Jihad in London
|RANDY QUAN FOR THE TORONTO STAR|
|A masked member of Abu Hamza al-Masri's entourage keeps an eye on media and police observing the radical cleric's incendiary Friday sermon on the street outside the shut-down Finsbury Park mosque.|
Muslims fear backlash as police intensify crackdown to thwart 'inevitable' terrorist strike in Britain
A hooded muezzin calls out in the middle of the road, and worshippers gather.
They've been praying outside for more than a year, since the mosque was shut down after a police raid. They don't have a permit, but police block traffic nonetheless.
Then come the enforcers, swaggering to and fro as they prepare the way for Abu Hamza al-Masri, the cleric the British government accuses of inspiring terrorists.
"Yo! Yo! No pictures," a man with a headscarf covering all but his eyes shouts to a photographer.
Other bodyguards bark at worshippers not to talk to reporters.
A hulk of a man, dressed all in black, tells police that a TV cameraman is too close to where his leader soon will be standing.
The road is a public space, an officer says.
"You don't want to have a bad day," the man in black replies. "You have your rules, we have our Islamic rules."
The cameraman is moved back.
It's a balmy spring day and 100 worshippers stand barefoot on blue plastic sheets spread out on the road.
Music that clearly isn't part of the program blares from an apartment overlooking the street.
So, when Hamza finally appears wearing a black turban and microphone, it's to the incongruous sounds of rap.
"Seek the way of death," he says in English, his voice booming through loudspeakers.
"Try to do actions that subject you to death ... because you would love to go to paradise.
"You would love to meet your Lord."
He then attacks what he calls the "racist" state of Israel and accuses Jews and Zionists of "controlling all the banks."
The Zionists, he adds, kill Palestinian children and steal Palestinian land.
He shifts to Iraq, where he says "explosions" targeting U.S. soldiers are the work of Muslims who "love death" and defend their land.
"All of these people, they are keen to die honourably, for the sake of God, for the sake of religion. It's a culture we are proud of," he declares.
"Our beloved Prophet said if you die to defend your religion, you are a martyr. If you die to defend your honour, you are a martyr. If you die to defend your property, you are a martyr," he bellows.
"So die honourably. Don't die humiliated."
With his one eye and metal hooks for hands, 44-year-old Hamza has become the notorious public symbol for what police insist is a growing terrorist threat on British soil.
Again on Friday, a top police official described a strike by extremists against Britain as "inevitable."
"I think there are people out there that wish us harm, and I think they will continue to wish us harm for some time to come," said James Hart, police commissioner for the City of London.
Long accused of turning a deaf ear to locally based, Al Qaeda-linked extremists, British police are intensifying a crackdown that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
But mainstream community leaders among Britain's 2 million Muslims detect a backlash.
Heavy-handed police tactics, they charge, are pushing Muslim youths into the arms of extremists.
"They have alienated a large segment of the Muslim community because of the police action," says Inayat Bunglawala, whose Muslim Council for Britain meets regularly with Home Secretary David Blunkett.
The crackdown is a far cry from pre-Sept. 11 days, when French authorities coined the term "Londonistan" and accused Britain of striking an implicit pact with extremists: Don't bomb us; we won't bother you.
The British tradition of granting asylum, and London's role as a hub for international banking and the world's media, made the city a magnet for exiles and radicals across the Middle East.
It became a money-laundering centre for extremist activities abroad. But British residents could not be prosecuted for planning attacks outside the country until the Terrorism Act of 2000.
By 1994, Osama bin Laden had established a "media office" in London under the control of his associate, Khalid al Fawwaz. It operated freely until 1998, when Fawwaz and two Egyptian associates were arrested under U.S. extradition warrants linking them to the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
All three remain in jail while waging legal battles against extradition.
By 1994, London was also the home of a leading preacher of radical Islam, Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada. A Spanish judge describes him as Al Qaeda's spiritual ambassador in Europe.
