By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 3, 2006
LONDON, Sept. 2 -- Authorities arrested 16 people early Saturday in two unrelated anti-terrorism operations in London and Manchester, reflecting growing concern over the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism in Britain.
The larger operation, in London, resulted in the arrests of 14 suspects, including some who were seized when police raided a Chinese restaurant south of the Thames River. Scores of police officers backed by helicopters also searched the 54-acre grounds of an Islamic school in a village southeast of London.
Police said the arrests of two suspects in Manchester were unrelated to the London arrests.
Officials said neither operation was connected to the investigation of an alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound airliners, in which police arrested 25 suspects last month -- 15 of whom have been charged with terror-related offenses -- nor to the probe into the July 2005 attacks on the London public transportation system in which 52 passengers and four bombers were killed.
Saturday's arrests, which police said followed "many months of surveillance and investigation," come as British authorities are becoming increasingly worried about the threat of attacks from Islamic extremists born and raised in Britain. British media, citing unidentified sources, reported the arrests were related to the alleged recruitment and training of people for participation in extremist attacks; police would not comment on those reports.
"What we've learned since 9/11 is that the threat is not something that's simply coming from overseas into the United Kingdom," Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch, said in an interview with the BBC, excerpts of which were carried in the British media Saturday. "What we've learned, and what we've seen all too murderously, is that we have a threat which is being generated here within the United Kingdom."
Clarke said Scotland Yard and the MI5 domestic security service were not focusing surveillance efforts on a few violent extremists but on a much wider slice of the community.
"The numbers of people who we have to be interested in are into the thousands," he said. "That includes a whole range of people, not just terrorists, not just attackers, but the people who might be tempted to support or encourage or to assist."
The London operation began about 10 p.m. Friday, when more than 50 armed police officers wearing helmets and protective gear entered the Bridge to China Town restaurant, owner Medhi Belyani said in a telephone interview. Belyani said that the police entered peacefully and that he did not recall seeing guns drawn.
Belyani said police approached about 15 men and two boys who were sitting at a table eating. Police sealed off the restaurant, ordered him to close down the kitchen and did not allow anyone in or out. He said about 10 or 15 other customers were in the restaurant at the time.
Police questioned the 15 men individually at the table, he said.
Belyani said some of the men, who appeared to range in age from about 25 to 40, were wearing traditional Muslim dress. Police said the 14 suspects arrested in London ranged in age from 17 to 48. The restaurant is located near London South Bank University, which has a large number of Muslim students. The restaurant, which serves meat prepared in a halal manner and no alcohol, is popular with Muslim customers, Belyani said.
Belyani said he did not recognize any of the men who were questioned. After about two hours, he said, police led the men out. He said they were not handcuffed; he was unsure how many were arrested.
Police said they were also searching at least 10 properties in London as part of the operation.
Saturday morning in Mark Cross, a village of about 200 to 300 residents, scores of police began searching the building and grounds of Jameah Islameah, a school described on its Web site as a training facility for Islamic teachers. Government education officials described it as a private secondary school for boys ages 11 to 16 and said that just nine pupils are enrolled there.
Police did not comment on what they were looking for or how the school was connected to the arrests in London.
Photos on the Jameah Islameah site show a vast Victorian-style central building and about a dozen other structures, including a church building, amid green fields. In addition to offering teacher-training and boarding facilities, the school also makes its grounds available for camping, the Web site said.
Nick Benson, chairman of the Village Association in Mark Cross, said that buildings on the site date to 1875 and that over the years it has been a Catholic girls orphanage, a school for boys and a training center for Catholic priests. Benson said the site was bought by a ballet school in 1970 but then lay virtually unused for many years.
Benson said in a phone interview that residents became aware the property had changed hands in 1993 when a sign saying Jameah Islameah appeared at the front gate.
Government education officials issued a report on the school in January concluding after an inspection that the school "does not provide a satisfactory education for its pupils." The report, by the Office for Standards in Education, found that the school's curriculum and teacher quality were inadequate and its facilities were in poor condition.
The Sunday Express newspaper reported last Sunday that Abu Hamza Masri, a radical Muslim preacher who was convicted in February of inciting racial hatred and sentenced to seven years in prison, once spent a weekend camping at the school with about 15 followers. Bilal Patel, the school's head, said that he told Hamza not to return "because he was so strange" and that he gave local police a letter Hamza had given him outlining his views, the newspaper reported. Patel said MI5 agents later questioned him about Hamza.
Messages left on the school's answering machine on Saturday were not returned.