Britain moves to forestall violence

Proposals include outlawing `hate speech' in mosques

Indian-born Briton is tied to bombers

July 21, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - In the aftermath of the bombings of London's transit system, British officials are considering criminalizing "hate speech" in mosques, barring "fomenters of terrorism" from entering the country and loosening the rules for the government to eavesdrop on phone conversations and computer messages.

Britain's three major political parties, divided on civil rights grounds over such measures before the attacks July 7, agree that some version of the proposals is needed to make Britain safer.

But almost no one seems to believe that those measures - or anything else proposed - will make Britain safe.

Meanwhile, a Briton of Indian descent who reportedly had telephone contacts with the four London transit system bombers just before the attacks was arrested yesterday in Pakistan, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The arrest of Haroon Rashid Aswat appeared to be a major break in the investigation of the bombings because he could tie the events directly to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even though the four bombers were British citizens.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, his minister in charge of domestic security and top law enforcement officials at Scotland Yard continue to say - as they did before the bombings, which killed 56 people including the bombers and injured more than 700 - that Britain remains a prime target for attacks.

Across Europe, as borders are tightened and intelligence forces are enhanced, there is widespread agreement on this: There is only so much that can be done to ward off attacks, and new attacks are nearly inevitable.

"It's one thing to make some arrests or for the threat to lessen simply because an attack has just occurred, so there's one less bullet in the chamber, if you will," said Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. "But a substantial threat remains."

He continued, "Will there be another major attack in Britain or some other Western country next month or within the next year? I don't know. Is another attack inevitable? I'm afraid I'd say that yes, it's inevitable."

In the days after the bombings, while London mourned its dead and police investigated how the bombings occurred, focus in Britain was understandably on how the bombers - four British-born Muslims - succeeded in targeting three subway trains and a bus.

Only in recent days has serious discussion begun on why they might have done it.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs (which also goes by the name Chatham House) reported this week that Britain's alliance with the United States in the war in Iraq had increased the country's risk, a conclusion rejected by Blair.

Government officials acknowledged this week that security and intelligence officials had said in the month before the transit attacks that "events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK."

Blair has argued that extremists will point to any action by the West to justify their violence. The attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred well before any action in Afghanistan or Iraq was contemplated, he said.

He met Tuesday with 25 Muslim leaders the government considers moderates and whom he appointed to a task force to "tackle Muslim extremism head-on," telling them that for the sake of their religion, self-policing should begin in earnest.

But experts on terrorism warn that any clampdown too hard, too fast on too broad a group could backfire, pushing some Muslims toward greater radicalism by creating an "us versus them" atmosphere in Britain.

"The self-policing is all fine, but the type of young Muslim men who might be inclined to join in the violence really don't care anything about what the established clergy has to say, and they're certainly not going to react well to what they see as harassment, when they've really done nothing wrong," said Steven Simon, a counterterrorism analyst at the RAND Corp.

"The number one way to combat this is to not make more enemies," he said. "There are real risks in doing that, and treating some of the more marginal population as enemies can make them actual enemies, actually driving them to violence rather than away from it."

Poverty, segregation from mainstream society and an absence of a sense of potential are common among young Muslims who turn violent, experts say, and - to a degree - the London bombers fit that profile.

They lived in a rough area of the northern England city of Leeds, and though none lived in abject poverty, all were surrounded by large numbers of Muslims well down on Britain's economic ladder.

Blair's government has pumped millions of dollars in recent years into programs that have benefited Muslims as much as any immigrant group, with community centers and jobs, but that has not brought large numbers into the mainstream.

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