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British connection alqaida revolving door { February 14 2002 }

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In the final part of our investigation into the Afghanistan war's unanswered questions, the focus falls on Muslim groups in the UK accused of promoting terrorism

Allies point the finger at Britain as al-Qaida's 'revolving door'

The British connection

Audrey Gillan, Richard Norton-Taylor, John Hooper in Berlin, Jon Henley in Paris and Giles Tremlett in Madrid
Thursday February 14, 2002
The Guardian

Investigators in Britain are privately at loggerheads with their US and continental European counterparts over claims that the UK was used as a pivotal base for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in the run-up to the September 11 terror attacks.
Documents compiled in Madrid, Milan, Paris and Hamburg and seen by the Guardian indicate that most of the known attacks planned or executed by al-Qaida in the past four years had links to Britain. Investigating magistrates, police and intelligence officers in those cities believe that Islamist spiritual leaders based in Britain played a key role in the indoctrination and possibly even the authorisation of terrorist operations. Given the unique nature of Bin Laden's movement, they may have played an even more crucial role than al-Qaida's operational commanders.

But British security sources paint a very different picture, saying that the ties with al-Qaida are tenuous. They are backed up by police, defence lawyers and terrorism experts who all argue that there has been little activity in terms of terror cells.

"They would say that, wouldn't they?" said one source, referring to his continental colleagues. "There is a blame game going on which isn't very helpful."

The disagreement goes to the heart of the ethical and legal dilemmas facing the British judicial system as it tries to assess the degree to which the country has been used as a refuge for those engaged in terrorist activity and what should be done to ensure it is not.

There have been dozens of arrests, but only five people have been charged, not a single one on charges relating directly to September 11. In one terror round-up in Leicester, 11 men were arrested, five were eventually freed, four were transferred to immigration authorities, and only two were charged. On Tuesday the highest profile detainee, Lotfi Raissi, was released on bail after the district judge said the FBI lacked enough evidence to press a case of terrorism.

Investigators in France, Spain, Germany and Italy are adamant that at least seven top Bin Laden lieutenants operated out of Britain in recent years. They claim that the Muslim clerics, such as Abu Qatada, allowed to openly preach jihad in the UK were in fact spinning a "revolving door" to radical Islam and on to terrorism.

Italian officers point to a list of phone numbers found in the diary of an al-Qaida associate and say that 18 out of 32 of the numbers belong to British-based suspects. A Spanish judge says that one man made calls from the UK before September 11 which indicate that he knew of the impending attacks.

One source close to the French investigation told the Guardian that before the events of September 11 "Britain acted - and, to some extent, may still act - as a kind of filter for parts of al-Qaida. The main European centres for spiritual indoctrination were London and Leicester; any weak links were weeded out there. The new recruit would then be sent to suffer in the camps in Afghanistan. After passing both tests, the mojahid could take his place in the sleeper networks in Europe".

A senior German intelligence officer summed up the mood when he said: "All the clues lead to London. All the roads lead to London."

The evidence

So, what is this evidence upon which such sweeping and alarming claims are based? Investigators in continental Europe point to a series of key characters whom they say prove that Britain is the terrorists' revolving door:

Abu Qatada

A Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, claims that Sheikh Abu Qatada, the London-based Muslim cleric who ran the Four Feathers centre near Baker Street, is "the spiritual leader of mojahedin [holy warriors] across Europe". He claimed that Qatada, a Palestinian previously living in Acton in west London, whose bank account has been frozen after the Treasury named him as being suspected of funding terrorism, helped channel money from the Spanish terrorists to a group in Jordan who planned a series of attacks in 1999.

Qatada was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan and is accused by the US, Spain, France and Algeria of being a key influence in the September 11 attacks. Videos of his speeches were found in the Hamburg flat of Mohammad Atta, the hijackers' ringleader.

In a bugged conversation Sami Essid, who goes on trial this month in Milan accused of leading al-Qaida's network in Italy, talks about maintaining security within the organisation and refers to "Sheikh Abu Qatada" as an example to be followed. The Italian authorities say this implicates Qatada.

