Aug 12, 2005 | 23:21 GMT

5 mins read

'Londonistan,' Al Qaeda and the Finsbury Park Mosque

Much public and private debate has focused since the Sept. 11 attacks on the role Western mosques play in the jihadist campaign — especially those mosques known to be under radical Islamist control. The July bombings targeting London's transportation system, however, have placed this issue squarely in the spotlight. The British capital, increasingly called "Londonistan" in reference to the city's growing radical element, has been at the center of the debate. Britain has no shortage of conservative-leaning mosques manned by imams and khatibs who have emigrated from the Muslim world (mostly from Pakistan). Those representing the diverse array of radical Islamist trends in Britain, however, have not had much success in using the country's mosques to organize their activities. One reason is that mosque clerics and administrators deem the radical youth and their not-so-youthful leaders as a threat to their authority. As a result, radical groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, al-Muhajiroun (and its successor groups Firqah al-Najiyah, Al-Ghurabah, and Ahl al-Sunnah wa Al-Jama'ah) have been forced to operate in a more public sphere. The Central North London Mosque, also known as the Finsbury Park Mosque, has been an exception. It not only is a well-known hub for salafist-jihadist types, but also — according to ample evidence — has attracted the attention of al Qaeda handlers (who, unlike Londonistan's more prominent radical groups, can operate only clandestinely). This raises the question: What is so unique about this mosque and its managers? Built in 1990, Finsbury Park Mosque had been legally under the control of a mainstream board of trustees. Over the course of the last five to seven years, however, it was taken over by a group called Ansar al-Shariah (Supporters of Islamic Law), led by salafist-jihadist figurehead Mustafa Kamil, a.k.a Abu Hamza al-Masri. After openly showing his support for al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Masri was suspended from his position as imam in April 2002. In February 2003, the Charities Commission — the British regulatory body that oversees religious institutions — made the suspension permanent. The mosque's original board of trustees regained control this past February. Al-Masri, meanwhile, has been in and out of British custody since May 2004 — and currently is being held in London's new Belmarsh Prison. In May 2004, British authorities detained him under a U.S. extradition request, but later released him. Three months later, authorities arrested al-Masri again, this time under section 41 of the Terrorism Act of 2000, which covers the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. Again he was released. Then, in October 2004, he was arrested and charged with 16 crimes, including encouraging the murder of non-Muslims and intending to stir up racial hatred. Al-Masri's trial on those charges began in July but has since been adjourned until January 2006. The U.S. extradition request, meanwhile, is pending. That request stems from a U.S. indictment that charges al-Masri and Earnest James Ujaama with providing aid to al Qaeda and attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in late 1999 and early 2000 near Bly, Ore. It is unclear whether he will be extradited to the United States, given that Britain is party to an EU agreement that forbids member states from extraditing suspects involved in a capital case to any country that has the death penalty. During his time as the de facto imam of the mosque, the facility turned into a nerve center for jihadists and other radical Islamists who were either British Muslims or had exploited Britain's lax immigration laws to find sanctuary in the country. Many known al Qaeda militants, including "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, attended the mosque. Many Algerian and Egyptian jihadists, as well as at least two from the groups that staged the July 7 and July 21 London bombings, also have known affiliations with the mosque. The most direct link between the mosque and terrorism was established in 1999 when many of al-Masri's associates, including his son, were arrested in Yemen in connection with bomb attacks staged by militant Islamist group the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army along with another group, Supporters of Shariah. Yemeni authorities jailed al-Masri's son Mohammed Mustafa Kamil for three years and demanded that the British government extradite al-Masri himself. In essence, the mosque has served as a rendezvous point for al Qaeda handlers/feelers and potential local operatives. Once an al Qaeda manager has made first contact, further meetings are held only in private, to reduce the risk of detection. But the mosque has in the past offered the network ideologically indoctrinated British recruits. Those who meet al Qaeda's criteria — the ability to handle the technical aspects required of bombers and the ability to work beneath law-enforcement radar — are recruited. Because British security and intelligence agencies have the mosque under surveillance, however, further encounters are held elsewhere, often under the guise of a prayer group. Recruits also are frequently sent overseas to receive training or to enter the jihadist fight. Others are sent to gyms and martial arts studios to prepare for the jihad. With the Finsbury Park Mosque back in the hands of the mainstream community, al-Masri behind bars, al Qaeda's spiritual leader Abu Qatada in extradition proceedings to be sent back to his native Jordan, and Omar Bakri Mohammed stuck in Lebanon after being barred from re-entering Britain, the radical and militant Islamists have been dealt a severe blow. This state of affairs, however, raises several questions: How many other small radical prayer groups/cells spawned by the Finsbury Park Mosque are still out there? Where now will al Qaeda make first contact with potential recruits in Britain? And finally — Has it already found such a place?

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