Any visitor to the United Kingdom’s sprawling metropolis is immediately made aware of the bewildering diversity of its inhabitants. In addition to its rich and diverse communities of immigrants (with at least 300 languages spoken on its streets, it leaves New York trailing far behind as a ‘world city’) and the range of cultural and academic institutions long planted in the city from its days as an imperial capital, London plays host to a unique concentration of Middle Eastern intellectual and political institutions.
Within a small area, the world’s oldest and most influential Middle East research institutions, political foundations (not least the various Middle Eastern parliamentary lobby groups) and doctrinal communities (Sunni, Shi’a, Isma’ili and Ahmedi) jostle with each other. It is also a world center for the Arab press. The reliable protection afforded by London to journalists and writers has seen the build-up over the last few decades of a thriving and highly influential Arab media industry. This takes the form of the pan-Arab press, such as al-Hayat and al-Quds al-’Arabi, MBC (the Middle East Broadcasting Company) and a long list of specialist publications.
LONDON AN ALADDIN’S CAVE OF ISLAMIC DISSIDENCE
It is also a center for Islamist politics. You could say that London has become, for the exponents of radical Islam, the most important city in the Middle East. A framework of lenient asylum laws has allowed the development of the largest and most overt concentration of Islamist political activists since Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Just ask the French, whose exasperation with the indulgent toleration afforded to Algerian Islamic activists led them to dub the city dismissively as “l’antechambre de l’Afghanistan.”
They certainly have a point. Many of Bin Laden’s fatwas were actually first publicized in London. In fact, the United Kingdom in general seems to differ from other European states in the degree to which it became a spiritual and communications hub for the jihad movement. As such, it can furnish the indefatigable researcher a wealth of primary source material on Islamic terrorism.
The refuge the United Kingdom offers Islamist opposition is little short of bizarre. What appears to have happened is that the country’s asylum laws were designed to protect only dissidents and refugees from foreign governments. Victims of other persecutions, such as sectarian or ethnic struggles, fall through the net. The result of this is that, for the Middle Eastern refugee population, a proportion of them can claim asylum specifically on the basis of their Islamist political opinion and activity.
Despite recent pressures to tighten up the conditions, all the applicant effectively has to do is say: “I claim asylum,” and (here is the interesting bit) he is left alone to choose where and with whom to live (there are no asylum camps as in France and the Netherlands) and receive social security funding from the state while he does so. As a result there is a concentration of Islamic dissidents in the nation’s capital.
The level of safety and immunity the Islamist refugees find in London can be illustrated by the deliberate brazenness exhibited by the group Al-Muhajiroun1 in its annual conferences held, provocatively, on the anniversary of 9/11.
One year after the attacks on New York and Washington, the flyer distributed by al-Muhajiroun around London read: September 11th 2001, a Towering Day in World History (with an illustration of the New York Towers to emphasize the pun). This was followed the next year with The Magnificent 19 (referring to the number of suicide attackers involved in the deed–their portraits helpfully displayed to make the point of a “gallery of heroes”).
This open level of Islamist activity has not only caused tensions with Middle Eastern countries but has actually caused diplomatic tensions between the UK and France. If one were to ask the French intelligence services, they would likely rattle off a list of expletives on what they think of their UK counterparts and their harboring of Algerian fugitives. It is commonly thought in Paris that a type of deal was struck to allow the Algerians to operate as long as nothing happened on UK soil .
A long-standing quarrel over British tolerance for Islamic militants wanted by Paris flared up over the treatment of Abu Qatada, the British-based cleric known to have strong links to Algerian terrorist groups operating in France. The French were furious that Abu Qatada–who was at the top of a British list of terrorist suspects to be interned under new legislation in December–was at one
time allowed to “disappear.” Another example, Lamine Maroni, who plotted the failed Strasbourg bombing, was able to enter and leave Britain on several occasions, apparently leaving little trace. He was even living off state benefits and was housed by a Home Office-sponsored agency. He slipped under the noses of the police, Special Branch and MI5 and was only picked up when his colleague phoned from Frankfurt back to London requesting more funding.
