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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)

In an interview, Faqih said he tries to maintain cordial, open relations with British authorities because he believes they are under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States to crack down on his political activities. He said he keeps up "high-level contacts" with the British intelligence services. "I always give them the best I can in terms of advice" about Saudi Arabia and other issues. "The British intelligence -- although they are very effective, they will pick you up very quickly -- they will not trick you into making a mistake" that could lead to criminal prosecution, he said.

Britain's tolerance of exiled dissidents and terrorist sympathizers has sometimes frustrated U.S. officials. U.S. intelligence officers say they respect the sophistication of Britain's intelligence collection among radicals in London, but some question whether its emphasis on monitoring, as opposed to the preemptive disruption often favored by the FBI in the United States, has left the country vulnerable.

"I've been preaching London will get hit long before us," said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject's sensitivity. "They have a critical mass of a group of radicals operating in an open society."

The London Connection

Al Qaeda's London connection began in the early 1990s after Saudi Arabia cracked down on Islamic dissidents, including bin Laden, who had pressured the royal family for political reforms and protested its decision to invite United States forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Dozens of Saudi radicals were imprisoned; some were forced or escaped into exile.

Bin Laden fled to the relative isolation of Sudan, where he nurtured his nascent multinational militia. But other Saudi dissidents sought out London and set up offices from where they peppered the Saudi kingdom with faxes denouncing the royal family. Bin Laden wanted to be part of this, and he dispatched Fawwaz to London to set up the Advice and Reform Committee, which began its own fax pamphleteering aimed at the kingdom, with a special emphasis on bin Laden's ideas.

According to Faqih, who led a rival group, bin Laden and Fawwaz issued 17 communique from London between 1994 and 1996 about "scattered things" such as Saudi corruption and the need for truer adherence to Islamic law. After bin Laden moved to Afghanistan and declared war on the United States in the summer of 1996, Fawwaz stopped publishing, Faqih said, because he feared possible British criminal charges.

Fawwaz set up his al Qaeda branch in the placid North London suburb of Dollis Hill on a street of 1930s Tudor-style houses. Peter Bergen, an author who interviewed bin Laden in the spring of 1998 with Fawwaz's assistance, recalled that Fawwaz described bin Laden as "humble, charming, intelligent, a really significant wealthy chap," Bergen recounted in his book "Holy War, Inc."

After the 1998 embassy bombings, the U.S. used evidence of Fawwaz's logistical and media support for bin Laden to indict him on criminal charges. British police arrested him and two other bin Laden aides in London (nearly seven years later, Fawwaz is still in a high-security London prison with the fight over his extradition pending).

Not all of al Qaeda's top British operatives were rounded up then. Anas Liby, one of bin Laden's computer experts, had continued to live in the northern England city of Manchester even after the U.S. demanded his extradition on charges he participated in setting up the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya. On May 10, 2000, the British police raided Liby's apartment in an area of quiet town houses known as Moss Side. Liby was gone, a fugitive who would eventually have a $25 million reward for his capture offered by the United States.

Left behind on his computer was an al Qaeda training manual that spelled out the organization's tradecraft in 180 pages of chilling detail -- down to the art of killing with "cold steel" and the need, as Liby practiced, to go undercover in the West ("necessity permits the forbidden," the manual counseled, though no necessity could be cited to allow heresies such as drinking wine or fornicating).

Although Britain had harbored many of his lieutenants, bin Laden made clear in a speech not long after the raid why history made the country an implacable enemy. "The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children."

An Indispensable Center

"George Bush has no respect for the Muslim world. This has been designed to make sure he listens," Abu Qatada, a fiery Palestinian who also preached at the Finsbury Park mosque said in a London newspaper immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11. Granted asylum in Britain from Jordan, Qatada has been convicted in absentia of playing a role in an al Qaeda-linked millennium bombing plot there. He is also designated as a terrorist by the U.S. government.

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