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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radicals Found a Haven in London

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-Qaida 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-Qaida'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 called it, attracting a polyglot group of intellectuals, preachers, financiers, arms traders, technology specialists, forgers, travel organizers and foot soldiers.

Today, al-Qaida and its offshoots retain broader connections to London than to any other city in Europe, according to evidence from terrorist prosecutions. Evidence shows at least a supporting connection to London groups or individuals in many of the al-Qaida-related attacks of the past seven years. Among them are the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; outer rings of the Sept. 11 conspiracy; and the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

The evidence in these and other cases describes al-Qaida connections here as remarkably diverse, ranging from the core organization's early formation through its phase of elaborately planned global strikes between 1999 and 2001, to its more recent period of diffuse franchises, to an attack this week that authorities here said bore al-Qaida's stamp.

In the 1980s and 1990s, between 300 and 600 British citizens passed through Afghan training camps, officials here have acknowledged. Today, several recent cases suggest the seeding of a new generation of British residents who traveled as volunteers to fight with the insurgency in Iraq.

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 United States of providing financial support to al-Qaida because of his alleged role in the 1998 purchase of a satellite phone used by bin Laden.

Britain's tolerance of dissidents and terrorist sympathizers has sometimes frustrated U.S. officials. Some question whether Britain's emphasis on monitoring, as opposed to the preemptive 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 official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject's sensitivity. "They have a critical mass of a group of radicals operating in an open society."

Al-Qaida's London connection began in the early 1990s after Saudi Arabia cracked down on Islamic dissidents, including bin Laden.

The shock of Sept. 11 brought a sharp increase in British arrests of Islamic militants, many with some alleged connection to al-Qaida. But clerics like Abu 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 2004. Only 17 have been convicted.

Until last week, whether London was a target of al-Qaida had been a source of debate.

Some experts, like former CIA official Michael Scheuer, believed that bin Laden had long wanted to hit the city, ever since the arrest of his aide, Fawwaz. Bin Laden blamed the arrest publicly on "British Crusader hatred of Muslims" from his refuge at the time in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Other analysts, such as Simon, believed that, up until 2001, "Britain was regarded as too valuable a staging area" for al-Qaida to attack.

But ever since, it has been a key target.

In Finsbury Park, a ragged and lively neighborhood of new immigrants, a moderate faction has now taken control of the red-brick mosque where Masri once delivered his fire-breathing sermons.

Mohammed Nusa, 18, loitered outside, talking about the bombings and the backlash against Muslims he now feared. He adamantly rejected Masri's ideology but explained there are always a few among his friends who argue that "if they're going to make us look like the enemy, we might as well be the enemy."