LONDON – On the morning after bombs ripped through the London Underground and crumpled a double-decker bus, four security guards escorted a one-eyed, Egyptian-born cleric, his arms amputated below the elbows from Afghan war injuries, onto the elevated dock of Courtroom No. 1 in Old Bailey, the capital’s principal criminal court.
Abu Hamza Masri, for years a blood-curdling preacher at a North London mosque allegedly visited by shoe bomber Richard Reid and hijacker trainee Zacarias Moussaoui, listened silently Friday as his lawyer argued about his indictment last January on nine counts of incitement to murder for speeches that allegedly promoted mass violence against non-Muslims. In one speech cited in a British documentary film, Masri urged followers to get an infidel “and crush his head in your arms, so you can wring his throat. Forget wasting a bullet, cut them in half!”
Masri’s case is just one of several dozen that describe the venom, sprawling shape and deep history of al Qaeda and related extremist groups in London. Osama bin Laden opened a political and media office here as far back as 1994; it closed four years later when his local lieutenant, Khalid Fawwaz, was arrested for aiding al Qaeda’s attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa.
As bin Laden’s ideology of making war on the West spread in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, London became “the ‘Star Wars’ bar scene” for Islamic radicals, as former White House counterterrorism official Steven Simon put it.
Today, al Qaeda and its offshoots retain broader connections to London than to any other city in Europe, according to evidence from terrorist prosecutions. That evidence shows at least a supporting connection to London groups or individuals in many of the al Qaeda-related attacks of the past seven years. Among them are the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The evidence in these and other cases describes al Qaeda connections here as remarkably diverse, ranging from the core organization’s early formation through its phase of elaborate planned global strikes between 1999 and 2001, to its more recent period of diffuse franchises and younger volunteers to an attack this week that authorities here say bears the al Qaeda stamp.
On June 15, 2002, at an Islamic community center in Milan, Italy, a cleric with alleged al Qaeda ties was overheard in conversation with an Arab from Germany, according to a transcript of the wiretap later published in Italy. The Arab spoke of his 10-person cell in Germany and the group’s “interest” in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and France. “But the nerve center is still London,” he reported.
A refuge and hub for Middle Eastern dissidents since the 19th century imperial era, the city has more recently attracted Islamic radicals with connections to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, the Persian Gulf and Pakistan. London’s radical fringe draws in part from the alienated edges of Britain’s large and overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim immigrant population. But it has been influenced, too, by Britain’s ambiguous policies toward exiled radicals, a sometimes awkward blend of asylum offers, intelligence collection and criminal prosecution.
Radical Islamic exiles value London as a base in part because “the legal system is quite stable and it cannot be influenced by politicians or by public opinion,” said Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of providing financial support to al Qaeda because of his alleged role in the 1998 purchase of a satellite phone used by bin Laden.
Faqih said he had no connection to al Qaeda or to violence and that his primary focus was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family through political advocacy and organizing. His British assets have been frozen because of the U.S. Treasury designation, but Faqih has not been charged criminally here. Thursday, a previously unknown group calling itself the Secret Organization of al Qaeda in Europe asserted responsibility for the London bombings in a posting on a radical Islamic Web site allegedly connected to Faqih; he denied running the site, a bulletin board with the Arabic name for fortress that was registered a week after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Emphasis on monitoring
U.S. intelligence officers say they respect the sophistication of Britain’s intelligence collection among radicals in London, but some question whether its emphasis on monitoring, as opposed to the pre-emptive disruption often favored by the FBI in the United States, has left the country vulnerable.
“I’ve been preaching London will get hit long before us,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism . “They have a critical mass of a group of radicals operating in an open society.”
Al Qaeda’s London connection began in the early 1990s after Saudi Arabia cracked down on Islamic dissidents, including bin Laden, who had pressured the royal family for political reforms and protested its decision to invite United States forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Dozens of Saudi radicals were imprisoned; some were forced or escaped into exile.
Bin Laden fled to Sudan, where he nurtured his nascent multinational militia. But other Saudi dissidents sought out London and set up offices from where they peppered the Saudi kingdom with faxes denouncing the royal family. Bin Laden wanted to be part of this, and he dispatched Fawwaz to London to set up the Advice and Reform Committee, which began its own fax pamphleteering, with a special emphasis on bin Laden’s ideas.