His accomplice and fellow Algerian, Salim Boukhari, had been living in London for a decade. The two of them were part of an international North African terrorist network that stretched from its center in London to Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy and across the Atlantic to Canada and America. When interviewed by BBC Television, Boukhari illustrated the classic curriculum vitae of the Islamist terrorist. How the difficult conditions of life under constant police harassment as a refugee in France motivated him to decamp to the United Kingdom and how, like many young Muslims seeking refuge among their own, he was vulnerable to the predatory activities of the terrorist recruiters waylaying young single men attending the mosque, and siphoning them off into special “study groups.” Here they become radicalized by exposure to inflammatory religious rhetoric and emotive videos depicting the suffering of Muslims in areas of communal conflict.
The Algerian Islamist diaspora in London was not unknown to the French intelligence agencies, who passed on information to MI5 and the Special Branch. But since their activities were directed externally specifically in order not to provoke a crackdown, the British authorities largely left the suspects alone to build up an effective network. This network, alongside other Islamist terror groups, now makes the threat of an attack within the United Kingdom a very real danger.
The latitude granted by British law to activities other countries would find impermissible has bred a stock of legally savvy Islamists who know how to express themselves as provocatively as possible but just staying a whisker within the law. Anjam Choudry, the chairman of al-Muhajiroun is a lawyer himself, and another master of the art is the Syrian born radical Islamist and veteran of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprising, Sheikh Omar bin Bakri Muhammad, a founder of Hizb al-Tahrir and co-founder of al-Muhajiroun. By the time of the 9/11 attacks, Bakri had long presented himself as the spokesman of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, and funder of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But he came to notoriety as far back as 1991 and the first Gulf War when he claimed that the then UK Prime Minister, John Major, was “a legitimate target; if anyone gets the opportunity to assassinate him, I don’t think they should save it. It is our Islamic duty and we will celebrate his death,”  a point which he later clarified as “a legitimate target if he were to set foot in a Muslim country.”
The contradiction with reality is somewhat startling, as Sheikh Bakri acknowledged to the press that he had been living on social benefits from the British government of “nearly £300 a week in state handouts for himself, his wife, and their five (as of 1996) children.” He explained it thus: “Islam allows me to take the benefit the system offers. I’m fully eligible. It is very difficult for me to get a job. Anyway, most of the leadership of the Islamic movement is on [state] benefit.” 
LONDON AS A CENTER FOR MIDDLE EAST DISSIDENCE
London shelters most of the opposition groups in the Arab world. Their contacts with their countries of origin is made easier here than from any other Western city, with an air network between the Middle East and London’s four airports that is little short of capillary. A glance at the small print of a printed publication or a website will likely show a London address. Gulf opposition groups are located a mere bus ride away from official consulates and embassies. One of the more significant is the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) headed by Saad al-Fagih. This is the only organized voice of radical fundamentalist opposition in Saudi Arabia. The importance of this movement has been graphically underlined: The recent street demonstrations last October in Saudi Arabia were largely attributed to stirrings made from MIRA’s satellite radio station in London, while Saad al-Fagih himself claims he was the target of an attempted kidnapping a few months earlier, when he had been the subject of an armed assault.
London’s historical connections attract into its net all the shades of Arab and Muslim political opinion with most, if not all, of the major figures in the countries implicated in the 9/11 events maintaining strong personal, professional and political links with the city. The pivotal role of London, intellectually and financially, also by consequence supports a continuous traffic in commerce and trade. This is of crucial importance for the establishment of an effective funding trail in the workings of the Islamist groups.
For anyone seeking answers to the political, cultural–and financial–background of Islamist terrorism, Britain’s capital city has over the years turned out to be a primary source.
The following are just a few of the more internationally
known groups and personalities in UK Islamism:
Co-founded by Omar Bakri Mohammed. Bakri came to the UK after being expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1986. Present Leader: Jalal Uddin Patel, little known Membership: Refused to reveal numbers
A hardline organization, with worldwide tentacles, this group is opposed to cooperation with any existing governments. Like other hardline groups, its main purpose is to re-establish the Caliphate.
The group’s first UK-based site was hosted by Imperial College London, but following complaints to the College authorities the site was closed down temporarily until a new host could be found. They now post in their own name as Hizb ut-Tahrir, and as Khilafah.
