Radical Islam finds unlikely haven in liberal Britain
In the leafy northern suburb of Hendon, a small group at the community center listens to a young man in track pants and sneakers. The charismatic speaker, Mohammed Sultan, the son of immigrants from India and a former student in business information technology, is a regional leader of al Muhajiroun, a radical youth movement based in Britain.
Speaking in staccato tones and gesticulating sharply, he calls for support of jihad to liberate the children of Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
"The US wants to control everyone," Mr. Sultan says to the muscular young men leaning forward in their seats, and veiled women along the back wall. "But the US can't stop us. Islam will one day dominate the world."
Sultan is part of a growing number of Muslim radicals who find Britain, with its liberal immigration laws and tradition of free speech, to be a comfortable base for their jihad against the West. Scotland Yard estimates that some 3,000 Muslim Britons have joined Al Qaeda forces in Afgahnistan, just as thousands before joined their Muslim brothers in Bosnia, Kashmir, the Palestinian territory, and Chechnya.
Many of these recruits are suspected to have come through youth movements such as al Muhajiroun or attended radical mosques here such as the one in Finsbury Park, presided over by Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who tried to blow up a passenger flight last December, studied in Finsbury Park and frequented al Muhajiroun meetings. So, too, did James Ujaama, a convert to Islam who is today one of the seven British citizens being held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The "20th hijacker," Algerian-born Zacharias Moussaoui, chose a mosque in Brixton, in south London, to do his studying, turning for instruction to another firebrand imam, Sheikh Omah Abu Omar "Abu Qatada," nicknamed "bin Laden's ambassador to Europe."
"He was clearly brainwashed by clerics in London," Mr. Moussaoui's distraught mother told reporters last week. Moussaoui is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 30 in a federal court.
Over the past 20 years, say experts, Britain has become a headquarters for extremist Muslim clerics and a fertile recruitment ground for new followers. Fiery dissidents from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are drawn here by the generous asylum and immigration laws, and the traditions of free speech and "watchful tolerance" of troublemakers policies which remain basically intact even after enactment of new antiterrorism laws last year.
Further, Britain, like the rest of the EU, refuses to extradite suspects to countries that have the death penalty. Abu Hamza has been condemned to death by the Yemeni government for his alleged role in terror attacks there. Abu Qatada was given a life sentence by Jordan for his part in a series of explosions.
"England is the capital of the Islamic world," says Sheikh Abu Bakri Mohammad, the Syrian asylum- seeker who founded al Muhajiroun in 1986. "Trafalgar Square has become our Mecca."
Since Sept. 11, al Muhajiroun's recruitment drive has flourished, say movement leaders. "We get seven to eight recruits, or converts a day," Abu Bakri insists.
Most of Britain's 1.5 million Muslims have nothing to do with these radical elements. "This is a fringe community," says Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al Quds, an influential Arabic-language daily. "The majority of us would like to integrate and live in peace with other communities. But this [radical] voice does exist, and it is calling out to our youth."
"The extremists would love us to believe there is an unstoppable radical Muslim insurgency going on, and they are in the vanguard. But this is not totally accurate," says Prof. Paul Wilkinson, director of the center for study of terrorism and political violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. He adds that most groups attract small numbers and are more about rhetoric then action but nonetheless says they should be watched carefully.
Indeed, Scotland Yard suggests that as part of their advanced training, some al Muhajiroun followers are being sent to "terrorist" camps in Oregon and Alabama. Abu Bakri admits that people from a group called Sekina Securities did come to teach al Muhajiroun youth martial arts and hand to hand combat in recent months, and that "maybe" there was an AK-47 assembling class in the basement of the Finsbury Mosque.
Sekina Securities' website, however which was taken down by British police after Sept. 11 used to offer "serious firearms training" at gun ranges in the US and a two-week course called "ultimate jihad challenge" that featured "art of bone breaking" and ways to "improve explosive devices."
Most of the al Muhajiroun recruits are children of immigrants, whose parents came here in the 1960s to make money. The older generation worked in textile mills, factories, and post offices, and drove buses eking out a living, never really learning the language, and yet trying their hardest to meld.
The second generation grew up confused. "We were lured by the secular non-Muslim world, but we were always outsiders. While our parents wanted us to remain traditional ... we had no depth of knowledge about our religion," says Anjem Choudry, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant who practiced law before his introduction to al Muhajiroun several years ago. "Then some of us found the true way."