Exactly two weeks after London’s July 7 bombings, in which four young Muslims blew themselves up in three subway cars and a bus in Central London, another group of four tried unsuccessfully to detonate bombs in three subway cars and a bus. The leader of the 7/7 cell, Mohammed Sidique Khan, a primary school teacher’s assistant, was associated with British-born suicide or would-be bombers in both Israel and the United States. The “Brigades Abu Hafs al-Masri - Qaida/Jihad--Europe Division”, claimed credit, just as it did following the March 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Much as last year’s assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the Madrid attacks stirred strong emotions throughout Europe, the London attacks, which were both predicted and predictable, led to a reassessment of policy toward the Islamist presence in Britain, which has long served as the key Islamist recruitment and ideological center in the West. While the pattern of the attacks in London was not significantly different from that of other attacks in Europe, such as Madrid (aside from that they represented the first suicide bombings in Europe), the British cultural, legal, and Islamic environments have peculiarities all their own.
With the support of the opposition parties, legislation has now been introduced in the UK that will make it a criminal offense to receive training in terrorist techniques, to commit acts “preparatory to terrorism” (including buying the raw materials for a bomb), and to indirectly incite terrorist acts (this is intended to cover Salafist preachers who condone and incite to violence). “Receiving training in terrorist techniques” is being made an offense based on fears that thousands of young Britons have been to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. It could also cover Britons who look at terrorist websites. This is important, if somewhat late, as in January 2002, British military intelligence found at Tora Bora a list of some 1,200 British citizens who were trained in Bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. The legislation also charges the government with drawing up a list of all Islamic extremists worldwide.
Radical clerics from abroad seeking entry visas will be screened for their ideology (it is not clear how) and required to be conversant in English. In practical terms, Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Qatada, the spiritual mentor of Mohammed Atta, could be expelled. Indeed, arrangements are being made with Jordan, where Abu Qatada was sentenced to life in prison, for the extradition of him and other Jordanian nationals suspected of being involved in or inciting terrorism. Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza is currently on trial and could be extradited to the United States (see below), and London is trying to reach agreements with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia to permit their extremist nationals to be deported from England. Special intelligence “Muslim Contact Units” will be established in areas with large Muslim populations. University administrators are being asked to be more active in dealing with Islamist groups recruiting on campuses. On the other hand, despite political pressures from the opposition to the contrary, the intelligence and security services still oppose the use of evidence from telephone and Internet tapping against suspected terrorists.
For the UK, which has 1.6 million Muslims and 58 million other, mainly Christian, citizens, the generous free speech tradition that allowed extremist clerics to preach hatred and terror is likely to be curbed. As the Financial Times writes, “The attacks have blasted a hole in multiculturalism: the idea that communities with separate identities can live together peacefully, united by the weakest of national ideologies.” While the European press has been expressing consternation about “the enemy within” (Economist), “Kamikazes maison [home-grown kamikazes]” (Le Monde), and the fact that “ordinary boys” could carry out such attacks in their own country, that is precisely the problem: for the terrorists, Britain was not their country but the enemy, or Dar al Harb, “the abode of war” of Islamic thought.
A May 2004 government report found that there were up to 10,000 active Al Qaeda supporters in the UK, while a joint report by the Home and Foreign Offices estimated that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity was “less than 1 percent” of Britain’s Muslim population, which would still be some 16,000. Some are naturalized foreign nationals from North Africa and the Middle East; some are second- and third-generation British citizens of Pakistani or Indian heritage. Many come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or, in the case of those who converted to Islam in adulthood, are ethnic Europeans and West Indians.
A YouGov poll among British Muslims conducted after 7/7 found that 6 percent insist that the bombings were justified. Six percent amounts to about 100,000 individuals. Another 24 percent of respondents did not condone the attacks but had some sympathy with the bombers’ motives. The majority, 56 percent, reported that whether or not they sympathized with the bombers, they could understand why some people might behave this way. Finally, asked whether they agreed or disagreed with Prime Minister Blair's description of the bombers’ ideology as “perverted and poisonous,” 58 percent agreed with him, but a substantial minority, 26 percent, were reluctant to do so.