Djamel Beghal

The French point to the confession of Djamel Beghal, a French Algerian who was detained in Dubai and questioned after he was persuaded by a series of imams that terrorism was anti-Islamic. Beghal, who is suspected of plotting to bomb the American embassy in Paris, told police he had been a follower of Qatada and that he was a key figure in his radical conversion. Beghal moved from France to Leicester where he worshipped at the Mosque of Piety and travelled to London to listen to Qatada preach. Beghal is suspected of having recruited Zacarias Moussaoui, the former South Bank University student suspected of being part of the September 11 plot, and Richard Reid, the alleged shoe bomber who tried to blow up a Paris-Miami flight, to camps in Afghanistan.

Kamel Daoudi

Following Beghal's confession, police across Europe closed in on a small unit of men they believe were planning some kind of "spectacular". One, Kamel Daoudi, who had been living in Beghal's flat in Paris, was found in Beghal's other flat in Leicester. He is said to be the unit's computer expert.

Abu Abdallah

Daoudi told French police that he met an al-Qaida guerrilla in Leicester called Abu Abdallah. Abdallah's identity remains uncertain but French investigators believe he may be among the 11 men arrested in Leicester last month.

Baghdad Meziane and Brahim Benmerzouga

Arrested in Leicester in January. They are accused of belonging to al-Qaida and conspiring to raise money to fund terrorism. Meziane is also accused of "directing the activities of al-Qaida".

Abu Doha

Five months before the attacks on America, Italy's special operations police produced a report which identified two al-Qaida networks in Europe. Both were run by Islamist extremists based in Britain -"one made up principally of Algerians and led by Abu Doha; the second made up predominantly of Tunisians and led by the Tunisian Seifallah Ben Hassine".

Doha is currently in detention in Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London fighting extradition to the US on charges that he was part of an al-Qaida cell plotting to blow up Los Angeles airport on millennium eve. The whereabouts of Ben Hassine are unknown.

French police sources say they have uncovered further links to Britain with the "priceless" evidence of the recently arrested Yacine Akhnouche, a French Algerian detained on suspicion of close links with a cell in Frankfurt which planned an attack on the Strasbourg Christmas market. He has told police that while in al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan he met Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" in the September 11 attacks, as well as Richard Reid and Abu Doha, who he says was the "recruiting sergeant" of Bin Laden's European operation.

Spain points to four more British-based Bin Laden lieutenants, identifying them by their pseudonyms in an indictment. Spanish police taped a series of cryptic phone calls from a caller in Britain using the codename "Shakur". One of these, according to Judge Garzon, shows that Shakur knew of the upcoming September 11 attacks. "In our classes, we have entered the field of aviation, and we have even cut the bird's throat," he said on August 27.

The British riposte

Security sources say the evidence produced by the continental Europeans is in many ways as flimsy as that brought by the US against Lotfi Raissi, the Algerian who was released on bail this week. He was originally accused of training at least four of the hijackers involved in September 11. They say that Qatada's role has been overstated, that he is a spiritual leader and a rabble rouser but that there is no evidence of his direct involvement in terrorism.

Qatada fled his home in Acton the day before parliament passed the new anti-ter rorist legislation and security sources refuse to say whether he would have been interned. His disappearance has raised questions about his role (recently, the French daily Le Figaro claimed that Qatada was an MI5 agent, something the security services vigorously deny).

British sources claim that the French, Germans, Spanish and Italians are trying to point the finger at Britain in order to distract attention from the presence of terrorist suspects in their own countries and shield themselves from US criticism. Many of the claims about Britain, they imply, are made by ambitious magistrates out to advance their political as well as legal careers.

One senior police source says it is important to differentiate between political dissent and extremist political violence when looking at the British picture. In a stinging criticism of the quality of investigations on the continent, he claims that his counterparts in cities such as Berlin and Paris often fail to appreciate the difference.

British investigators also stress that al-Qaida is not a structured terrorist group, like Eta or the IRA. "It is not even a cell. Individuals are loosely connected with al-Qaida and other networks," said an intelligence source.

