LONDON – Naweed Hussain sat in his little real estate office Friday, trying to focus on spreadsheets instead of the angry clatter outside.
Furious young Muslim men crowded around the mosque on his street surrounded by television cameras. They complained that their friends, other young Muslim men from Walthamstow, in East London, had been unfairly accused of plotting to blow up airliners. Police guarded the home of one suspect in what authorities call a plot to kill people on an “unimaginable” scale, allegedly planned right here in Hussain’s working-class neighborhood.
“Why is it not happening in some other country?” wondered Hussain, 53, a soft-spoken man in a tie and black-rimmed glasses who has lived here since he migrated from Pakistan 40 years ago. “Why is it happening here?”
The answer is that Britain has become an incubator for violent Islamic extremism, fueled by disenchantment at home and growing rage about events abroad, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Four bombers killed themselves and 52 others in attacks on the London public transit system July 7, 2005, followed by an almost identical but failed attack two weeks later. Last month Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair said at least three “serious conspiracies” had been disrupted in the previous 12 months. Then on Thursday police said they thwarted a plot to blow up as many as 10 airliners flying from Britain to the United States that could have killed thousands.
In one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, young men face a lack of jobs, poor educational achievement and discrimination in a highly class-oriented culture. Prime Minister Tony Blair is the most outspoken ally of President Bush, and their policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen by many Muslims as aimed at Islam.
Britain’s long tradition of tolerance has made it an oasis for immigrants and political outcasts from around the world, with its large influx of Pakistanis and other Muslims leading to the nickname Londonistan. Especially during the 1980s and 1990s, Britain became the refuge of choice for scores of Islamic radicals expelled or exiled from their home countries for inflammatory sermons and speeches
More than any other country in Europe, Britain is struggling to cope with a surge in recruits and supporters of radical Islamic networks, according to interviews with British Muslims, and European and British counterterrorism officials and analysts.
“The U.K. is at the forefront of the wrath of extremists,” said Magnus Ranstorp, terrorism researcher for the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.
The British security service, known as MI5, disclosed last month that it had about 1,200 Islamic militants under surveillance who were considered capable of carrying out violent attacks. Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch, said police were engaged in 70 terrorism investigations, the most ever. “This is unprecedented and the flow of new cases shows no sign of abating,” Clarke said. “If anything, it is accelerating.”
Since the July attacks, Blair’s government has toughened anti-terrorism laws, making it a crime to “glorify” terrorism and easing procedures for deporting clerics and others who advocate violence. The government has increased the number of Muslim police officers on the beat and conducted extensive outreach in Britain’s Muslim community, which officially numbers 1.6 million people but is widely believed to be 2 million or more.
The attacks last summer, and this week’s disclosure of a plot to bomb jumbo jets from the sky, have created a sense of unease not often seen in a nation that stoically endured some of World War II’s worst bombings and a 30-year campaign of violence by the Irish Republican Army. Being a target of terror without specific demands, that seems to many here to be motivated by vengeance and hate, has created a new uncertainty.
“There is more nervousness now between communities and about the future,” said Colin Sumers, 32, an information technology consultant from Bournemouth. “Where is this all heading? How do you answer these problems? What do these terrorists want?”
Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, which advocates Muslim involvement in the democratic process and opposes violence, said “It’s not hard to comprehend the mind of a Muslim.” He said young British Muslims look around the world and “everywhere they are getting bombed,” so they increasingly respond by saying, “Don’t just sit down and take it – let’s fight them.”
Harming the United States clearly remains a top priority of al-Qaida and other radical groups, and the plot uncovered this week allegedly involved planes heading to major U.S. cities. But officials said Britain is an increasingly enticing target for extremists.
“This is the second-best thing,” Ranstorp said. “You can’t get to the United States? Punish Britain. Punish the little brother.”
In his office in Walthamstow, Hussain said he has watched with dismay as his neighborhood has grown more angry in recent years. “I never expected anything like this,” he said.
Since he arrived in Walthamstow as a 14-year-old from Islamabad, Pakistan, Hussain has seen the neighborhood’s industrial past fade away and the South Asian immigrant population swell.
