|London a Refuge as Well as Target for Islamic Radicals
By Gary Thomas
13 July 2005
British intelligence and counterterrorism officials are now searching for clues about the perpetrators of last week's deadly bomb blasts in London. Officials say the attacks bear all the hallmarks of the Islamic extremist terrorist group al-Qaida. London has been a magnet for Islamic radicalism for some time.
London has long been a hub for Islamic radicals and dissidents, who preach a fiery mix of theology and politics in the mosque and in the street.
But, quietly nestled among Britain's more than one and-one half million Muslims, say counter-terrorism experts, is a small cadre of truly dangerous radicals who have come to be labeled "jihadists." British authorities believe jihadists of the al-Qaida network carried out the terrorist bombings in London.
Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says al-Qaida has found some recruits among young male British Muslims.
"We do also have people born and bred in the United Kingdom, some of them third or fourth generation Muslims, who are young, angry, alienated," Mr. Wilkinson says. "A very small number would be so extreme as to get involved in al-Qaeda's network. But even a small group, as you know from the tragic events of 9-11, can commit terrible mass casualty attacks."
Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who spent much of his career tracking al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden, says the hard-core al-Qaida adherents stay away from the high-profile firebrands because of the attention they draw.
"They're a very professional organization," he says. "They're not going to go near to these people and be detected. Al-Qaida, in fact, has evolved over the past several years and has developed a certain savvyness, I think, that separates now people who are engaged in propaganda and/or illegal economic activity -- credit card fraud, tobacco smuggling, that sort of thing -- from people who conduct attacks. Al-Qaida is now very careful, especially in Europe and the United States, to avoid using people who have any sort of a police record or notoriety."
He says London is attractive to jihadists not only because they can hide in the Muslim population, but because they can easily get their message out because it is the largest center of Arabic media in the West.
Saad al-Faqih is a London-based Saudi dissident who fled to Britain in 1994 and now heads up the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. The U.S. government has labeled him an an-Qaida financier for allegedly helping Osama bin Laden procure a satellite phone in 1998 and froze his assets last year. The British government did the same. One of the claims of responsibility for the London attacks, now believed to be of questionable authenticity -- showed up on a Web site allegedly registered to Mr. al-Faqih. Mr. al-Faqih knows bin Laden, who is also opposed to the Saudi monarchy - but denies any terrorist connection, saying he seeks the ouster of the Saudi government only by peaceful means.
Speaking from London, Mr. al-Faqih says he has no doubt that al-Qaida carried out the London bombings as part of a strategy to attack U.S. allies. He expects another statement soon from Osama bin Laden, perhaps to offer another truce to countries that withdraw their support from the U.S.-led effort in Iraq.
"I would expect bin Laden to come again now with another statement reintroducing the truce offer, or otherwise I would expect maybe another attack to prove that this offer is not the offer of a weak person or a weak organization," Mr. al-Faqih says. "This offer has to be taken seriously. Otherwise, Europe has to take the consequences."
Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer agrees with that analysis, and adds that it is a mistake to view the London attack as a sign that al-Qaida is too weakened to hit bigger targets.
"If al-Qaeda wanted to conduct the kind of attack that it staged in London in the United States, they would have done so already," Mr. Scheuer says. "Security in the United States is vastly inferior to that in London. And so what I think what we're following now is the subsidiary campaign against American allies and waiting for al-Qaida to conduct the bigger-than-9-11 attack inside the United States."
What was surprising to some experts was that al-Qaida was willing to hit a city that was such a highly regarded operational base.