Early last year, as Tony Blair struggled through the long and bitter political aftermath of the Iraq war, yet another bit of disturbing news turned up in his red boxes. A discussion paper prepared by senior civil servants, it raised a subject that last week came back to haunt him.
“The home secretary and the foreign secretary,” he read, “have commissioned [this] paper for the prime minister on how to prevent British Muslims, especially young Muslims, from becoming attracted to extremist movements and terrorist activity.”
The 36-page paper was littered with misspellings, bad grammar and the egregious waffle that the civil service has learnt from new Labour — “We have a 10-point action plan on engaging with ethnic minorities” — but it dealt presciently with the home-grown terrorism that the police and MI5 believe lies behind last Thursday’s bomb outrages in London.
Focusing on young Muslims “who were either born in the UK or who have significant ties to it rather than those who have acquired British nationality more recently”, the paper spelt out the disillusionment that might turn a Muslim loner into a bomber.
The prime minister read: “Often disaffected lone individuals unable to fit into their community will be attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion, or be drawn to mosques or preaching groups in prison through a sense of disillusionment with their current existence.”
The paper continued: “Policy should have two main aims: (a) to isolate extremists within the Muslim community, and . . . (b) to help young Muslims from becoming ensnared or bullied into participation in terrorist or extremist activity.”
This was Whitehall’s long-term counter-terrorist strategy codenamed Project Contest. As a strategy it can hardly be qualified as a success after last week’s outrages, but it certainly identified the problem.
Intelligence experts and Islamic leaders agree that Thursday July 7 marks the bloody emergence of home-grown Islamic terrorism in Britain rather than the arrival of Al-Qaeda’s bombers on these shores. The favourite hypothesis of investigators is that the bomb teams comprised a cell of some eight or nine young British Muslims, led by a foreign-born “talisman” figure who controlled and directed them.
“This is a very worrying situation,” said M J Gohel, head of the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation which monitors Islamic terrorism. “We’re looking at a new generation of terrorists — people who are not directly linked to Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda so they can slip under the net of the security services. These are people born or brought up in western Europe, so they fit in but are infected by Bin Laden’s ideology.”
His view was echoed by a former radical who sometimes leads prayers at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London where Abu Hamza, the blind hook-armed cleric, used to preach.
“There is a growing phenomenon of angry young Muslims in Britain,” said this man, who wished to remain anonymous. “I get many young people who watch Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya [the satellite TV channels] coming to me after Friday prayers saying they have seen the atrocities at Abu Ghraib or the defacing of Korans at Guantanamo and what should they do.
“I tell them to study, take care of their own lives, that if they are angry with George Bush or Tony Blair there is no point killing innocent people in Oxford Street. But there may be many more going to crazy people who tell them to take matters into their own hands. There is an absolute majority among Muslims who share the anti-US sentiment of Al-Qaeda and it is easy to harness that.”
Who are these young British terrorists and why do they readily fall under the influence of “crazy people”? How are they recruited? How do they operate? What have the police and MI5 done to try to catch them? And are the non-violent majority of Muslim religious activists in Britain the real key to defeating them?
IN THE aftermath of September 11, 2001, British intelligence analysts warned ministers about a new breed of terrorist recruit.
Increasingly, hundreds of young Muslim men, most of them British born, were being drawn to the cause of fundamentalism. Radical websites and imams in mosques in London, Luton, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester were preaching holy war to disaffected young Muslims who were looking for a purpose.
Unlike the September 11 hijackers, the new terrorists did not have a rigid leadership structure. The majority of them had no criminal record and did not appear on any intelligence data bases linking them to terrorism. They were, in effect, “clean skins” and they were much more difficult to detect.
To counteract this danger, Project Contest was born in Whitehall. Its purpose was set out by Sir Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, in a letter to permanent secretaries at key government departments in April last year. He wrote: “The aim is to prevent terrorism by tackling its causes . . . to diminish support for terrorists by influencing social and economic issues.”
Referring to the role played in this by radical preachers such as Abu Qatada (also known as Abu Omar), Turnbull explained: “Al-Qaeda and its offshoots provide a dramatic pole of attraction for the most disaffected.”