Little is known about the background or motives of suspects in the latest case. The 19 suspects who have been publicly identified all have Muslim names; 14 are from London, including several from Walthamstow; four are from High Wycombe, a quiet suburb west of London; and one is from the city of Birmingham. They range in age from 17 to 35, all but three of them in their twenties. Friends interviewed in Walthamstow said the suspects were either born in England or were from families who have lived for many years in London. Police have released no further information about them.
Hussain said many Pakistani immigrants moved out of tiny apartments cramped with relatives and now own multiple cars and houses and flourish financially. But over the years, he has seen the seeds of radical Islam grow around him.
Despite the prosperity of some Muslims, statistics released by the government earlier this year showed unemployment rates were higher among Muslims than for any other religion. Muslims age 16 to 24 were twice as likely as Christians of the same age to be unemployed – 22 percent compared with 11 percent. Many here argue that isolation and disenchantment among young Muslims provides a fertile environment for extremist groups recruiting members.
“Whoever teaches or preaches or brainwashes them, the police need to stop them,” Hussain said.
“The root is foreign policy,” said Bukhari, who has emerged in the past year as a leading voice of the young Muslim community. “Only a half-wit wouldn’t understand that this is about” British and American policies in the Middle East.
Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, said he receives at least two e-mails a day with pictures of dead bodies: Muslims who have been killed in conflicts around the world – most recently in Lebanon, where Israel is fighting Hezbollah – an effort widely seen here as backed by the United States and Britain. He said the photos are part of mass mailings to e-mail lists across the Muslim world, which inflame sentiments and aid recruiting by extremists.
“Young children torn to pieces, killed by the Israelis,” Versi said. “Iraq is also a major cause. Young people see these pictures.”
On Friday, several leading Muslim politicians and 38 Muslim groups, including the moderate Muslim Council of Britain, wrote to Blair calling for “urgent” changes to British foreign policy, arguing the “debacle” of Iraq and other policies in the Middle East had put British civilians at risk at home and abroad.
On Friday afternoon, dozens of Muslim men came to the Dar ul Qadria mosque near the house of another Walthamstow suspect. After prayer services, many of the men denounced the British government, the United States and Israel – which many see as allied against Islam.
“It’s George Bush’s policy that got us here today,” said one worshipper, a law student, who declined to give his name. “It’s his wars that have breeded the mentality and hate that is here today. And what we’re angry about is that our Prime Minister Tony Blair doesn’t represent the beliefs of the people.”
Hussain said when he walks around the city, people look at him and draw conclusions about him because he is a Muslim. He said that angers him, but he has also felt suspicious of others. Last weekend, when his brother visited London, Hussain rode on the subway to Picadilly and Trafalgar Square to go sightseeing. “I saw someone carrying a big bag and it did cross my mind, you know: there could be a bomb in there,” he said. “If it was a bearded man, it would have been worse.”
Still, many young Muslims believe they have been unfairly targeted by police. Scotland Yard released statistics Friday showing 1,047 people had been arrested under the Terrorism Act between September 2001 and the end of June. Of those, only 158 were eventually charged with offenses covered by the law. Officials did not say how many of those arrested were Muslims. But Muslim officials have complained that the vast majority of those arrested are Muslims, and that the low number of people charged suggests that most of the arrests were unwarranted.
Many Muslims have been especially skeptical of the police since last summer, when they shot and killed an innocent Brazilian electrician they mistook for a terror suspect. Then in June, police conducted a massive raid in the Forest Gate neighborhood of East London and arrested two brothers they suspected of preparing a chemical attack on London. Police shot one of the brothers during the raid, later releasing the men with an apology, saying they had acted on incorrect intelligence.
In East London, many people said the police track record made them skeptical that the 23 men arrested this week were guilty. “They said this was intelligence-driven and we have seen intelligence of the British,” said Hamza Qureshi, 20, a student.
While Britain in recent months has eased deportation laws to try to get rid of several clerics who advocated violence, strict European Union human rights standards have prevented deportations to countries such as Syria and Algeria, where deportees could be subject to torture or other inhumane treatment.
Blair and other British officials have also lamented the failure of many in the Muslim community to fully integrate into British society. “The identity of Muslims in the U.K. is Muslim first and foremost and British second,” Ranstorp said, echoing a recent Pew poll of Muslims worldwide that found that 81 percent of British Muslims who responded agreed with that sentiment. Only Pakistan had a higher percentage of people who considered themselves Muslims first, the survey showed.