Age apparently plays a major role in respondents’ answers. One representative young man in Luton, Ali, “dressed in tracksuit bottoms and expensive sunglasses,” told the Independent: “Our parents came here as servants with a Raj mentality. We're not like them. It's not just the BBC and ITV any more. We have al-Jazeera, we have the internet…. If something happens to innocent people in Iraq, the Muslims of Luton will know about it and feel that grief.” On the other hand, a voice from the majority, shop owner Hafi Jameel, age 50, said: “Blowing up a bomb in London is not jihad.... We are British Muslims. We left our homes, our parents, everything, for the future of our children. Why don't these boys go to Karachi where there are bodies lying in the gutter and people are dying of poverty? Why don't they save those people?”
Some of the very British cultural habits that are manifest in the media, politics, and courts unfortunately played a major role in the establishment and development of a well-rooted Islamist micro-environment in Britain. The influential, leftist The Guardian learned after 7/7 that one of its correspondents was a prominent member of Hizb ut Tahrir, a fundamentalist Islamist movement that is banned in continental Europe and Central Asia and is seen as a doorway toward indoctrination into Islamist terrorism.(Not surprisingly, after being fired, the correspondent sued.) The mayor of London, “Red” Ken Livingstone, commented on July 20--the day before the second round of attacks in London that “Young people see the double standards, they see what happens in Guantanamo Bay, and they just think that there isn’t a just foreign policy.... You've just had 80 years of Western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the Western need for oil…. In the 1980s, the Americans recruited and trained Osama bin Laden, taught him how to kill, to make bombs, and set him off to kill the Russians to drive them out of Afghanistan.”
Livingstone has twice been elected, and many Britons are apparently influenced by such nonsense. According to a Guardian poll, 33 percent of Britons think the prime minister bears “a lot” of responsibility for the London bombings, a further 31 percent assign “a little” responsibility to him, and only 28 percent agree with the government that Iraq and the London bombings are unconnected.
British courts have a long history of affording legalistic protections to terrorists, in what sometimes comes close to ideological bias. Quite often it was the court decisions rather than government positions that established what came to be known as Londonistan. A few cases make the point:
- In 2002, even after the home secretary had approved Algerian Rachid Ramda's extradition to France, where he is accused of financing a series of bombings in 1995, the High Court rejected his decision on the grounds that “the evidence against Ramda had come from a co-accused, Boualem Bensaid, who, it was alleged, had suffered ill-treatment by the French whilst under interrogation.” Ramda is still appealing, in London.
- Mohammed Al-Guerbuzi, who lived in London for decades, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Morocco in December 2003 for his role in the May 2003 Casablanca bombings; he is also suspected of a role in the Madrid bombings. Two Moroccan and a Spanish extradition requests were rejected by British courts. Al-Guerbuzi is an ideologue and believed to be a leader of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), responsible for Madrid and Casablanca arracks. After 7/7, British police put out a Europe-wide request for information on him; he appeared on Qatar television to deny involvement.
- After 9/11, when 17 non-citizen suspected terrorists, including Abu Qatada, were detained in Britain, the High Court forced the government to release them under house arrest. Lord Leonard Hoffmann, one of the law lords who in 2004 held that Britain's anti-terror law was unlawful, noted that the law “calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has until now been very proud: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention…. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups to kill or destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation...Terrorist crime, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community." Most preposterously still, he claimed that "The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these." while his colleague, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior lord of appeal and former lord chief justice, said that the powers under which the men were held were incompatible with European human rights laws because they "discriminate on the ground of nationality or immigration status". In translation – in an age of Islamist terrorism, to focus on Islamist aliens is “discrimination.”
It is interesting to compare such attitudes with the statement of Michel Gaudin, French National Police Director, in regard to radical imams and others “who make unacceptable statements”: “All those who have intentions which do not correspond to the values of our country, to republican values, to respect for democracy, ...must be removed from [French] territory.”“Unacceptable,” “intentions” as grounds for expulsion ?– such concepts would make Lord Hoffman’s blood boil.
