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The Sunday Times - Britain

The Sunday Times February 12, 2006

Focus: How liberal Britain let hate flourish

A clash of civilisations or a failure of moderates to stand firm? Richard Woods and David Leppard report on the rise of Islamic extremism

WHEN Rachid Salama, a young Algerian, found himself homeless in London, salvation lay in a large mosque dominating a street corner in north London.

“The mosque was huge, clean and warm. Apart from the heavies on the door glaring and flashing their Afghanistan scars, everybody was extremely friendly and welcoming,” he said last week.

“Then I discovered how my brothers passed the day. Many were on benefits or living off charity so they could hang about discussing jihad all day. Whenever we were not praying, we were taken to watch TV. There were endless videos of mujaheddin activity around the globe.

“Jihadist nasheeds (songs) were played in the background, with medieval-style voice harmonies and deeply stirring lyrics about how brave mujhads are suffering for Allah and dying in order to defend Muslim lands. They sometimes climaxed with a question — are you going to stand by and watch Muslim civilians killed? “The atmosphere was intense. Any slight dissent was stamped on so quickly and aggressively that I realised that the best thing to do was nod and say ‘Inshallah’ with the rest of my brothers.”

Salama had found sanctuary in the Finsbury Park mosque under the regime imposed by Abu Hamza, the one-eyed, hook-handed Egyptian who had seized control of the building from moderates and turned it into a centre for incitement to murder.

The Algerian was never gulled by the talk of jihad and left the mosque to find work. But he, like other moderates, had failed to counter the extremism.

When Hamza was convicted of inciting his followers to murder non-Muslims last week, it became clear that the British authorities had also failed to counter the extremism — although they were only too well aware of what was going on.

Is this how moderate Islam has ended up being overshadowed by fanatics in Britain? Has the politically correct Establishment made the fatal mistake of ignoring extremists?

THE poisonous progress of Hamza, and the authorities’ slow reaction to it, reflects the wider rise of Islamic extremism in Britain and the sidelining of moderates.

Like many Muslims, Hamza came to take advantage of opportunities in the UK that he could not find in his native country — in his case Egypt. In 1979, aged 21, he arrived in London to study engineering.

He worked as a hotel receptionist and nightclub bouncer, married an Englishwoman called Valerie Fleming and had a son. Favouring western dress, he exhibited no sign of radicalism.

Then, in the mid-1980s, his wife gave him an ultimatum about his flirting with women. “I told him things had gone too far and that I was leaving,” Fleming said last week. “He responded by saying that he would change and dedicate himself to Islam.”

They began to attend a mosque in north London. It was the time of the Afghan war when the mujaheddin — with western support — were fighting Russian invaders.

Not long after embracing the mosque, Hamza took his young son and disappeared off to the Middle East, ostensibly to visit relatives for six months. After that Fleming barely heard from her husband or son for 16 years.

While abroad Hamza lost his hands in an explosion (he says clearing landmines, other say handling grenades) before returning to Britain, this time as an activist for radical Islam.

Although western intelligence agencies were slow to realise it, a new form of fundamentalism was taking hold across much of the Middle East and Osama Bin Laden and other former mujaheddin had moved their sights from Russia to Saudi Arabia, the West and global jihad.

What gave Hamza his big break were the bitter divisions between moderate Muslim factions at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. He took control in 1997. “He just dropped anchor and moved in,” one former trustee said last week.

Unlike previous preachers who had usually spoken Pakistani or Indian dialects, Hamza gave his sermons in Arabic and English. He electrified his audiences. In May 1998 after the mosque had not filed any accounts for five years, the Charity Commission was called in to investigate. Hamza and his thugs scared off people with threats of violence.

“When I challenged Hamza over this,” said the former trustee, “he told me, ‘If you want a fight, I’ll give you a fight’.” A member of another mosque who confronted Hamza was also threatened.

The British authorities were outplayed as well. By the end of the 1990s British intelligence services were well aware of what was happening inside the mosque because one of Hamza’s audience was their agent. From 1999 Reda Hassaine, an Algerian journalist, was paid £300 a month by MI5 to spy on Hamza. Over 15 months he reported how Hamza repeatedly called for the murder of westerners and for holy war against all those opposed to Islam. Hassaine was present when Hamza, who was often surrounded by bodyguards carrying knives, inculcated young Muslim men with his hatred of western society.

