In London, Islamic Radicals Found a Haven
July 10, 2005
Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday July 11, 2005
LONDON, July 9 — On the morning after bombs ripped through the London Underground and crumpled a double-decker bus, four security guards escorted a one-eyed, Egyptian-born cleric, his arms amputated below the elbows from Afghan war injuries, onto the elevated dock of Courtroom No. 1 in Old Bailey, the capital’s principal criminal court.
Abu Hamza Masri, for years a blood-curdling preacher at a North London mosque allegedly visited by shoe bomber Richard Reid and hijacker trainee Zacarias Moussaoui, listened silently Friday as his lawyer argued about his indictment last January on nine counts of incitement to murder for speeches that allegedly promoted mass violence against non-Muslims. In one speech cited in a British documentary film, Masri urged followers to get an infidel “and crush his head in your arms, so you can wring his throat. Forget wasting a bullet, cut them in half!”
Masri’s case is just one of several dozen that describe the venom, sprawling shape and deep history of al Qaeda and related extremist groups in London. Osama bin Laden opened a political and media office here as far back as 1994; it closed four years later when his local lieutenant, Khalid Fawwaz, was arrested for aiding al Qaeda’s attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa.
As bin Laden’s ideology of making war on the West spread in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, London became “the Star Wars bar scene” for Islamic radicals, as former White House counterterrorism official Steven Simon called it, attracting a polyglot group of intellectuals, preachers, financiers, arms traders, technology specialists, forgers, travel organizers and foot soldiers.
Today, al Qaeda and its offshoots retain broader connections to London than to any other city in Europe, according to evidence from terrorist prosecutions. Evidence shows at least a supporting connection to London groups or individuals in many of the al Qaeda-related attacks of the past seven years. Among them are the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the assassination of Afghan militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001; outer rings of the Sept. 11 conspiracy, involving Moussaoui and the surveillance of financial targets in Washington and New York; Reid’s attempted shoe bomb attack in December 2001; and the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The evidence in these and other cases describes al Qaeda connections here as remarkably diverse, ranging from the core organization’s early formation through its phase of elaborately planned global strikes between 1999 and 2001, to its more recent period of diffuse franchises and younger volunteers to an attack this week that authorities here said bears al Qaeda’s stamp. In the 1980s and 1990s, between 300 and 600 British citizens passed through Afghan training camps, officials here have acknowledged. Today, several recent cases suggest the seeding of a new generation of British residents who traveled as volunteers to fight with the insurgency in Iraq.
On June 15, 2002, at an Islamic community center in Milan, Italy, a cleric with alleged ties to al Qaeda was overheard in conversation with an Arab from Germany, according to a transcript of the wiretap later published in Italy. The Arab spoke of his 10-person cell in Germany and the group’s “interest” in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and France. “But the nerve center is still London,” he reported.
A refuge and hub for Middle Eastern dissidents since the 19th century imperial era, the city has more recently attracted Islamic radicals with connections to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, the Persian Gulf and Pakistan. London’s radical fringe draws in part from the alienated edges of Britain’s large and overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim immigrant population. But it has been influenced, too, by Britain’s ambiguous policies toward exiled radicals, a sometimes awkward blend of asylum offers, intelligence collection and criminal prosecution.
Masri, for instance, received asylum in Britain from Egypt in the late ’70s and British citizenship in 1981. He volunteered to fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s, then returned to Britain to preach justifications for violence against those he perceived to be Islam’s enemies. Throughout, Masri met periodically with Britain’s intelligence services and anti-terrorism police, who were investigating his activities. The government moved to strip him of citizenship, but only in late 2004 did the Crown Prosecution Service conclude it had enough evidence to bring criminal charges, even though some of the speeches it relied on had taken place years before.
“We’re not an investigative authority. We can only review evidence brought to us by the police,” said a spokesman for the prosecutors, explaining the delay. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Masri’s case is scheduled for trial soon. “There must be a sufficient chance of successful conviction” before charges will be filed.
Radical Islamic exiles value London as a base in part because “the legal system is quite stable and it cannot be influenced by politicians or by public opinion,” said Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of providing financial support to al Qaeda because of his alleged role in the 1998 purchase of a satellite phone used by bin Laden.