Tony Blair points out that the terrorists “will always have their reasons for acting,” whether it is Afghanistan, Israel, America, or Iraq, and added that “There is a tendency, I think, to compromise too much with their arguments.” Indeed, and it was precisely such compromises and misguided tolerance that let an Islamist infrastructure root itself in England.
The Islamist infrastructure
Britain has long been known to have on its soil militants of Egyptian terror organizations such as Islamic Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islaamiya, or the Algerian GIA, the Palestinian terror group Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah. But these terrorist groups, and others, do not operate openly in the United Kingdom. Instead, they have links with more visible outfits that function as recruiting centers in London.
Among these is Al-Muhajiroun, an anti-American and anti-Semitic radical group headed by a Syrian, Omar Bakri Muhamad. Al-Muhajiroun calls for the murder of Jews and the institution of a worldwide Islamic religious regime by violent jihad. Omar Bakri, who was among the first to publicly praise the 9/11 attacks, has admitted that his Islamic Front recruited volunteers in Britain and sent them to Jordan (as well as Chechnya and Afghanistan), where they awaited opportunities to infiltrate into the West Bank and join the uprising against Israel. In May 2003, two British citizens, Assif Muhammad Hanif and Omar Han Sharif, who carried out a suicide attack on behalf of Hamas at a popular jazz bar in Tel Aviv were proven to be products of these jihad recruitment centers in London. It is relevant that Omar Bakri was expelled from Saudi Arabia for...religious extremism.
Although formally dismantled, Al Muhajiroun remains an ideological presence. One of its leading figures, British-born Anjem Choudary, declined to condemn the July 7 bombings and said in a BBC radio interview that there was a “very real possibility” of another attack. “The real terrorists are the British regime and even the British police who have tried to divide the Muslim community into moderates and extremists, whereas this classification does not exist in Islam.” (New York Times)
The Supporters of Sharia, based in North London, is headed by Abu Hamza, who was until recently the imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque. Abu Hamza is wanted both in Yemen, for planning the murder of tourists, and in the United States, for his role in a planned Oregon training site. He was taken into custody in London in May 2004 on a warrant for extradition to the United States, and is now on trial in London. After he welcomed the massacre of 58 European tourists at Luxor in October 1997, Egypt denounced Britain as a hotbed for radicals, and the Egyptian State Information Service posted a “Call to Combat Terrorism” on its official website.
Of Egypt’s 14 most-wanted terrorists, seven were based in Britain. Foremost among them was Yasser al-Sirri, sentenced to death in absentia for plotting the failed assassination of an Egyptian prime minister, who headed the Islamic Observation Center in London, a mouthpiece for Egyptian rebels.
And then there is Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, better known as Abu Qatada al-Philisteeni (“the Palestinian”) and his intercontinental network of recruits and terrorist protegees. With Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, he was one of the major authorities of Salafi ideology in Jordan, which lately gave the world Al Zarqawi, the perpetrator of most atrocities in Iraq today. Furthermore, Abu Qatada blessed the most indiscriminately violent Islamist group in Algeria and published, in London, its propaganda materials, so much so that even Bin Laden objected and ultimately encouraged the splintering of that group.
Among the interesting similarities between these three characters is that all became UK residents via political asylum and have lived on the dole from the start. In contrast, Hasib Hussain, 18, the youngest of the four 7/7 bombers, grew up comfortably in south Leeds. After 9/11, Hussain passed out flyers stating that “Justice has been done.” His father sent him home to Pakistan “in order to instill some discipline in him.”
Two points are relevant here. First, that at age 14 he was already indoctrinated enough to applaud mass murder in the name of Islam but, we are told, nobody, not even his family, noticed anything. Second, that a trip to Pakistan helped him translate that sympathy into suicidal fanaticism. However, Munir Akram, Islamabad's ambassador to the UN, blames Britain for its problem, saying its needs to “look at what you are doing to the Muslim community and why [it] is not integrating into British society…. Britain is now a breeding ground for terrorists too.”