Of particular concern was that the Islamist terrorist recruiters were targeting the poor and the jobless. An official audit provided to the Project Contest working committee showed that Muslims were three times more likely to be unemployed than the population as a whole.
Surveillance of the Muslim community by MI5 and Special Branch found that extremist groups were also operating within universities to recruit middle-class students. A small group of postgraduates at Imperial College and others at Brunel University in west London were of particular concern.
The paper prepared for the prime minister spelt out the breadth of the problem: “By extremism, we mean advocating or supporting views such as support for terrorist attacks against British or western targets, including the 9/11 attacks, or for British Muslims fighting against British and allied forces abroad, arguing that it is not possible to be Muslim and British, calling on Muslims to reject engagement with British society and politics, and advocating the creation of an Islamic state in Britain.”
It stated that “a small number of young British Muslims are known to have committed or participated in terrorism abroad . . . a number of extremist groups operate in the UK and seek to recruit young Muslims . . . and an increasing number of British Muslims, often young, have needed UK consular services after being detained on suspicion of terrorist or extremist activity in other parts of the world (eg Yemen, Egypt and the US)”.
The paper cited an intelligence estimate that the number of British Muslims engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad, or supporting it, was “less than 1%” of the UK’s Muslim population of 1.6m. But that suggests that up to 16,000 may be involved — a numbing figure.
It went on to explain why these thousands of potential terrorists remain below the security radar: “Whilst many have grown up in Muslim households, a significant number come from liberal, non- religious Muslim backgrounds or only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction.
“By and large most young extremists fall into one of two groups: well educated — undergraduates or with degrees and technical professional qualifications in engineering or IT — or under-achievers with few or no qualifications and often a criminal background.
“The former group is often targeted by extremist recruiters circulating among university-based religious or ethnic societies. Among the latter group some are drawn to mosques where they may be targeted by extremist preachers; others are radicalised or converted while in prison.
“However, a significant number of young radicalised British Muslims have been recruited through a single contact, often by chance, outside either of these environments. Such individuals are encouraged to maintain a low profile for operational purposes and do not develop the network of associates or political doctrines common to many other extremist Islamists.”
One former radical insisted last week that recruitment is no longer taking place in mosques or Islamic organisations — which are now largely under the control of “moderates” — but in pubs, discos and casinos.
The exporting of home-grown jihadis — and their fanaticism — was confirmed in Iraq last month by a senior insurgent commander, “Abu Ahmad”, who revealed that about 70 volunteers had arrived from Britain. Two had been killed fighting alongside him against American troops.
One of these, a 22-year-old known as Abu Hareth, had been born in Britain of Iraqi parents. He was killed in fighting in Falluja in April last year.
“When the battle intensified and due to his lack of military experience I asked him to take shelter in a basement. He refused my advice and told me off for asking him to hide and he said, ‘I will hold this against you when the day of reckoning comes for you tried to prevent me from attaining martyrdom’,” Abu Ahmad said.
Two brothers — Ammar, 22, and Yasser, 18 — arrived in Iraq from Britain after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003: “They could not wait to go out and fight and kept on asking when they will go into battle.”
After about a month, Ammar was killed fighting American troops: “His younger brother Yasser, who witnessed Ammar’s death, surprised us by shedding tears of joy and praising Allah for his brother’s martyrdom.”
The commander continued: “When we returned to our base we asked Yasser to return home, telling him it was enough that his family had lost one son; it would not be right if the second son was also killed and that there were others who would fight on his behalf here.
“But he refused and told us: ‘What would I tell my mother? She will not accept me in the house for when she bid us farewell she told us either to return victorious or to achieve martyrdom. I cannot return. I have to finish off what Ammar my brother started here, and anyway I do not want to leave my brother all alone in this land. I want to be buried with him’. And he began to cry.”
Abu Ahmad said that having been ordered home, Yasser wrote a letter revealing that when he had arrived in Britain his mother had celebrated on hearing about Ammar’s death — “ululating with happiness and calling her friends and relatives to tell them the good news. She distributed sweets and juices in celebration to all those that came to pay their respect”.