Police estimate that up to 1,000 British Muslims were recruited during the past few years to fight for the deposed Taliban regime in Afghanistan or to train in Al Qaeda camps.
At the Finsbury Park mosque, where police suspect some recruiting took place, worshippers included Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of intending to be the 20th airplane hijacker on Sept. 11, and Richard Reid, convicted of trying to explode a shoe bomb on a U.S.-bound flight from Paris.
A BBC poll in December, 2002, indicated that 8 per cent of Muslims surveyed believed Al Qaeda would be justified in launching terrorist attacks in Britain.
Recently, Sir John Stevens, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, spoke of a "definite link" between Islamic extremists in the United Kingdom and the cell that carried out the March 11 train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid.
The U.K. crackdown began with a post-Sept. 11 law that allows suspected terrorist who are not British citizens to be held indefinitely without charge.
A dozen are behind bars, including Abu Qatada, all being held under conditions described by Amnesty International as "cruel, inhuman and degrading."
Bunglawala says he recognizes that Britain is a terrorist target. His council and other Muslim groups have even drafted action plans in the event of an attack to confront an expected rise in "Islamophobia."
In March, the council sent a letter to imams of Britain's 1,000 mosques, asking them to report to police any activities that suggest a terrorist threat.
The letter was written after eight London-area men were arrested and linked to half a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that can be used for bombs. In Ottawa, Canadian software specialist Momin Khawaja was arrested in connection with the alleged plot.
Thousands of British Muslims have had their homes searched or been randomly stopped and questioned.
Bunglawala accuses police of casting wide arrest nets in fishing expeditions. But a spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers says some of the most valuable information about suspected terrorists comes from within the Muslim community.
LONDON—On Fridays, in front of north London's Finsbury Park mosque, what begins as a call to prayer ends up sounding like a battle cry to jihad, or holy war.
"We're not targeting Muslims, we're targeting terrorists," he says.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, 572 people have been arrested for suspected terrorism offences.
Of those, 97 were charged with such offences and 289 were released without charge. The rest were charged with crimes not related to terrorism, including violating immigration laws.
Only six people have been convicted of terrorist-related activities, two of them non-Muslims.
The arrests are accompanied by frightening media tales of would-be terror attacks that fuel distrust of Muslims. But releases generally go unmentioned, fuelling a sense of injustice among Muslims.
Last week, all 10 people arrested a week earlier — headlines had them preparing a chemical attack on a Manchester United soccer game — were released without terrorism charges.
High-profile arrests in alleged plots to release poison gas in the London subway, and to use ricin in a chemical weapons attack, resulted only in convictions for fake passports.
A story still discussed widely in the community is of a 29-year-old London-area Muslim whose home was raided by police last December. He claims he was handcuffed prostrate in his prayer room and repeatedly beaten while laughing officers asked, "Where is your God now?"
He was released without charge seven days later. The Police Complaints Authority is investigating his claims.
Exacerbating anger is Britain's close alliance with the United States on Iraq and in Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
Last month, when U.S. soldiers assaulted the besieged Iraqi-rebel stronghold of Falluja, Bunglawala was stunned to see 15 gruesome pictures of the battle's victims posted on the bulletin board of his London-area mosque.
Printed from the Al-Jazeera TV Web site, they showed bloodied corpses, mostly of women and children, from a battle that has killed at least 600 Iraqis.
Young men crowding around the pictures were livid, Bunglawala says, and called on God to help the Falluja resistance.
They railed against a perceived Western double standard: Arab attacks against occupying forces in Iraq and Palestinian territories are terrorism, but attacks by U.S. or Israeli soldiers against Arabs are in the name of democracy and self-defence.
Radicals such as Omar Bakri Mohammad, another London cleric, exploit this sentiment to recruit Muslims to their cause, Bunglawala says.
Bakri's influence is being questioned in a trial that began Monday in connection with the first British citizens to become suicide bombers.
On April 30, 2003, 21-year-old Asif Hanif blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv bar, killing three people and injuring 65.