Sources admit that some of the recently arrested suspects had some links with extremist networks calling for a jiha. But they emphasise that their role was essentially one of supporting them by fund-raising, mostly through credit card fraud.

Lawyers such as Gareth Peirce, who represents a number of the men currently interned or facing extradition on terror-related charges, are certain that al-Qaida, as it is being portrayed by the CIA, does not actually exist in the UK, and that it has become a handy media shorthand for all that is "evil". They say that men are being imprisoned without charge simply because they are political dissenters.

Akhtar Raja, a lawyer representing Khaled al-Fawwaz, currently fighting extradition to the US in connection with the east African embassy bomb attacks, says he has been studying the "so-called" al-Qaida organisation for a number of years.

"It's very, very difficult to take little pockets of Muslims around the world who individually comprise small numbers but may well espouse violence - and they are few and far between - and make them a tangible target from the CIA's point of view. They are not connected at all in terms of any formal or loose relationship or allegiance to each other."

Security sources here are privately furious at the fishing expedition launched by the US in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and seething at the allegations coming out of continental Europe that al-Qaida has flourished in this country.

Al-Qaida cells

The focus of investigations should not be alleged al-Qaida cells operating in Britain - British authorities are convinced they simply don't exist. Individuals with nefarious connections may have operated out of London and Leicester, but "cells" is a concept that does not fit. Continental European investigators find this element of Britain's self-defence baffling, as they point out that they have always accepted that formal cells probably did not exist in the UK.

The focus, intelligence and police sources say, should be to the future, not the past. Their worry is that hundreds of young, disaffected Muslims and new converts to Islam are still being drawn into extreme Islamist movements in which they are susceptible to manipulation. In little halls up and down the country youths are still being drawn by preachers using Bin Laden's name as the big attraction when they have no connection to him or his movement.

As Mike Diboll, an expert in modern Islamic and Arabic thought, says: "It seems to me that there are two groups of people in the UK who are very vulnerable to recruitment into anti-western Islamist terrorist groups: young Asian Muslim men who are seething with resentment at Britain and the west, not out of directly religious concerns, but as a result of socio-political factors such as racism, unemployment and social exclusion, and white or African-Caribbean converts to Islam who, while they approach the religion in good faith, are liable to be exploited by militants as a result of their combination of zeal and ignorance."

MI5 and the anti-terrorist branch are using new resources to monitor these recruiting grounds, in the hope that they can break the cycle in which potential future terrorists are moulded.

The new strategy involves gathering intelligence on sympathisers of a number of Islamist groups - whether they be Kashmiri, Algerian, Chechen or other nationalities - and paying much closer scrutiny to the mosques that preach fundamentalist doctrines. Abdel Bar Atwan, editor of the Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, who travelled to the Hindu Kush to interview Bin Laden in 1996, said: "I have received a lot of calls from young Pakistanis who said 'look, we want to go and fight the Americans, we want to go and join Bin Laden'.

"You can find these hot-headed young chaps anywhere and they are willing to do anything."

Blame game or list of shame?

Plots the continental Europeans say are linked to Britain include:

A plan to bomb the US embassy in Tirana, Albania. Documents prepared for the trial of Misbah Ali Hassanayn, an Egyptian, which the Guardian has obtained, quote a message from Rome police saying he was suspected of being in touch with "a group of terrorists living in London that was about to carry out an attack on the US embassy in Tirana".

A planned attack on the 2000 Christmas market in Strasbourg. Until now this has been ascribed entirely to a Frankfurt-based group but a Milan police report indicates that hit men sent from Britain were to have played the key role.

Italian court papers point to Abu Doha's involvement in a prospective attack on the US embassy in Rome. In January 2001, the embassy was closed. Court papers say the US had been tipped off to a possible attack. Doha was described as "the person in charge".

A suicide attack by helicopter or lorry on the US embassy in Paris was planned by a group including Djamel Beghal and Kamel Daoudi, who had lived in Britain.

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