MARK CROSS, England -- A former Catholic orphanage that now serves as a decrepit Islamic school was searched by police yesterday as authorities announced 16 arrests in an investigation of possible terrorist retreats and recruitment in the wooded English countryside.
Officers sealed off the Victorian-era, 100-room institution and its sprawling 54 acres of grounds at dawn, hours after they arrested 14 suspects during a raid on a Chinese restaurant in south London frequented by Muslim patrons.
Two others were arrested in the city of Manchester in what police said was a "preplanned, intelligence-led" operation that followed months of surveillance by police and the MI-5 intelligence services. Searches of homes were under way at homes of the suspects throughout both cities.
All 16 detainees, who were not identified, were arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
Police said the sweep had no connection to an alleged plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners that was behind more than two dozen arrests last month or the bombings on the London transport system in July 2005.
The latest arrests were not connected to any imminent plot, authorities said. Rather, the raids were an attempt to advance anti-terrorism efforts by catching those planning and recruiting in Britain, focusing on young Muslims who might be drawn into networks of militants through outdoor activity programs set in secluded woodlands.
The Jameah Islameah school run by a Muslim charity in this rural village of East Sussex, in southeast England, was providing a Quranic education to about a dozen youths and also served as a retreat center where Muslims could stay for the weekend after Friday prayers, police and neighbors said.
In Britain, as in France and Italy, militant groups have long used camping trips, outdoor sports and wilderness activities as a cover for recruiting, radicalizing and training followers, according to European anti-terror officials. The training in Europe has tended to center on physical conditioning and martial arts rather than firearms or explosives.
Recruiters use outdoor excursions to promote bonding and to screen for promising prospects, who are sometimes sent on for terrorist and combat training at foreign camps, particularly in Pakistan, said a British law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation.
"It's not unusual within Muslim communities for quite large groups to go on camping trips and team-building activities," said the official, who requested anonymity because police were not authorized to discuss the investigation. "But the thinking is that extremist groups use this for talent-spotting. ... This could be the background on how people get from the U.K. to the training regime."
Investigators are primarily interested in the activities that have gone on in the wooded areas surrounding the campus in Sussex, the official said.
The concern is not new. The investigation of last year's July 7 transport bombings focused public attention on this trend because of published photos of the bombers taking a whitewater rafting excursion. Moreover, al Muhajiron and other British militant groups have conducted outdoor and survival excursions as part of their radicalization process, experts said.
Once the site of a Catholic orphanage and junior seminary, then a ballet academy, the rambling, ornate old facility was transferred to the Jameatul-Uloum-al-Islameyah charity in 1992, according to government records. Its declared purpose was teaching young Muslims to become teachers and assistant imams.
The most recent spending records, for 2003, showed that it had earned $86,073 and spent $84,392.
Neighbors and government school inspectors said the facility has fallen into disrepair, and teachers and students do not mix much with the community.
In an interview with London's Sunday Express, school proprietor Bilal Patel said radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, sentenced in February to seven years in prison for inciting murder and racial hatred, had once booked a school camping weekends for himself and about 15 followers.
A government inspection of the school in December 2005 found that nine boys from 12 to 15 were enrolled in a curriculum that was deficient in most areas except science and Islamic studies.
The arrests in London were part of the same investigation but it was not clear whether any of the detainees had any connection to the school or were suspected of having used the school or other facilities for recruiting or training purposes.
Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella write for the Los Angeles Times.