The key suspects in last month's botched bombings in London were charged with attempted murder Monday in their first court appearances, while a prominent radical Islamic cleric left the country claiming that "war has been declared against Muslims" in Britain.
Muktar Said Ibrahim, Ramzi Mohammed and Yasin Hassan Omar, who police say carried backpacks filled with explosives onto subway trains and a city bus on July 21, appeared before a judge amid extremely high security at Belmarsh prison in southeast London. The three men were ordered held until a hearing on Nov. 14, when they will enter pleas on charges that include conspiracy and explosives offenses.
Ibrahim, 27, is a refugee from Eritrea who came to Britain when he was 14. Omar, 24, came to Britain at age 11 as a refugee from Somalia. Mohammed, 23, was also born in Somalia, according to media reports. A fourth suspected bomber, Isaac Hamdi, is in custody in Rome, where he was arrested after allegedly fleeing following the attacks. British authorities are seeking his extradition. Hamdi, 27, is a naturalized British citizen born in Ethiopia.
The July 21 attempted bombings came exactly two weeks after the July 7 attack on three subway trains and a bus that killed 56 people, including the four presumed bombers, and injured 700 others. No one was killed in the July 21 plot because the bombs failed to detonate. Police have said the attacks resulted in the most extensive criminal investigation in British history.
Also Monday, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed flew to Lebanon in the face of Prime Minister Tony Blair's recently announced crackdown on those who support or incite terrorism in Britain, the cleric's spokesman, Anjem Choudary, said in an interview. "He left because, as a Muslim, you have to go to a place where you can practice your religion and your life is protected," Choudary said, adding that "war was on the lips of Tony Blair."
Bakri, who has publicly said he would not tell police if he knew of a planned bomb attack in Britain, has come under intense scrutiny since Friday, when Blair said he would ban the cleric's Islamic organization, al-Muhajiroun, and any of its successors. Some legal analysts had said they believed Bakri could be prosecuted for treason under Blair's proposed legal reforms, although government officials played down that possibility. Choudary decried as "trash journalism" an article this week in the Sunday Times that said one of its reporters, posing as a recruit to Bakri's group, heard Bakri calling the July 7 bombers "the fantastic four."
"The sheik is a great scholar and a great man, and that's not the kind of language the sheik employs," Choudary said. He accused the government and the media of "demonizing" Bakri.
"They've made him into a bogeyman," the spokesman said. "But the blame for the carnage of 7/7 must be laid at the feet of Tony Blair and British foreign policy."
Also in court this morning was Manfo Kwaku Asiedu, 32, who was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and explosives offenses. Police believe that he was the fifth bomber in the July 21 plot and that he abandoned a backpack containing an unexploded bomb in a west London park. Police have not publicly explained Asiedu's alleged role in the bombings, or why they believe he left the explosives in the park.
Three other men charged with helping the suspected bombers or failing to help the police appeared in court Monday. They pleaded not guilty.
Also Monday, a U.S. prosecutor appeared in a London courtroom to argue for the extradition of an alleged al Qaeda operative who was apprehended in Zambia in connection with the London bombings probe.
An indictment unsealed in New York alleges that Haroon Rashid Aswat, 31, provided material support to a terrorist organization by helping in an attempt to set up a "jihad training camp" in rural Oregon in 1999. The six-page indictment makes no mention of the London bombing plots.
Police had said they were investigating whether Aswat made cell phone calls to some of the July 7 bombers. However, U.S. officials have said more recently that Aswat was no longer thought to be linked to the bombings and that the Justice Department was seeking his extradition on the camp charges.
Aswat's attorney told the British court that his client would contest the extradition and denied any connection to terrorism, according to news reports.
Since the July 7 bombings, British authorities have said repeatedly that they had no intelligence that Islamic radicals were planning any attack on London. Britain had lowered its terrorist threat level in June, from "severe-defined" to "substantial."
The French newspaper Le Figaro reported Monday that French intelligence services had issued a report shortly before the bombings saying that al Qaeda was planning an attack on London using operatives within Britain's Pakistani community. Officials at Scotland Yard, the British police agency, declined to comment Monday.
"The United Kingdom remains threatened by plans decided at the highest level of al Qaeda," the report said, according to Le Figaro. "They will be carried out by agents who will take advantage of the pro-jihad sympathies within the large Pakistani community in the United Kingdom."
While that report apparently turned out to be accurate -- three of the four suspected bombers in the July 7 attack were Britons of Pakistani origin -- one intelligence analyst in London said the French report did not appear to add anything to what British intelligence officials knew at the time.
"It doesn't look to me to be a particularly specific piece of information," said Shane Brighton, an intelligence specialist with the Royal United Services Institute, a private research group. "Elements within the Pakistani community are well-known to have links to al Qaeda. So this isn't saying anything that wasn't known already."
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington and special correspondent Erika Lorentzsen in Paris contributed to this report.