Terrorism experts have long warned that Islamists espousing violence enjoy a haven in London, an assertion that has come into sharp focus again with Thursday’s bombings in the British capital.
For years, Britain tolerated the presence of high-profile and outspoken Islamic clerics whose fiery sermons frequently extolled jihad against the West. Since 9/11, however, anti-terror legislation has been tightened, some groups have been outlawed, terror rings have been broken and some controversial figures have been arrested.
One of them, Egyptian-born Abu Hamza al-Masri, went on trial this week at London’s Old Bailey courthouse, where he faces more than a dozen charges include inciting terrorism and racial hatred.
Al-Masri was formerly the imam at a North London mosque linked to confessed al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound flight from Europe with explosives hidden in his shoe.
He also is wanted in the United States and Yemen on terror-related charges.
For years before his May 2004 arrest al-Masri used the Finsbury Park mosque as a base to speak for what he insisted were political causes.
Despite his radical rhetoric and close links to a group that claimed responsibility for attacks including the Oct. 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, it was only in 2003 that the authorities acted against him, stripping him of his British citizenship and barring him from preaching at the mosque.
In 2000, Bakri told Cybercast News Service in an interview: “We will use your democracy to destroy your democracy.”
Britain’s legal system and its willingness late last century to offer asylum to figures like Bakri, al-Masri and Abu Qatada made it a magnet for exiled radical organizations.
“In the past decade, the United Kingdom’s undisputed political, economic, and cultural center has also become a major world center of political Islam and anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American activism,” writes Hebrew University of Jerusalem academic Robert S. Wistrich, in online excerpts of an article to be published soon.