BRITISH politicians, civil servants and counter-terrorism specialists have been trying to tackle this fanaticism through a mixture of hearts-and-minds projects and increased policing.
Project Contest has led to new laws to curb the immigration of radical imams to Britain and to the controversial proposals, now before parliament, to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. Other initiatives included more government funding for moderate Islamic newspapers, television and radio stations. Measures to create “Muslim friendly” workplaces with more prayer rooms were proposed as well as special mortgages that would enable Muslims, barred by the religion from paying interest, to buy their own council houses.
At the same time, more resources have been allocated to detecting and preventing terrorist attacks. The sheer size of the pool of potential recruits has presented the police and MI5 with an enormous challenge, however.
After the September 11 attacks it quickly became apparent that the intelligence services were woefully understaffed. Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was made director-general of MI5 in October 2002, ran a successful Whitehall lobbying campaign to win funds for another 1,000 officers, a 50% increase in MI5’s staffing.
The Metropolitan police special branch SO12, which carries out covert security operations against terrorism, also underwent a rapid expansion, increasing its staffing to more than 800 officers.
In the aftermath of the attacks on America there was, in the words of one senior police officer last week, “a huge intelligence gap”. But in the past three years, he added, that gap had closed significantly as the understanding grew of how Al-Qaeda operated. By the beginning of this year there were some 2,500 Special Branch officers spread across England and Wales, with more than 700 in Scotland.
Since September 11 there have been more than 700 arrests of terrorist suspects. Critics of the stepped-up security point out that there have been only 17 convictions — and just three of these were linked to Al-Qaeda related activity.
That, critics said, suggested an over-reaction by the authorities. But insiders say that the figures reflected a deliberate policy. In the past, counter-terrorist operations against the IRA’s bombing campaigns would see suspects being followed for months before sufficient evidence was gathered to arrest them.
The IRA had a relatively small number of known operatives whose movements were relatively easy to track. But Al-Qaeda and its affiliates posed an unspecified, mostly unknown and little understood threat of a catastrophic attack in which thousands of people might be killed.
In those circumstances it was decided that no risks would be taken: policing was designed to disrupt and destabilise terrorist activity before it could result in the loss of lives. That meant arresting people as soon as they became known as terrorist suspects. The priority was not gathering evidence for any future court case but protecting the country from attack.
Recently, senior police and intelligence officials became confident that they had “broken the back” of the Al-Qaeda threat to Britain. With the apparent closing of the “intelligence gap”, a more relaxed mood of confidence began to percolate throughout the intelligence community. Earlier this year the security services began to talk about reverting to the old IRA policy of letting suspects run before launching raids to arrest them.
At the same time as this new arrest policy gained ascendancy in Whitehall security circles, analysts began to observe a change in the type of suspect being arrested from foreign-born to British. Trials at the Old Bailey next year will reveal that the majority of the defendants are British citizens.
The vast majority of suspects now on MI5’s watch list have no previous involvement with terrorism. And not being watched at all are the army of “clean skins” or “lily-whites” whose existence is suspected by the authorities but who are still unidentified. It is these invisible young men who may have formed the backbone of the terror cell that struck the heart of London on Thursday morning.
There are various reasons for believing that they were not Al-Qaeda operatives. Intelligence sources say that the organisation claiming responsibility after the attacks, the Secret Organisation of Al-Qaeda in Europe, has not previously shown up on their radar screens beyond one mention on a website when they were demanding the withdrawal of Bulgarian troops from Iraq.
According to one former associate of Bin Laden, the wording of their statement was unusual. “Their description of the Prophet and also referring to an Arabic nation was not part of the culture of Al-Qaeda,” he said. “I think the attack was carried out by admirers of Bin Laden, not associates. He has become this kind of iconic hero to a lot of disgruntled people. They have probably never met him or anyone close to him.”
