekah Wade.
"Maz [the NoW’s investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood] has done it not once, but hundreds of times. I can’t believe that people are having a go at one of the most talented reporters of this generation of Fleet Street. They should be ashamed of themselves, appalled, and so should their editors," said an angry Wade.
It was one of the most dangerous assignments Mahmood had tackled, she added. Yet The Mail on Sunday headlined its story "£5m kidnap plot … or just a tabloid sting?" The Guardian called Mahmood "the king of sting". Mahmood told Press Gazette the allegations of a sting were "ludicrous".
"Just look at the evidence," he said. "I don’t think the police would have sent out 50 armed officers if they were not taking this seriously." And in a reference to his persona as the "fake sheikh" in a previous investigation, he added: "There were no wigs or flowing robes this time." Mahmood was sitting in a van outside a pub – listening in on gang members inside as they discussed plans to kidnap the former Spice Girl – when he realised how serious they were. Mahmood was first contacted by an underworld informant who told him of the gang’s existence. It was only when his investigation had begun that his informant told him the gang had asked if he was interested in joining a kidnap attempt.
There were two targets in the frame. One was an Arab prince and the other was Beckham. They intended to seize her before Christmas.
Mahmood persuaded the contact to go in wired-up and get the gang talking about their plans. Then Mahmood’s personal minder and undercover investigations helper, known only as "Jaws" because of his gold teeth, infiltrated the gang as a getaway driver.
Jaws was vouched for by a reference from a prisoner in Stangeways jail.
The rest of the NoW team comprised technical experts Conrad Brown and Gerry Brown, and Mahmood, who posed as a buyer of stolen goods. The team shadowed the gang, secretly recording and videoing their activities for six weeks and compiling a huge dossier of evidence. This included their surveillance of the Beckham home and their use of guns.
"They were capable of carrying out this kidnap," Mahmood said. "We felt in danger of our lives. When I met the main man he had a habit of touching you all the time, patting your body. I had a secret video in my jacket and he was tapping his hand on my camera but he didn’t realise. We had a few close shaves. The police have now offered my informant the chance to join the Witness Protection Scheme. He is a dead man walking."
Mahmood attended a briefing at Leman Street Police Station before Scotland Yard’s elite firearms team, SO19, carried out arrests in the car park of the Ibis Hotel in London’s Docklands. It was a shock, he said, when a police gun was pointed at his head and, along with the gang members, he was kicked to floor and handcuffed. He was kept in a police vehicle until the others were taken from the scene.
"It was a hell of a relief when these guys were arrested. Even on the day, we weren’t sure whether they would become suspicious," he admitted.
By Jean Morgan