“He would sit down with boys as young as 10 in small groups and preach jihad to them,” said Hassaine. “He would talk to them about death, the war and going to paradise. He would tell them they had a duty to fight for Allah and that they had to use a sword and they had to kill in the name of Allah and they had to die.”

At the same time Hassaine was regularly reporting back to his MI5 handler, whom he knew as “Steve”.

“I told them Hamza was brainwashing people and sending them to Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, that he was preaching jihad and murder and that he was involved in the provision of false passports. I told them he was a chief terrorist.”

His MI5 handler did not appear unduly worried: he told Hassaine that MI5 thought Hamza was a harmless “clown”. Yet there was hard evidence that Hamza was far from a clown: in December 1998 British intelligence intercepted telephone calls between terrorists who kidnapped 16 western tourists in Yemen and a satellite phone linked to Hamza. Three British tourists were killed during an attempt to rescue them.

Yesterday Laurence Whitehouse, whose wife Margaret died in the Yemen kidnapping, demanded to be told how much British officials had known about Hamza’s involvement and why they had not acted against him earlier. He said the view that “as long as we have got him (Hamza) under our surveillance he will be okay” now seems to have been “naive at best”.

Was there an unwillingness to confront Hamza and other fanatics for fear of offending the wider Muslim community? The idea that it was preferable to have radical groups such as Al-Muhajiroun based here rather than plotting elsewhere had been widespread in Whitehall since the 1980s.

It had led to some commentators dubbing the capital “Londonistan” and to complaints from other governments, particularly France.

Certainly the British government was not outspoken.

When one MP raised concerns in parliament in May 2000 that UK nationals were being trained for jihad, Jack Straw, then home secretary, simply replied that it was a “matter for the police”.

Last week David Blunkett, who succeeded Straw as home secretary, blamed the police, MI5 and other officials for being reluctant to take on Hamza. “There was deep reluctance to act on the information coming out of Abu Hamza’s own mouth,” wrote Blunkett in a newspaper column. “Some in the police and security services did not want to believe how serious it all was.”

The remarks astonished senior police officers. On Friday they said they could not recall Blunkett ever saying that the police were not taking it seriously enough.

“I don’t know where he is getting it from, quite frankly. It’s absolute s***,” said one senior officer who was involved at the time. “I think Eliza (Manningham-Buller, head of MI5) would vouch for that.”

Blunkett made little mention of Hamza in the Commons and did not condemn him outright.

Instead, Islamic radicalism was quietly building just as political correctness over ethnic and religious minorities was marching ahead.

The authorities were wary of offending Muslim sensibilities, even in the case of Hamza. When police did finally raid the Finsbury Park mosque they treated the hotbed of terrorism with utmost respect.

“Every precaution was taken to avoid hurting Muslim sensibilities,” Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, wrote in his autobiography. “All police officers who were to enter the mosque wore overshoes and headgear, and the raiding party included Muslim officers to handle copies of the Koran.”

Hamza had shown no such courtesy in his public rants. Instead he had described Britain as a “toilet” and urged his followers to turn it into an Islamic state. He had urged them to “bleed the enemies of Allah” and to “stab them here and there”.

BY an accident of history, Hamza was convicted just as the furore over the cartoons of Muhammad was erupting across the Middle East. The worst face of Islamic extremism in Britain glared malevolently out of British newspaper front pages as reports came in of attacks on Europeans and their embassies in Muslim countries.

In Afghanistan five people died in demonstrations. The Taliban offered kilograms of gold to anyone who killed a Danish cartoonist and/or one of the Danish, Norwegian or German soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

In Kenya police had to fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators marching on the Danish embassy. In Turkey a Catholic priest was shot dead, apparently as a result of the cartoons. Meanwhile, the country’s current hit film tells of an Islamic Rambo tracking down US soldiers in Iraq who are depicted as random killers who use prisoners as organ donors. In the film a Jewish prison doctor scolds soldiers for not bringing back enough Iraqis alive. “I need them intact for their organs,” he says.

By another accident of timing, Hamza’s conviction and the “cartoon war” came as Tony Blair and his government prepared to confront rebel MPs over plans for ID cards and new laws against terrorism that some see as threatening civil liberties.

