7 arrested in raid on mosque in London

Tear gas, credit cards, passports confiscated in anti-terror operation

January 21, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - More than 150 police raided a North London mosque yesterday and confiscated a form of tear gas, passports and credit cards in a terrorism-related sweep that comes amid heightened fears of an attack on the British capital.

The mosque has long been in the spotlight because one of its clerics has made a series of statements praising al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Richard Reid, a Briton arrested after he tried to ignite explosives in a shoe during a trans-Atlantic flight, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who is suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11 planning, have attended the mosque.

Six men from North Africa were arrested along with an Eastern European. The cleric, Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri, was not among those detained.

The raid was linked to the discovery Jan. 5 of the poison ricin in an apartment occupied by Algerians, according to a Scotland Yard spokesman who, in keeping with practice, could not be identified by name.

Police said in a statement that they recovered one canister of CS gas, which can cause sickness and injury when used outdoors and is potentially lethal when used in an unventilated area. Investigators, who expect to spend about a week searching the mosque, also found "a large quantity" of documents, including the passports and credit cards, the statement said.

Helicopters began hovering over the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park about 2 a.m. as police in riot gear rushed the four-story mosque and two adjacent buildings with ladders and battering rams. The spokesman said officers were careful to avoid parts of the mosque used for prayer, raiding offices and living quarters instead.

"The operation was not against the mosque or the many people who go there on a regular basis to pray," the spokesman said. He said the mosque had been involved in recruiting terrorists and in supporting terrorism in Britain and abroad.

He said police are "aware of the sensitivity of such an operation, but evidence gathered during recent counterterrorist investigations in London and elsewhere has uncovered links between the premises and suspected terrorist activity. Such evidence has made this operation absolutely necessary."

About 1 million of Greater London's 7 million residents are Muslims.

Andy Trotter, deputy assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, said the raid was carried out in a search for "people and documents."

London has been jittery in recent months about a possible terrorist attack. Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned that the potential for an assault is "huge" and has asked repeatedly that people keep a lookout for suspicious activities.

"Of course it will happen here," said Paul Monteith, 25, who watched as dozens of police surrounded the mosque while investigators searched inside. "I live just down the road, and it's worrying. You wouldn't think it would be right on your doorstep."

Yesterday's arrests come one week after a police constable was stabbed to death in Manchester and four other officers were injured during an anti-terrorism raid on an apartment occupied by Algerians. That raid, too, stemmed from the investigation into ricin and the discovery of a makeshift laboratory.

Although more toxic than cyanide, ricin is considered to have limited potential to cause large numbers of casualties because of the need to transform it from a powder to a gas.

No link has been established between those arrested in the ricin investigation and al-Qaida, but traces of the poison have been found in a lab in Afghanistan used by the terrorist group.

The raided mosque is one of London's largest, with room for 2,000 men and 100 women. Its congregation includes large numbers of Algerians, Bengalis, Egyptians and Pakistanis.

The men arrested, who have not been identified but are between the ages of 22 and 48, were taken to a Central London jail under Britain's anti-terrorism laws, under which suspects can be held for up to a week without being charged.

Abu Hamza, the mosque's radical cleric, condemned the police raid as part of a government-backed "war" on Islam. If any illegal chemicals or other materials were to be found, he told reporters before the announcement about the gas and documents, police will have planted them.

"They should have brought somebody independent while they are searching, because how do we know they haven't put it there themselves?" he said.

Muhammed Sekkoum, chairman of the Algerian Refugee Council, said the raid was further evidence of bias against Muslims and that police should not have raided a building sacred to his faith.

"We're not al-Qaida," he said. "We come here as hard-working people. We were being persecuted in our country, we did not come here to persecute other people. We knew this was going to happen, but it is disgusting to invade a mosque like this. Why don't you raid a church or a synagogue or a temple?"

Authorities have long kept watch on Abu Hamza, an Egyptian who moved to Britain in 1979. He fought in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen, and injuries he received clearing land mines left him with one eye and a hook for a right hand.

He has repeatedly advocated a strict interpretation of Sharia law, which comes from the teachings of the Quran but is implemented to varying degrees in different Islamic countries. Abu Hamza, who was born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa and once worked as a bouncer in a London nightclub, has said that he favors the strictest of interpretations, which when applied in places such as Saudi Arabia have led to public beheadings.

He was detained and questioned by Scotland Yard for several days in 1999 on suspicion of terrorism offenses in Yemen. He was released and has maintained his innocence. More recently, he has called for Muslims to attack any country that supports a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

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