Other sources pointed out that Al-Qaeda is now a loose umbrella organisation since the post-September ll crackdowns and many extremist groups are using the Al-Qaeda handle. “Everyone is flying in the air when they talk of Al-Qaeda,” agreed one former member now living in London. “We can’t say who is a leader, who is not, so there is an open window for anyone to claim they are.”
THE ROOT of the problem in the eyes of many foreign security operatives remains London’s reputation as a haven for extremists.
“It may not be the moment to say it,” said a defence ministry official in Paris, “but London is paying for its mistakes, for allowing all those radical organisations from Saudis to Pakistanis to set up shop in London, put out newsletters, make recruits and gather funds to finance their activities.”
Young men from Algeria and Morocco, including members of Islamist armed organisations, came to Britain in the early 1990s to escape persecution by the security forces in their home countries. They were granted asylum and some have since lived on welfare. Supporters of the Armed Islamic Group, known then as the GIA, used mosques such as Finsbury Park and Brixton, in south London, to raise funds to buy guns and bankroll a terror campaign that cost tens of thousands of lives in Algeria. They engaged in blackmail, drug dealing and credit card fraud to support their fundraising in London, Manchester and Birmingham.
In April 1994, after raids on GIA suspects in Paris, police found documents said to be “GIA communiqués” sanctioning the murder of Algerian police officers. Fax numbers were traced to London addresses in Southall, Mile End, Brixton, Finsbury Park and Richmond. A French investigating magistrate came to London to try to interview eight of those linked to the documents. But he was apparently blocked by the British authorities.
The French were so concerned about the role of the GIA and other groups in London that they authorised illegal spying operations against them in London — without telling the British.
Reda Hassaine, an Algerian journalist who came to Britain in the early 1990s, ended up working for MI5 and French intelligence, reporting on radicals inside the Muslim community. But Hassaine believes that despite huge efforts, the government and the security forces have been been far too complacent in dealing with the threat.
For more than a decade, Hassaine says, Britain has been a “soft touch” for Islamist radicals who used it as a fundraising and propaganda base to launch attacks in Algeria and elsewhere: “The groups here now are much more independent of each other. There are plenty of them and they’ve been here in London for a long time.”
One former Algerian jihadi may hold the answer to the terrorist threat. When he was 24, Abdullah Anas reached a turning point in his life. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an imam, he had been brought up on stories of the long war for Algeria’s independence from France. Now he decided it was his turn to take up the gun for a cause: in his case, jihad.
Anas travelled to Peshawar in Pakistan and then walked for 40 days to northern Afghanistan. He lost most of his toenails, but “I felt I was reborn when I first got there . . . Even though I was sick for 10 days, I was so happy to be walking along with my Kalashnikov and with my brothers”.
He fought there for eight years, becoming close to Bin Laden. But he was eventually disillusioned. “I am proud God chose me to be part of that holy war. I went there prepared to become a martyr. But it was very sad for me to see that once they had liberated their own land, they were unable to build their country. It was a big lesson for me,” he said last week.
“I realised that Muslims can win the battle, but can’t stabilise afterwards and win the peace. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw the same in Algeria, where my father and grandfather fought for freedom from the French, but once we had it, it fell to pieces. The Muslim fighters know how to die, but not how to live.”
Anas was among the wave of Algerians receiving asylum in Britain. He learnt English and now works as a company secretary and teaches Arabic and Koranic studies. The board of trustees running Finsbury Park mosque since the overthrow of its radical regime regularly invites him to preach to congregations of 1,000.
His message is both outspokenly Muslim and adamantly against violence. London is a safe haven for Muslims, he says: “In some ways London is the closest thing we can get to the society described by the Koran. God said, I created you as many nations, tribes and languages. That is what we have here. None of us should seek to impose our views or values on the other.”
He says this way of relating to life in London, as set down by the Prophet, is not simply a choice: “It is an obligation. We are part of this society and I tell my congregations that this is why I want them to know what the Prophet himself did.
“Anyone targeting this society is my enemy. They are targeting me and my family as much as anyone else, no matter who they are.”