“We are at a crossroads of something very deep,” said Professor Tariq Ramadan, a visiting Islamic scholar at Oxford University. “On both sides there are fractures.”

To Dr Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins, the American university, a battle for modern Islam is under way and it is not clear where it will end. The secular West and Muslim moderates, he says, are paying the price of failing to act decisively against the extremist danger in their midst.

“The crisis in European Islam is severe,” he said. “We were told it would spawn a liberal version of Islam. The irony is that it is in Europe that Islam is most strident.”

How has this radicalisation come about? When Ajami moved from Lebanon to the United States in the 1960s he was more interested in making the most of new cultures than in challenging them. He says that other Muslims moving west at that time felt the same.

“We accepted that we would assimilate and that we could not carry sharia (Islamic law) to the West,” he said. “Our world was more secular. People fled from the fire of the Islamic world; now they bring the fire with them.”

It is the younger Muslims, goaded by Hamza and his ilk, who feel most alienated and militant. That generational change is illustrated, in Ajami’s view, by Ahmad Akkari, an imam in Denmark closely involved in the furore over the Muhammad cartoons.

Akkari’s father fled Lebanon as a political refugee to follow a more secular life in Denmark. But where he saw opportunity, his son saw different contrasts, including oppression.

Like many other young Muslims in recent years, Akkari has found aspects of life in the West difficult to reconcile with his Islamic beliefs. In Denmark, which has a population of only 5.4m, some politicians have made immigration a sensitive topic; many of the young among the country’s 180,000 Muslims feel they get a raw deal.

That feeling exploded for Akkari when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad in October last year. Quite apart from being offensive, it was hypocritical in his eyes: three years earlier the same newspaper had refused to publish cartoons about Jesus’s resurrection because they might “provoke an outcry”.

Unable to extract an apology, Akkari and others took a dossier about the cartoons to the Middle East in December.

This is not unusual. According to Malise Ruthven, an expert on Islam, “Muslim minorities in Europe are looking to Muslim majorities in the Middle East to act as their protectors. And there, people are using Islam as a way of staying in power”.

Akkari included in his dossier three other cartoons that were far more insulting to the prophet, depicting him as a pig, a paedophile and a sodomist. These, claimed Akkari, were sent as hate mail to Muslims. But others, including Ramadan, say they were simply “found on the internet”.

Either way they had not been published in any newspaper. Yet, included in the dossier, they were highly inflammatory — and useful propaganda for countries in the Middle East.

Syria was one of several oppressive regimes that exploited the anger. “Yet the Syrian regime is not even regarded by mainstream Muslims as Muslim,” pointed out Ajami. “It is one of the most repressive against the Muslim brotherhood.”

Once again the voice of moderation was lost in the cacophony of religious extremism and the cynical self-interest of political regimes.

Akkari is now reported to fear that he has made worse the very thing he wanted to prevent: the caricaturing of Muslims as violent fanatics. Interviewed in Copenhagen last week he said: “It has been more violent than I expected. I had no interest in any violence . . . it is bad for our case.”

IN Britain, Blair argues that new laws are needed to promote greater security in the face of fanaticism. Addressing a conference on Friday he said: “When moderate people do not take action in the face of extremism, then less moderate people, with their own version of extremism, take control of the agenda.”

Here too, however, political agendas and self-interest are at work. This week Blair faces serious challenges to his authority if he cannot push through plans for identity cards and a new offence of “glorifying” terrorism.

Tomorrow the Commons will debate amendments by the Lords to the identity cards bill. Despite government concessions, the pressure group Liberty claims that the bill could still lead to compulsory ID cards and huge costs.

On Wednesday the Commons will consider the Terrorism Bill. The Lords replaced the government’s plans for an offence of “glorification” of terrorism with a new offence of words or acts that would “reasonably lead someone to emulate a terrorist”.

The Tories argue, however, that Hamza’s conviction — largely under a law dating from 1861 — shows that new measures are not needed. What matters is the willingness to apply existing laws.

Patrick Mercer, their spokesman for homeland security, said ministers should act quickly to prosecute the dozens of other “Hamzas” who are still at liberty, preaching sermons of hate against the West around the country.

