Britain a breeding ground for hate fed by militant Muslims preachers

City now a crossroads for would-be terrorists

July 10, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Long before bombings ripped through London on Thursday, Britain had become a breeding ground for hate, fed by a militant version of Islam.

For two years, extremists like Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, a 47-year-old Syrian-born cleric, have played to ever-larger crowds, calling for holy war against Britain and exhorting young Muslim men to join the insurgency in Iraq. In a newspaper interview last April, he warned that "a very well-organized" London-based group, al-Qaida Europe, was "on the verge of launching a big operation" here.

In a sermon attended by more than 500 people in a central London meeting hall last December, Mohammed vowed that if Western governments did not change their policies, Muslims would give them "a 9/11, day after day after day."

If London became a magnet for fiery preachers, it also became a destination for men willing to carry out their threats. For a decade, the city has been a crossroads for would-be terrorists who used it as a home base, where they could raise money, recruit members and draw inspiration from the militant messages.

Among them were militants involved in attacks in Madrid, Casablanca, Saudi Arabia and Israel and in the Sept. 11 plot. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man charged in the United States in the 9/11 attacks, and Richard C. Reid, the convicted shoe bomber, both prayed at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. The mosque's former leader, Abu Hamza al-Masri, openly preached violence for years before the authorities arrested him in April 2004.

Although Britain has passed a series of anti-terrorist and immigration laws and made nearly 800 arrests since Sept. 11, 2001, critics have charged that its deep tradition of civil liberties and protection of political activists have made the country a haven for militants. The British government has drawn particular criticism from other countries over its refusal to extradite suspects, including one man who was convicted for his role in the deadly Casablanca attacks in 2003.

For years, there was a widely held belief that Britain's tolerance helped stave off Islamic attacks at home. But the anger of London's militant clerics turned on Britain after it offered unabashed support for the American-led invasion of Iraq. On Thursday morning, an attack long foreseen by worried counterterrorism officials became a reality.

"The terrorists have come home," said a senior intelligence official based in Europe, who works often with British officials. "It is payback time for a policy that was, in my opinion, an irresponsible policy of the British government to allow these networks to flourish inside Britain."

The attacks have heightened the debate here over whether the country needs tougher counterterrorism laws. The British government has resisted the temptation to rush through emergency measures that could curb personal freedoms.

The British home secretary, Charles Clarke, for example, is resisting calls for new legislative measures and on Friday argued that the imposition of a personal identity card system would not have prevented the attacks.

Even Queen Elizabeth has weighed in. In unusual remarks Friday to the staff of a hospital where some of the wounded were being treated, she said, "Those who perpetuate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life."

Investigators examining Thursday's attacks are pursuing a theory that the bombers were part of a homegrown sleeper cell, which might or might not have had foreign support for the bomb-making phase of the operation.

If that theory is true, it would reflect the evolution of militant groups around Europe. With many members of al-Qaida's hierarchy having been captured and killed, a new, more nimble threat has emerged across Europe, mostly through semiautonomous, al-Qaida-inspired local groups that are believed to be operating in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and other countries.

"Terrorists are not strangers, foreigners," said Bruno Lemaire, councilor to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of France. "They're insiders, well integrated inside the country."

Another senior intelligence official, based in Europe, said the fear was that there would be additional attacks in other European cities by homegrown sleeper cells that are inspired by al-Qaida and by the attacks in Casablanca, Madrid and now London.

"This is exactly what we are going to witness in Europe: Most of the attacks will be carried out by local groups, the people who have been here for a long time, well integrated into the fabric of society," the official said.

Well before Thursday's bombings, British officials predicted an attack in their country. In a speech in October 2003, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, said she saw "no prospect of a significant reduction in the threat posed to the U.K. and its interests from Islamist terrorism over the next five years and, I fear, for a considerable number of years thereafter."

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