While Islamabad’s blaming London for 7/7 is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, the ambassador is partly right. Indeed, for years London has played the role of incubator and recruitment center of Islamism terror abroad. During the past few years alone, Islamist Britain-based or British citizens were involved in an amazing number of terrorist actions throughout the world, including a plan to bomb the U.S. embassy in Tirana, Albania, and a planned attack on the 2000 Christmas market in Strasbourg. Abu Doha, a London-based radical, was involved in a planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Rome in January 2001; English-born and educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh masterminded the 2002 kidnap and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan; a suicide attack against the U.S. embassy in Paris was planned by a group linked to Al Qaeda, which including Djamel Beghal and Kamel Daoudi, who had lived in Britain. Abdullatif Meroun, a British citizen and father of three with his British wife, who was arrested in Morocco in 2004, charged with membership in that country’s major Islamist terrorist group, had worked as a site manager for a Canadian air company at Heathrow Airport.
After 7/7, France announced plans to reintroduce border controls such as passport checks that were scrapped under the 1985 Schengen free-borders agreement with 11 other European countries. (Spain followed suit.) Already, between January and April of this year, French authorities had searched 30 prayer halls, 150 shops and other buildings; 100 persons were subject to administrative penalties (including 30 expulsions), and 70 to legal proceedings. Since September 2002, 40 persons have been expelled, including ten radical imams. In 2005 to date, eleven persons have been expelled, including one imam.
Italy has announced closer monitoring of its northern border and detained 174 people suspected of being involved in Islamic militant groups and introduced legislation that includes additional authority for police to question and expel suspects, stronger telephone and Internet intercepts, heavier penalties for crimes related to terrorism, DNA samples from suspects, interrogation without a lawyer (which is already allowed in Mafia cases), the authority for regional prefects to expel from the country all immigrants who “support terrorism” and to provide the right of residence to immigrants giving information on terrorists.
Germany drew up plans for a national anti-terror database, and yet at the same time, its Constitutional Court rejected the extradition to Spain of a well known Al Qaeda financier and mentor of the Hamburg-based 9/11 terrorists.
The picture is thus less than clear. While it appears increasingly that the main obstacle to an effective European-wide antiterrorist approach lies in courts and their allies among human rights NGOs and the media, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the public are pressing for drastic measures.
Can we then conclude that “Londonistan” will soon belong to the past? Already partially dismantled after 9/11, will the Islamist nebula that was long given sanctuary in the British capital cease to exist? On the one hand, the government and most of the opposition parties are clearly aware that a new approach is necessary. On the other hand, the very same attitudes that made Londonistan in the first place are still at work--let us call them “anti-anti terrorism” forces. These are represented by Mayor Livingstone, who “explains” to the point of virtually justifying Islamist terror; human rights fundamentalists, some in the High Court, for whom legal technicalities and arbitrary threat assessments are more important than the safety of citizens; and the continuing ambiguity of prominent Muslim figures who, while condemning terrorism, invariably make indirect excuses for it and retreat to their usual position of alleged victimhood or, even worse, continue to make false “distinctions” between murderers. Thus Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London, claims that “there should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime.” Translation: killing Israelis or Americans in Iraq is fine, murdering Londoners is not. This is the usual “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach to what is a clear cut moral and security issue. A confused President Truman once said in a different context that he would like one-handed economists; Britain would be much safer if its Muslims would all be “one-handed.”
If only Muslims in Leeds or London would be more like most of their American coreligionaries. Eide Alawan, the chief adviser to the imam at America's largest mosque, in Dearborn, Michigan, said this month, “I cannot believe what imams in London have been preaching. If anybody preached in favor of bombing in this mosque, the community would be on top of them. They'd report it to the board [of the mosque] and he'd be fired.”
“Mayor blames Middle East policy,” BBC News, July 20, 2005.
Harry Mount, “Islam’s US faithful are happy to embrace the American dream,” Telegraph, July 23, 2005.