Faqih said he had no connection to al Qaeda or to violence and that his primary focus was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family through political advocacy and organizing. His British assets have been frozen because of the U.S. Treasury designation, but Faqih has not been charged criminally here. On Thursday, a previously unknown group calling itself the Secret Organization of al Qaeda in Europe asserted responsibility for the London bombings in a posting on a radical Islamic Web site allegedly connected to Faqih; he denied running the site, a bulletin board with the Arabic name for fortress that was registered just a week after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an interview, Faqih said he tries to maintain cordial, open relations with British authorities because he believes they are under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States to crack down on his political activities. He said he keeps up “high-level contacts” with the British intelligence services. “I always give them the best I can in terms of advice” about Saudi Arabia and other issues. “The British intelligence — although they are very effective, they will pick you up very quickly — they will not trick you into making a mistake” that could lead to criminal prosecution, he said.
Britain’s tolerance of exiled dissidents and terrorist sympathizers has sometimes frustrated U.S. officials. U.S. intelligence officers say they respect the sophistication of Britain’s intelligence collection among radicals in London, but some question whether its emphasis on monitoring, as opposed to the preemptive disruption often favored by the FBI in the United States, has left the country vulnerable.
“I’ve been preaching London will get hit long before us,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject’s sensitivity. “They have a critical mass of a group of radicals operating in an open society.”
The London Connection
Al Qaeda’s London connection began in the early 1990s after Saudi Arabia cracked down on Islamic dissidents, including bin Laden, who had pressured the royal family for political reforms and protested its decision to invite United States forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Dozens of Saudi radicals were imprisoned; some were forced or escaped into exile.
Bin Laden fled to the relative isolation of Sudan, where he nurtured his nascent multinational militia. But other Saudi dissidents sought out London and set up offices from where they peppered the Saudi kingdom with faxes denouncing the royal family. Bin Laden wanted to be part of this, and he dispatched Fawwaz to London to set up the Advice and Reform Committee, which began its own fax pamphleteering aimed at the kingdom, with a special emphasis on bin Laden’s ideas.
According to Faqih, who led a rival group, bin Laden and Fawwaz issued 17 communique from London between 1994 and 1996 about “scattered things” such as Saudi corruption and the need for truer adherence to Islamic law. After bin Laden moved to Afghanistan and declared war on the United States in the summer of 1996, Fawwaz stopped publishing, Faqih said, because he feared possible British criminal charges.
Fawwaz set up his al Qaeda branch in the placid North London suburb of Dollis Hill on a street of 1930s Tudor-style houses. Peter Bergen, an author who interviewed bin Laden in the spring of 1998 with Fawwaz’s assistance, recalled that Fawwaz described bin Laden as “humble, charming, intelligent, a really significant wealthy chap,” Bergen recounted in his book “Holy War, Inc.”
After the 1998 embassy bombings, the U.S. used evidence of Fawwaz’s logistical and media support for bin Laden to indict him on criminal charges. British police arrested him and two other bin Laden aides in London (nearly seven years later, Fawwaz is still in a high-security London prison with the fight over his extradition pending).
Not all of al Qaeda’s top British operatives were rounded up then. Anas Liby, one of bin Laden’s computer experts, had continued to live in the northern England city of Manchester even after the U.S. demanded his extradition on charges he participated in setting up the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya. On May 10, 2000, the British police raided Liby’s apartment in an area of quiet town houses known as Moss Side. Liby was gone, a fugitive who would eventually have a $25 million reward for his capture offered by the United States.
Left behind on his computer was an al Qaeda training manual that spelled out the organization’s tradecraft in 180 pages of chilling detail — down to the art of killing with “cold steel” and the need, as Liby practiced, to go undercover in the West (“necessity permits the forbidden,” the manual counseled, though no necessity could be cited to allow heresies such as drinking wine or fornicating).
Although Britain had harbored many of his lieutenants, bin Laden made clear in a speech not long after the raid why history made the country an implacable enemy. “The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children.”
An Indispensable Center
“George Bush has no respect for the Muslim world. This has been designed to make sure he listens,” Abu Qatada, a fiery Palestinian who also preached at the Finsbury Park mosque said in a London newspaper immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11. Granted asylum in Britain from Jordan, Qatada has been convicted in absentia of playing a role in an al Qaeda-linked millennium bombing plot there. He is also designated as a terrorist by the U.S. government.
But Qatada is better known as an ideologue of global holy war than an organizer of it. When Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta’s apartment in Germany was searched, authorities turned up videotapes of Qatada’s London sermons. The British arrested Qatada in late 2002 but he was never charged and was released in March. “He’s been cited as the spiritual leader by at least a half dozen terrorist cells,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, a researcher who has written a book on Islamic terrorist groups in Europe.
For al Qaeda and its affiliates, the British capital has been considered an indispensable communications center. “They looked on London as the premier place for propaganda in the Western world,” said Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s special bin Laden unit in the mid-1990s.