He added: “Like many Muslims I am angered by what the Americans are doing in Iraq or the Israelis do in Palestine. But injustices must be dealt with by scholars and politicians, not by hotheads.
“These recruiters and terrorists, they are simply trying to use the anger of the young for their own agenda. Of course there is anger, but these criminals are trying to pervert it. I am not a hypocrite or an agent either of the United States or Bin Laden. This is my religion, what I believe in.”
Additional reporting: Matthew Campbell, Hala Jaber, Christina Lamb, Robert Winnett
TURNIG FROM BRITAIN'S YOUTH CULTURE TO ISLAM'S CERTAINTIES
The biggest division among Britain’s youth is no longer class, it’s religion. For one group there is MSN, the X-box, T4, Jay-Z, Diamond White, Pot Noodles, Maybelline Great Lash mascara and sex. For the other there are five daily prayers, hijab, arranged marriages, a lifelong relationship with Allah and the spectres of honour killings and terrorism.
“We try not to separate ourselves,” said Nirma Muslim, an 18-year-old Leicester schoolgirl. “But I have to admit that the majority of places me and my friends go are Islamic.”
Is it that Muslim children have become more religious than their parents? Professor Akbar Ahmed, the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam, first noticed a shift towards militancy here in the 1980s. “The Muslim generation of the Sixties were more interested in making a name for themselves on the cricket field or in the literary field but now the equivalent generation want to make a name for themselves by going out and fighting a physical and violent jihad in the name of Islam.”
Why? “Unlike American Muslims, British Muslims tend towards a much closer relationship with their motherlands and live in more detached communities. Because of globalisation, technology, and the media, they also have a sense of being a ‘global Muslim’.”
Zubair Patel, a 19-year-old Muslim of Indian descent studying for his A-levels at Regent sixth-form college in Leicester, thinks a generation of young men and women now of university age were shaped by 9/11.
“If you dressed like a Muslim at that time, people would hassle you in the street. It forced us to look for an identity and ask, ‘Do I want to be in the mainstream or do I want to say I am Muslim?’” He started wearing the shalwar kameez (with a Burberry sweatshirt and a Prada beanie).
“I am not one of those Muslims who take part in the whole western thing, like drinking and drugs,” he said. “Those people get portrayed as the moderate Muslims — like that’s what you should be like if you’re living in Britain.”
“Some people get tempted to join in,” said his friend Rabi Miah, 17. “But you have to look within yourself and decide that instead of a club you go out for dinner with your friends.”
Zubair said: “I’ve been back to where my parents grew up in India and in their neighbourhood they had two mosques. Here we have four mosques on our street and an Islamic boarding school on the corner. They had two scholars, Leicester has 165. England has given us a greater chance to become more devout than our parents.”
“It's sad in a sense, though,” said Nirma. “Although we were born and brought up here, we are not experiencing Britain.”
“But what’s the alternative?” asked Zubair. “Going clubbing and getting high?” He confessed: “I’d like to find it within myself to go up to any non-Muslim on the street and say, ‘This is who I am. Who are you? Lets have a chat’.”
“It’s harder to do than it sounds, though,” said Rabi Miah.
As a child, Na’ima B Robert liked carol singing but never thought of herself as religious. “I was nominally feminist, and when I went on a trip to Egypt after a really wild summer before my second year of university I was bothered by the women in hijab. It was only when I asked one of them why she was covering up that it hit me. She said, ‘I want to be judged for what I say and what I do — not what I look like’.”
A year later Na’ima converted to Islam. A year after that she had guardians arrange a marriage. She felt liberated by her religion, and joined a growing number of Islamic feminists who feel hijab frees them from having to rely on beauty as their primary currency.
“Anyone who’s ever smelt the reek of vomit on the side of the road can understand a little bit of the sense in the Koran,” she said. “But more than that Islam answered the biggest question you have as a young person, ‘Why are we here?’” Her friends and family were less pleased with her transformation. “My father was very upset. He felt like he would lose his daughter to Islam. Socially, my university friends and me were left with little in common. My religion is not something you do for two hours on a Friday. It’s holistic and hard to sustain when you’re not around people who help you.”