Bakri often presented himself as the spokesman of the International Islamic Front. He has described the International Islamic Front as the political wing of the [International] Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, led by Osama bin Laden.
Excerpts of another letter to Bakri by bin Laden, sent by fax from Afghanistan in the summer of 1998, were recently published in the Los Angeles Times. Bakri later released what he called bin Laden’s four specific objectives for a Jihad against the United States: “Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks.”
(Formed after a breakaway from Hizb ut-Tahrir)
Leader: Self-styled Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed
Membership: Refused to reveal numbers It has two wings–the da’wa (propagation) network and the jihad network. Al-Muhajiroun now denies that it recruits for jihad but it boasted of this before September 11. It aims to turn the UK into an Islamic state. It provides both financial and recruitment support for overseas Islamic groups and has a wide network of contacts around the world.
Though banned from most UK university campuses, as Bakri himself has admitted, al-Muhajiroun simply responded by using alternative and more innocuous titles for front groups.
Supporters of Sharia (Ansar Al-Shari’a)
Leader: Self-styled Sheikh Abu Hamza
Membership: Thought to be around 200
Associated closely with Finsbury Park mosque in north London until being banned from entering the building, the Supporters of Shari’a also wish to re-establish the Caliphate.
During the 1990s, Abu Hamza and his Supporters of Shari’a were considered the propagandists of the Algerian GIA (Groupe Islamique Arm) in Europe.
In February 1999, Abu Hamza revealed a plan to blow up military and civilian aircraft, so as to challenge the “Western monopoly of the skies.” He told the participants at a conference about experiments with a new weapon–flying mines connected to balloons–that are currently being carried out in Afghanistan.
At a meeting at the Finsbury Park mosque on June 29, 2001, according to La Repubblica, Abu Hamza proposed an ambitious but unlikely plot “which involved attacks carried out by planes,” to kill President Bush at the G-8 summit in Genoa. The Italian document concluded: “The belief that Osama bin Laden is plotting an attack is spreading among the radical Islamic groups.”
OTHER MAJOR ISLAMIST FIGURES
Other figures that have at one time found London to be highly conducive to their
The “spiritual head of the Mujahideen across Europe”  and at one time a key ideologue in Al-Takfir wal-Hijrah, his name cropped up constantly not just in the context of the UK but across Europe. Cells broken up in Germany, Spain, France and Italy were all found to have connections to Abu Qatada. He ran the Baker Street Mosque in Marylebone which had figures like Zacarias Moussaoui attending. Videos of his speeches were found in the Hamburg flat of Mohamed Atta, the hijackers’ ringleader.
An Algerian described by intelligence sources as Osama bin Laden’s main man in Britain, and accused of controlling Ahmed Rassam, who plotted to bomb Los Angeles airport in 1999. He was also linked to bomb plots in Strasbourg and Paris.
Established the Advice and Reformation Committee in July 1994 in London to campaign for Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. According to U.S. charges, the committee was in fact the global media operation for Al-Qaeda as well as a center for the passing of messages, information and money around the Al-Qaeda network.
London-based Egyptian, taken into custody accused of aiding the murderers of the anti-Taliban warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud on the eve of the terrorist attacks. He was finally imprisoned for having appeared on video tapes advocating the murder of Hindus and the plundering of their wealth in the service of Islam.
1. Their stated goal according to their chairman, Anjam Choudry, is “the implementation of the Sharia law in the UK. Under our rule this country would be known as the Islamic Republic of Great Britain.” The British shoe bomber, Richard Reid, 28, was seen at several al-Muhajiroun meetings in Ilford in the months before his failed attempt to bomb American Airlines Flight 63 over Miami.
Members of the group also feature among the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
2. There may be some substance to this. In an interview with the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on August 22, 1998, Omar Bakri Muhammad was asked why the Islamic groups never attacked Britain. He replied, “I work here in accordance with the covenant of peace which I made with the British government when I got [political] asylum… We respect the terms of this bond as Allah orders us to do.”
3. Article in the Mail on Sunday, November 12, 1995.
4. The Daily Mirror, September 7, 1996.
5. According to the leading Spanish prosecutor Baltazar Garzon.