Even after the arrest of al Qaeda’s London spokesman, Fawwaz, London remained a clearinghouse for the group’s information and ideas. Just a few months after Sept. 11, bin Laden’s chief deputy, Egyptian doctor Ayman Zawahiri, published from hiding a lengthy memoir-cum-holy war-treatise, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” as a 12-part series in the London newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
The shock of Sept. 11 brought a sharp increase in British arrests of Islamic militants, many with some alleged connection to al Qaeda. But clerics like Qatada who worked in what Simon, the former counterterrorism official, called “the realm of inspiration” have continued to preach holy war in London. Altogether, 700 suspects were taken into British custody under the counterterrorism law between 2001 and the end of 2004. Only 17 have been convicted.
Among those arrested after 2001 was Yasir Tawfiq Sirri. A slight, balding man who ran a group called the Islamic Observation Center, he was mostly known up to that point for press releases critical of the Egyptian government. Simon recalled meeting Sirri in a London hotel lobby and thinking of him as “an allegedly retired Egyptian militant.” Later in 2001, the men who killed the Afghan anti-Taliban leader Massoud, gained entry to his compound by claiming to be Arab journalists from Sirri’s London group. Sirri was arrested in London after the Sept. 11 attacks but was never prosecuted.
British citizen Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was arrested in 2002 in connection with the murder of Pearl, the journalist, in Pakistan. Radicalized while attending the London School of Economics, he had hoped to fight in Bosnia in the 1990s but ended up instead with a Kashmiri militant group. He was charged with organizing Pearl’s kidnapping, but al Qaeda’s operational chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly killed the American journalist.
British-born Saajid Badat was another worshiper at Masri’s Finsbury Park mosque who went through the Afghan camps. Badat was a would-be shoe bomber, who meant to blow himself up at the same time as Reid; he testified that he changed his mind and dismantled his bomb. Convicted earlier this year, Badat reportedly received orders from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
British authorities have broken up what they claimed were several different cells with al Qaeda connections. One group, arrested in 2004, was accused of storing a half-ton of ammonium nitrate, which can be used in explosives, in a locker near Heathrow Airport. Another group was arrested in 2003 and charged with plans to use the deadly poison ricin in an attack — although only one man was convicted, not for manufacturing ricin but for killing a British officer who came to arrest him.
A raid on an al Qaeda computer expert in Pakistan in 2004 led to arrests of nearly a dozen men in Britain, including a Muslim convert of Indian origin, who were accused of casing financial targets in Britain and the U.S. in preparation for an attack.
The portrait of those arrested suggests the diverse mosaic of Islamic extremists making London their home today, with few of those taken into custody by the British since Sept. 11 conforming to the original al Qaeda profile of Saudis and Egyptians. Instead, a review by The Washington Post of nearly 62 cases of men arrested here found the largest group — 31 — to be from North Africa, followed by 12 British citizens and seven Pakistanis. Many were educated in British institutions and were middle class, though some, such as radical clerics Masri and Qatada, collected welfare benefits.
An ‘Inevitable’ Attack
Until last week, whether London was a target of al Qaeda had been a source of debate.
Some experts, like Scheuer, believed that bin Laden had long wanted to hit the city, ever since the arrest of his aide, Fawwaz. Bin Laden blamed the arrest publicly on “British Crusader hatred of Muslims” from his refuge at the time in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Other analysts, such as Simon, believed that, up until 2001, “Britain was regarded as too valuable a staging area” for al Qaeda to attack.
But ever since, it has been a key target.
One of London’s radical Islamic clerics, Syrian-born, Saudi exile Omar Bakri Mohammed, openly spoke of the time when the city that gave him refuge back in 1986 would be hit. “It’s inevitable,” Mohammed, well known for attempting a public celebration in honor of the Sept. 11 hijackers, told a Portuguese magazine last year. Among the groups mobilizing for a strike was one calling itself al Qaeda in Europe. It “has a great appeal for young Muslims,” he said. “I know that they are ready to launch a big operation.”
In Finsbury Park, a ragged and lively neighborhood of new immigrants, a moderate faction has now taken control of the red-brick mosque where Masri once delivered his fire-breathing sermons. As worshipers arrived for prayers on Friday, they passed beneath a banner advertising “A New Beginning for the Mosque” and a “Better Community Image.”
Mohammed Nusa, 18, loitered outside, talking about the bombings and the backlash against Muslims he now feared. That backlash, in turn, may help the Islamic radicals, Nusa said. He adamantly rejected Masri’s ideology but explained there are always a few among his friends who argue that “if they’re going to make us look like the enemy, we might as well be the enemy.”
Glasser reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.
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