According to Faqih, who led a rival group, bin Laden and Fawwaz issued 17 communiques from London between 1994 and 1996 about “scattered things” such as Saudi corruption and the need for truer adherence to Islamic law. After bin Laden moved to Afghanistan and declared war on the United States in the summer of 1996, Fawwaz stopped publishing.
Fawwaz set up his al Qaeda branch in the placid North London suburb of Dollis Hill on a street of 1930s Tudor-style houses. After the 1998 embassy bombings, the U.S. used evidence of Fawwaz’s logistical and media support for bin Laden to indict him on criminal charges. Police arrested him and two other bin Laden aides in London (nearly seven years later, Fawwaz is still in a London prison with the fight over his extradition pending).
Not all of al Qaeda’s top British operatives were rounded up then. Anas Liby, one of bin Laden’s computer experts, continued to live in the northern England city of Manchester even after the U.S. demanded his extradition on charges he participated in setting up the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya. On May 10, 2000, British police raided Liby’s apartment. Liby was gone. He would eventually have a $25 million reward for his capture offered by the United States.
Left behind on his computer was an al Qaeda training manual that spelled out the organization’s tradecraft in 180 pages of chilling detail – down to the art of killing with “cold steel” and the need, as Liby practiced, to go undercover in the West (“necessity permits the forbidden,” the manual counseled, though no necessity could be cited to allow drinking wine or fornicating).
Although Britain had harbored many of his lieutenants, bin Laden made clear in a speech not long after the raid why history made the country an implacable enemy. “The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children.”
“George Bush has no respect for the Muslim world. This has been designed to make sure he listens,” Abu Qatada, a fiery Palestinian who also preached at the Finsbury Park mosque told a London newspaper immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11. Granted asylum in Britain from Jordan, Qatada has been convicted in absentia of playing a role in an al Qaeda-linked millennium bombing plot there. He is designated as a terrorist by the U.S. government.
But Qatada is better known as an ideologue of global holy war than an organizer of it. When Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta’s apartment in Germany was searched, authorities turned up videotapes of Qatada’s London sermons.
For al Qaeda and its affiliates, the British capital has been considered an indispensable communications center. “They looked on London as the premier place for propaganda in the Western world,” said Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s special bin Laden unit in the mid-1990s.
Even after the arrest of al Qaeda’s London spokesman, Fawwaz, London remained a clearinghouse for the group’s information and ideas. The shock of Sept. 11 brought a sharp increase in British arrests of Islamic militants, many with some alleged connection to al Qaeda. But clerics like Qatada who worked in what Simon, the former counterterrorism official, called “the realm of inspiration” have continued to preach holy war in London. Altogether, 700 suspects were taken into British custody under the counterterrorism law between 2001 and the end of 2004. Only 17 have been convicted.
British authorities have broken up what they claimed were several cells with al Qaeda connections. One group, arrested in 2004, was accused of storing a half-ton of ammonium nitrate, which can be used in explosives, in a locker near Heathrow Airport. A raid on an al Qaeda computer expert in Pakistan in 2004 led to arrests of nearly a dozen men in Britain.
Until last week, whether London was a target of al Qaeda had been a source of debate.
Some experts, like Scheuer, believed bin Laden had wanted to hit the city since the arrest of his aide Fawwaz. Bin Laden blamed the arrest publicly on “British Crusader hatred of Muslims.” Other analysts, such as Simon, believed that, up until 2001, “Britain was regarded as too valuable a al Qaeda to attack.
But ever since, it has been a key target.
One of London’s radical Islamic clerics, Syrian-born Saudi exile Omar Bakri Mohammed, openly spoke of the time when the city that gave him refuge back in 1983 would be hit. “It’s inevitable,” Mohammed, well known for his celebrations of the Sept. 11 hijackers, told a Portuguese magazine last year. Among the groups mobilizing for a strike was one calling al Qaeda in Europe. It “has a great appeal for young Muslims,” he said. “I know that they are ready to launch a big operation.”