In London, Islamic Radicals Found a Haven

Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident in Britain, allegedly gave money to al Qaeda.
Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident in Britain, allegedly gave money to al Qaeda. (By Richard Lewis -- Associated Press)
By Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 10, 2005

LONDON, July 9 -- On the morning after bombs ripped through the London Underground and crumpled a double-decker bus, four security guards escorted a one-eyed, Egyptian-born cleric, his arms amputated below the elbows from Afghan war injuries, onto the elevated dock of Courtroom No. 1 in Old Bailey, the capital's principal criminal court.

Abu Hamza Masri, for years a blood-curdling preacher at a North London mosque allegedly visited by shoe bomber Richard Reid and hijacker trainee Zacarias Moussaoui, listened silently Friday as his lawyer argued about his indictment last January on nine counts of incitement to murder for speeches that allegedly promoted mass violence against non-Muslims. In one speech cited in a British documentary film, Masri urged followers to get an infidel "and crush his head in your arms, so you can wring his throat. Forget wasting a bullet, cut them in half!"

Masri's case is just one of several dozen that describe the venom, sprawling shape and deep history of al Qaeda and related extremist groups in London. Osama bin Laden opened a political and media office here as far back as 1994; it closed four years later when his local lieutenant, Khalid Fawwaz, was arrested for aiding al Qaeda's attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa.

As bin Laden's ideology of making war on the West spread in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, London became "the Star Wars bar scene" for Islamic radicals, as former White House counterterrorism official Steven Simon called it, attracting a polyglot group of intellectuals, preachers, financiers, arms traders, technology specialists, forgers, travel organizers and foot soldiers.

Today, al Qaeda and its offshoots retain broader connections to London than to any other city in Europe, according to evidence from terrorist prosecutions. Evidence shows at least a supporting connection to London groups or individuals in many of the al Qaeda-related attacks of the past seven years. Among them are the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the assassination of Afghan militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001; outer rings of the Sept. 11 conspiracy, involving Moussaoui and the surveillance of financial targets in Washington and New York; Reid's attempted shoe bomb attack in December 2001; and the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

The evidence in these and other cases describes al Qaeda connections here as remarkably diverse, ranging from the core organization's early formation through its phase of elaborately planned global strikes between 1999 and 2001, to its more recent period of diffuse franchises and younger volunteers to an attack this week that authorities here said bears al Qaeda's stamp. In the 1980s and 1990s, between 300 and 600 British citizens passed through Afghan training camps, officials here have acknowledged. Today, several recent cases suggest the seeding of a new generation of British residents who traveled as volunteers to fight with the insurgency in Iraq.

On June 15, 2002, at an Islamic community center in Milan, Italy, a cleric with alleged ties to al Qaeda was overheard in conversation with an Arab from Germany, according to a transcript of the wiretap later published in Italy. The Arab spoke of his 10-person cell in Germany and the group's "interest" in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and France. "But the nerve center is still London," he reported.

Ambiguous Policies

A refuge and hub for Middle Eastern dissidents since the 19th century imperial era, the city has more recently attracted Islamic radicals with connections to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, the Persian Gulf and Pakistan. London's radical fringe draws in part from the alienated edges of Britain's large and overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim immigrant population. But it has been influenced, too, by Britain's ambiguous policies toward exiled radicals, a sometimes awkward blend of asylum offers, intelligence collection and criminal prosecution.

Masri, for instance, received asylum in Britain from Egypt in the late '70s and British citizenship in 1981. He volunteered to fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s, then returned to Britain to preach justifications for violence against those he perceived to be Islam's enemies. Throughout, Masri met periodically with Britain's intelligence services and anti-terrorism police, who were investigating his activities. The government moved to strip him of citizenship, but only in late 2004 did the Crown Prosecution Service conclude it had enough evidence to bring criminal charges, even though some of the speeches it relied on had taken place years before.

"We're not an investigative authority. We can only review evidence brought to us by the police," said a spokesman for the prosecutors, explaining the delay. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Masri's case is scheduled for trial soon. "There must be a sufficient chance of successful conviction" before charges will be filed.

Radical Islamic exiles value London as a base in part because "the legal system is quite stable and it cannot be influenced by politicians or by public opinion," said Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of providing financial support to al Qaeda because of his alleged role in the 1998 purchase of a satellite phone used by bin Laden.

Faqih said he had no connection to al Qaeda or to violence and that his primary focus was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family through political advocacy and organizing. His British assets have been frozen because of the U.S. Treasury designation, but Faqih has not been charged criminally here. On Thursday, a previously unknown group calling itself the Secret Organization of al Qaeda in Europe asserted responsibility for the London bombings in a posting on a radical Islamic Web site allegedly connected to Faqih; he denied running the site, a bulletin board with the Arabic name for fortress that was registered just a week after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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