Some say Britain overdoing tolerance — attacks feared
London — “Osama bin Laden is a good man. Osama bin Laden wants the same as me — he wants to see the implementation of God’s law,” says Khalid Kelly as he sips coffee in a sun-filled London cafe and expounds on his allegiance to the man who has declared war on the West.
Kelly, an Irishman, converted to Islam two years ago while imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for distilling and selling alcohol. Since then, he has become the public face of the tiny London-based organization called Al-Muhajiroun. The radical organization is led by Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has long been linked to bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
The presence of militants like Bakri has earned the British capital the sobriquet “Londonistan” among diplomats and terrorism experts, who see London as a worldwide center of Islamic terrorism.
“The Islamists use Britain as a propaganda base but wouldn’t do anything to a country that harbors them and gives them freedom of speech,” Camille Tawil, a terrorism expert at the Arabic daily Al Hayat, told the New Statesman magazine.
Recently, however, British security officials have staged several high- profile crackdowns on suspected terrorists.
On March 30, police netted eight suspects and more than half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the ingredient used in the 2002 Bali nightclub explosion that killed more than 200 people. The bust came after months of bugging telephone lines and tracking suspects and following a web of leads across Europe and the Middle East, according to Peter Clarke, the deputy police commissioner who serves as Britain’s anti-terrorism chief.
The scheme was apparently planned abroad but was to be carried out by British citizens. “That is something that is deeply worrying to us,” Clarke said.
In April, 10 foreigners suspected of plotting attacks were arrested in central and northern England.
Then on May 27, acting on an 11-count U.S. indictment, police arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery former preacher at London’s Finsbury Park mosque, the spiritual home of several notorious terrorists, including convicted shoe- bomber Richard Reid.
Al-Masri, who lost both hands and an eye in Afghanistan, is being held in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison pending extradition on charges of aiding al Qaeda, attempting to set up a terror camp in Oregon and plotting the hostage-taking of 16 tourists in Yemen in 1998. At a hearing Friday, a London court delayed a decision on his extradition until Oct. 19.
But other clerics continue to take advantage of official British tolerance to openly espouse jihad and support for al Qaeda.
In recent weeks, Britain has allowed visits by two high-profile Middle Eastern clerics — Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al- Sudais of Saudi Arabia — who are known for their anti-Semitic and anti- Western views. Yusuf, who has been banned from the United States since 1999, has publicly expressed support for suicide bombers on the grounds that the “martyrdom operations” are the only available “weapons of the weak.”
Publicly, officials justify what the French call Britain’s indulgence of militants by stating that no law is being broken. Britain does not have laws against speech that incites religious hatred. Privately, security sources say that by allowing extremist leaders to speak freely, they are able to keep them under close scrutiny.
Although Britain allows incendiary speech, security sources note that it has introduced draconian anti-terrorism laws under which foreigners deemed to pose actual threats to the public can be held indefinitely without charge. Among the 14 foreigners being held under Britain’s anti-terror legislation is Abu Qatada, who has been locked up in Belmarsh prison since October 2002 on suspicion of being a leading member of Al Qaeda.
Syrian-born Bakri, whose group’s Web site often carries statements purportedly by Osama bin Laden and advocates support for al Qaeda activities, has lived in Britain since 1985, after being deported from Saudi Arabia. Police and intelligence organizations number his adherents between 300 and 800. He has bragged about recruiting young Muslim men to fulfill “religious obligations” by doing three months “military training” in such battle zones as Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Balkans. Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, he has named British Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair as “legitimate targets.”
Bakri claims the protection of a “covenant of security” under which he is left alone as long as he does not sanction attacks on British soil. Security forces deny that such an arrangement exists.
According to Magnus Ranstrop, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, 75 percent of the resources of Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, are concentrated on Islamist terrorism.
“The threat is very real,” he said. London “has the intelligence architecture because of Northern Ireland and the IRA, but the effort has been reoriented. …We are not talking about a lot of individuals; the key is finding them.”
Faced with the daunting task of unraveling amorphous networks, investigators said it was now essential to probe deeply. “What has emerged is the recognition that we need to look inward at our own communities,” Clarke said.
Most mainstream Muslims in Britain strongly condemn Bakri’s teachings.
“Al-Muhajiroun are well known for their notorious antics, including publicity stunts on the 9/11 anniversary, calling it a ‘towering day in history’ and the perpetrators ‘the magnificent 19,’ ” said Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. “They clearly set out to create a rift between the Muslim community and white society, and part of their agenda is to destabilize society.”
Last spring, the council contacted 1,000 mosques, urging their congregations to maintain “utmost vigilance” against hard-liners seeking to infiltrate mosques and convert vulnerable young men into fanatics. It has also urged Britain to adopt a law, similar to the one in Germany, outlawing speech that is an incitement to violence.
Nevertheless, extremist proselytizers like Kelly continue to use London as their forum.
“George Bush said you are with us or with the terrorists — we have no problem being called terrorists,” he says. “When you call us extremists, it’s OK because we are against all the pornography, drinking, homosexuality, pedophilia out there. When you call us fundamentalists, it’s OK because we stick fundamentally to our beliefs.”
By any measure, Kelly has executed a sharp about-turn in his life. Born Terence Kelly in south Dublin, he attended Catholic school there until age 15, when he left to work in pubs. At 23, he moved to London to train as an intensive care nurse and in 1996 took a job in Saudi Arabia, attracted by the tax-free salary.
Bored, as many foreigners in strict Islamic countries are, he began distilling alcohol at home, earning up to $10,000 a month. He was caught and spent eight months in a Saudi prison, where he found Islam.
“Before, I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about alcohol, about women walking in the street half-naked, about homosexuality and pedophilia, but now I know,” he said. “Now, I have all the answers.”
Despite the support network offered by al-Muhajiroun, Kelly says he hates life in free-wheeling Britain and wants “to go to an Islamic country to live a pious Islamic life.” He thinks al Qaeda’s efforts to drive foreigners out of Saudi Arabia could open up new opportunities there.
“It would probably be easy for me to get a job there,” he said. “But I’m white, so they might kill me, too.”
R adical Islamists in London
Muslims are the largest minority faith community in the United Kingdom, composing 3 percent of the population, or more than 1.5 million people. In London, this rises to 8.46 percent, or more than 700,000 people. Most British Muslims are moderate and disavow the small fringe who are militants. The major extremist Muslim leaders in London are:
Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Saudi exile who leads Al-Muhajiroun (the Migrant’s Movement), an international organization founded in the 1980s. Bakri is anti-Israel and has encouraged young followers, including converts, to join Islamic factions in regional wars in the Balkans and Chechnya, and in Afghanistan.
Imram Waheed, London representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party), a group led by Abdul Qadeem Zallum that claims to be nonviolent but supports suicide bombings in Israel and seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate, or Islamic regime.
Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Othman abu Omar, also known as Abu Qatada, a Jordanian Palestinian granted asylum by Britain in 1993. Tried and convicted in absentia in Jordan for terrorist activities, Abu Qatada has openly called for the destruction of the United States and its Arab allies and is known as “al Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador in Europe.” He is being held in a British prison as a suspected terrorist but still commands a large following.
Sheikh abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian who lost both hands and an eye fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets and was granted asylum in Britain in 1978. The spiritual leader of the Finsbury Park Mosque, now closed, where convicted shoe-bomber and convert Richard Reid worshiped. He is in jail facing extradition to the United States on charges of aiding al Qaeda and other militant groups.
Chronicle correspondent Vivienne Walt contributed to this report.