With him was Omar Sharif, 27, who ran away after his bomb belt failed to detonate. Sharif was found mysteriously drowned in the Mediterranean 12 days later.
Sharif's sister, 36-year-old Parveen, is charged with inciting her brother to commit the act, while his wife and his brother are charged with failing to disclose information that might have prevented the bombing.
All pleaded not guilty.
Sharif was the youngest of six university-educated children, all born in Britain to Pakistani parents.
He made three trips to Damascus to study Arabic and the Qur'an, lived in west London and had three children, one a 7-week-old daughter, at the time of his death.
On April 10, he and Hanif had travelled to Damascus. Two days later, they used their British passports to enter Israel. Before carrying out their suicide mission in the name of the Palestinian group Hamas, Sharif sent e-mails to his family back home.
To his wife, he wrote: "We did not spend a long time together in this world, but I hope through Allah's mercy and your patience we can spend an eternity together."
He asked her to pray that Allah "makes me sincere, firm and that he accepts my actions."
His sister e-mailed him: "Stay focused and determined. You have no time for emotions."
After the attack, police searching Sharif's house found material from Al Mahajiroun, a radical group founded and led by Bakri.
Bakri admits to knowing Sharif, but denies any knowledge of his bombing plans.
The material in Sharif's house included notes his wife made of a Bakri lecture entitled: "What the West refers to as suicide bombings, which we refer to as Martyrdom Operations."
Ten days ago, Bakri gave a similar lecture, in English, to 50 young men in a community centre in east London.
The audience sat enthralled as the rotund sheikh delivered a talk with the rhetorical flare of a Baptist preacher. At the sound of key phrases, or the name of Osama bin Laden, they shouted in unison: "God is great."
"He is a great man for me," says Bakri, 45, referring to bin Laden.
Bakri was born into an affluent family in Syria, moved to Saudi Arabia and fled to Britain in 1986 after hearing he was to be arrested for preaching jihad at university campuses. He has been granted indefinite leave to stay.
He claims there are 1,000 members in his group, describes the Sept. 11 attacks as "retaliation" for U.S. policy in the Middle East and calls the hijackers who slammed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon "the magnificent 19."
In his lecture, he makes clear that Al Qaeda will strike European cities if bin Laden's recent offer of a truce — in return for foreign troops pulling out of Iraq within three months — isn't accepted.
He insists he doesn't want to see attacks in Britain, although he rejects everything about the country.
"Any Muslim that joins the British army, the police or parliament — he becomes an apostate," says Bakri, who wants to see Britain transformed into an Islamic, Taliban-style state.
"There's no legislator but God. That's why Muslims do not follow, obey or submit to anyone but almighty Allah."
Referring to Tony Blair, he says: "You can call yourself prime minister, but in my eyes you are kuffar" — a non-believer and non-Muslim.
He describes suicide bombers as following the path to paradise, a place where everyone lives in massive palaces. Room after room is filled with beautiful maidens in baths and "rivers of milk and honey" flow everywhere.
His young listeners giggle with eagerness.
Bakri and Hamza controlled the Finsbury Park mosque until its trustees, who opposed the radical clerics, shut it down after the police raid in January, 2003.
The British government now wants Hamza out of the country. At an unprecedented legal hearing to strip the Egyptian-born cleric of his British citizenship last week, government lawyers accused him of harbouring and encouraging terrorists.
Yemen wants him for allegedly planning terrorist attacks there, but the cleric denies terrorist links. He also denies recruiting British Muslims to fight abroad.
He recently told the Star he doesn't want British Muslims to fight in Iraq because that would result in a premature victory against the United States.
Better for U.S. soldiers to stay longer in Iraq, so that more of them will die, he said.
"It's not in the interests of Muslims that Americans go out of Iraq now, because they have to learn lessons harder than Vietnam.
"So, we would like them to stay a bit longer, really."
`Muslims do not follow, obey or submit to anyone but almighty Allah'
Omar Bakri Mohammad, radical cleric