MI5 is reported to have a list of about 100 radicals. Ten have been detained pending deportation and nine subjected to control orders, leaving about 80 free.

The danger is that moderate Muslims will feel threatened when the radicals are rounded up. But yesterday the quiet voice of moderation sang out loud and clear when several thousand Muslims marched peacefully in central London, calling not for jihad but for calm.

They said they had been offended by the cartoons; but they did not condone the bloodthirsty calls for revenge uttered by extremists.

Among the marchers was Sadeque Iqbal, a 47-year-old accountant from Maidstone, Kent, who said: “I am ashamed of the extremists. Their views aren’t recognised in the mainstream. Today is about tolerance and knowledge and peaceful unity.”

These marchers were preaching tolerance, not hate. They were seeking apologies and respect, not bombings and beheadings.

“The purpose of the demonstration is twofold: to give people a peaceful outlet about what they feel about the cartoons, and to point out the difference between extremists and Muslims,” said Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Yet it was not an occasion for unalloyed optimism that the moderate majority is now calling the tune. Among the organisers of this march of “moderates” was the Muslim Association of Britain, whose members have advocated suicide bombings in Israel. Other radical groups are planning further demonstrations.

One, called Jihad for Palestine, has called a conference for tomorrow and a protest outside the Israeli embassy for Friday. It wants to “remove the cancer of Israel” and says its followers are in the “front lines” of the “struggle between Islam and Kufr (non-Islam)”.

While moderates are willing to compromise and assimilate, a sizeable minority of Muslims in Britain retain views incompatible with the secular values of modern western societies. According to a poll published last week, 7% of Britain’s 1.6m Muslims — more than 100,000 people — believe suicide bombings in the UK could be justified in certain circumstances. Some 30% of British Muslims do not believe that Israel has a right to exist, and 16% believe that suicide bombings in Israel could be justified in certain circumstances.

These are not exceptional findings. According to a YouGov poll taken last year, 24% of British Muslims expressed some sympathy with the motives of the London bombers who killed 52 people and injured hundreds more. Most disturbingly, 32% agreed that: “Western society is decadent and immoral and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end”.

But the extremists remain a minority and some moderates are starting to speak out. “As far as I am concerned the extremists need to leave this country, that is my hardline message,” said Saira Khan, a British Asian Muslim who was a contestant in The Apprentice on television. “The extremists (on last week’s demonstration) should have been kicked out or arrested. The government should be heavy-handed.”

Additional reporting: Abul Taher, Dipesh Gadher, Nicola Smith and Jonathan Milne


NINE days ago Islamist extremists caused outrage by holding a hate-filled demonstration outside the Danish embassy in London. They chanted slogans such as “Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way” and their placards exhorted Muslims to “Slay those who insult Islam”. The Sunday Times has tracked down six of those who were chanting or holding banners that incited violence. They are all British-born followers of Omar Bakri Mohammed, the radical cleric who now lives in Lebanon after being barred from Britain. Our file on the extremists is available to Scotland Yard.


Carried banners urging “Slay those who insult Islam” and “Slay those who insult the Messenger”. Age 25; lives with parents in Bethnal Green, east London. In 2005 punched Sir Iqbal Sacranie, moderate Muslim leader


Also took part in earlier protest at BBC offices, chanting “Newsnight go to hell” after the programme considered publishing the Danish cartoons. Sharif, 36, is leader of the Saviour Sect. Caused outrage last year by refusing to condemn July 7 London bombers


Worked up protesters to a frenzy with a megaphone. A trained solicitor, he was UK leader of the now defunct Al-Muhajiroun. Choudhury, 45, has described Britain as a “battlefield” for suicide bombers and once issued a fatwa against President Musharraf of Pakistan


Not his real name. Filmed protest on camcorder and echoed “Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way” chant. Thought to be east London resident in his twenties. Once threatened member of moderate Muslim Council of Britain


Used megaphone to chant “Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way”. The 30-year-old fibre-optical engineering graduate had previously boasted of attending paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Lives in Docklands, east London, with two children


The 24-year-old from Tottenham, north London, held a placard reading “Behead those who insult Islam”. Joined the Saviour Sect, a spin-off from the now defunct Al-Muhajiroun outfit. Neighbours refer to his family as the Talibans because of their views

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