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For Britain's Muslims, a Fear Realized

By Glenn Frankel and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 14, 2005

LONDON, July 13 -- Britain's security services, politicians and Muslim community leaders responded with anger and dismay Wednesday to what some Muslims called their worst nightmare: the disclosure that the four suspected killers in the London transit explosions were homegrown Islamic suicide bombers.

Newspapers published copies of the birth certificate of one of the men, Shehzad Tanweer, 22, emphasizing that he and his alleged co-conspirators were British born and raised. Security analysts said the fact that the men apparently had no criminal records and appeared in no intelligence file would make it harder to track down their network before it struck again.

Leaders of the country's 1.6 million-member Muslim community engaged in some public soul-searching over how it was that young men of relatively well-off backgrounds became so alienated from society and so fanatical that they allegedly carried out bombings that killed at least 52 people and injured 700. They noted that more than 100 incidents of threats and attacks, including the killing of one Muslim, have been reported since the bombings.

"People in the community are agonizing and asking, 'What could we have done to prevent this?' " said Azzam Tamimi, a leader of the Muslim Association of Britain, who called the prospect of British suicide bombers a nightmare scenario. "We've been working very hard over the past four to five years liaising with the authorities . . . with various agencies organizing and supervising youth activities. And still this has happened."

The suspects carried such identification as credit cards and driver's licenses to the scene of the attacks. Investigators believe they wanted to be identified as the bombers and were determined to die, even though they had sophisticated timing devices and could have set off the explosives without being present.

"It was almost gratuitous suicide, and in many ways that's the worst aspect of this whole thing," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College London. "Most of the effort in terrorism goes toward planning an escape afterward, and suicide bombers don't have to do that."

Clarke and other analysts said the bombers must have had outside support in planning the attack, obtaining the high explosives used, organizing the logistics and maintaining strong ideological commitment.

"It's clear they had a big support network and one that has managed to function without creating any chatter that the security services picked up," Clarke said. "And almost certainly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. They can strike again."

Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Muslim members of Parliament in the morning and then announced to the House of Commons that his government would propose legislation in coming months aimed at criminalizing the incitement of hatred and terrorism. Blair said he also wanted to strengthen the government's powers to bar alleged inciters from entering Britain and to deport noncitizens engaged in such activities.

But Blair added: "I think we all know that security measures alone are not going to deal with this. This is not an isolated criminal act -- it is an extreme and evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam."

Shahid Malik, a member of Parliament from Dewsbury, a suburb south of Leeds where one of the suspected bombers lived, told the House of Commons that the disclosure of their identities posed "the most profound challenge yet faced by the British Muslim community."

"This is a defining moment for this country," he added. "Condemnation is not enough, and British Muslims must, and I believe are prepared to, confront the voices of evil head on."

Several mosques have been damaged, and there have been more than 100 incidents of threats and attacks against Muslims since the July 7 bombings, although community leaders reported no upsurge in attacks Wednesday. The worst incident took place Sunday when a Pakistani man was beaten to death by young men in Nottingham, in the Midlands region north of London.

Police said Kamal Raza Butt, 48, who was visiting friends and family, was set upon outside a shop by black youths who demanded he turn over his cigarettes, taunted him as a "Taliban" and then attacked him. Nine people have been arrested in connection with the killing.

"In the wake of the atrocities, people are very apprehensive," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. "We saw even before Tuesday a stream of attacks on mosques and on people. We just hope the strong denunciations by mainstream Muslim bodies and the commendable efforts of police are enough to minimize the backlash."

Ordinary Muslims cited Butt's death as a reason for fear in the community. Outside the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, Sonora Hajai, 41, a homemaker born in Somalia, said that "everybody's afraid," whether Muslim or not, both because of the bombings and the backlash. She said she was considering removing the head scarves of her two daughters, ages 7 and 9, to reduce the risk of attack.

The Finsbury Park mosque, once a hotbed of radicalism and a recruitment center for volunteers sent to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been returned to its original overseers, moderates who say they have strong support among area residents and worshipers. On the railing of the adjoining Muslim Center hung a banner: "Muslims for Peace. United in condemning terrorism. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families."

It included a Koran verse often cited by Muslims in condemning terrorism: "Whoever kills an innocent soul, it is as if he killed the whole of mankind."

Muhammad Abdul Bari, chairman of the prominent East London Mosque in a heavily Muslim part of town, used midday prayers to announce confirmation of the death of 20-year-old Shahara Islam, who was killed on a bombed double-decker bus as she traveled to her job as a bank cashier. She was the first confirmed Muslim fatality.

Bari urged the faithful to go about their normal lives. "He told us, 'Put your head up and walk the street like a free man,' " said Reza Choudhury, a 26-year-old unemployed man of Bangladeshi descent.

Several young people insisted that the British government was behind the attacks. Others accepted that they were carried out by Muslims. Shamin Khan, a 24-year-old student of Pakistani origin, condemned the bombings, and violence in general, but said Muslims were daily being oppressed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and killed in Iraq, and were understandably angry.

"People are asking why are other Muslims getting killed, how come no one does anything about that?" he said. The bombings "are happening because of oppression against Muslims," he added. "People have no choice -- they're fighting for freedom."

If police are correct, the attacks constitute the first Islamic suicide bombings in Western Europe. But Britons have engaged in suicide operations elsewhere. Richard C. Reid was imprisoned for life in the United States for trying to detonate explosives lodged in his shoes aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. In 2003, two others attacked Mike's Place, a Tel Aviv bar, killing three people. One of the attackers died in the explosion; the other's body was found in the sea 12 days later.

Tamimi, a Palestinian academic, said he presumed that the suspected bombers -- like the previous attackers -- were angry over the war in Iraq, Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories and a host of other issues.

"First you have to have anger -- ideology on its own doesn't do this," he said, referring to the subway and bus bombings. "And I am angry too -- but we don't do this. The first principle of Islam is we don't kill innocent people."

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