London has a number of such overtly radical institutions. Most notorious is the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park, which was for several years a favorite destination for Islamic extremists worldwide.
Among the firebrand preachers here was the Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Masri, who fought with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and in Britain worked as a nightclub bouncer. Within Britain, he founded in 1994 the extremist Supporters of Shariah (SOS), which organized military training for young British Muslims, with former members of the British armed forces as instructors. A police raid at the mosque in 2003 found paramilitary equipment. Some SOS supporters, including members of Abu Hamza's family, were arrested in Yemen on charges that they had been sent to that country to destroy Western and Christian targets. Finsbury Park mosque—the "Suicide Factory"—became a center for the Muhajiroun.27
The mosque stands in a heavily Muslim quarter called Little Algeria, and it has often been associated with members of the GIA. Visitors to Finsbury Park included Ahmed Ressam, a GIA fighter who was arrested on the Canadian border at the end of 1999 while en route to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, LAX. Another regular attendee was the French-Algerian Djamel Beghal, a member of Takfir wal Hijra, who was radicalized during the 1990s by the combined impact of the struggles in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Palestine. In London in 1997, he became close to Zacarias Moussaoui, and the two men visited Afghanistan together. Beghal was arrested several weeks before September 11 for plotting a series of European terrorist spectaculars. One ambitious scheme reputedly involved flying a helicopter full of explosives into the U.S. embassy in Paris.28
The radical activities at the Finsbury Park mosque can scarcely be described as underground or clandestine. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, graffiti near the mosque proclaimed "New York Taliban Triumph." Abu Hamza himself looks like a cartoon villain, bearing as he does a hook in place of a hand that he claims to have lost in Afghanistan (others claim it was severed as a punishment for theft). British media delighted to cover the ultra-radical fulminations of "Old Hooky." In 2006, Abu Hamza was convicted of several offenses including incitement to murder and stirring racial hatred, specifically calling for the killing of non-Muslims.
Abu Hamza was not an isolated figure. Another Islamist leader is Abu Qatada, Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, a Palestinian by birth. He is connected to both the GIA and Takfir wal Hijra, and has been called "Bin Laden's ambassador to Europe." A Spanish indictment described him as "spiritual head of the mujaheddin in Europe." Allegedly, he was involved in a scheme to attack Western targets in Jordan during the millennium celebrations at the end of 1999, in what would have been the other half of the planned atrocity at LAX. Tapes of Abu Qatada sermons were found in the Hamburg apartment used by some of the September 11 hijackers. According to one journalistic account,
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, militants in Europe followed a well-worn route. They made pilgrimages to radical mosques in Britain, where clerics such as Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza were revered by holy warriors. British-based extremists screened recruits and organized their trips to the camps in Afghanistan, supplying plane tickets and fake papers if necessary.29
Mohammed Sifaoui notes that the most sought-after terrorists in the world have found shelter in the UK. . . . They propagate their ideology there. They distribute booklets on their philosophy—giving them out freely outside mosques. . . . [T]he majority of the young guys who were living in the west and who left to go to training camps in Afghanistan had a tightly outlined itinerary—they went through London to Pakistan. And then from Pakistan to Afghanistan.30
Italy too has its extremist mosques. In 2002, intelligence agencies taped a conversation between a member of the deadly Iraqi network that followed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and a prominent Egyptian-born imam named Abu Umar, who headed a mosque on Milan's Via Quar-anta. The tape linked Abu Umar to the terrorist movement Ansar alIslam. The imam speaks frankly of the existence of twenty-five or so terrorist cells able to carry out jihad in Europe and assures his friend, "Don't ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia's money is your money." He also spoke of the widespread international network. Although "the nerve centre is still London," other nations provided rich opportunities:
The country from which everything takes off is Austria. ... [I]t has become the country of international communications. . . . Now Europe is controlled via air and land, but in Poland and Bulgaria and countries that aren't part of the European Community everything is easy.
Based on such evidence, the U.S. State Department called the mosque "the main al-Qaida station house in Europe." Abu Umar subsequently became the center of an international crisis when, in 2003, CIA agents kidnapped him off the street and rendered him to Egypt where he was tortured. The affair generated a direct U.S. confrontation with the Italian state and court system, not to mention with EU authorities. At the time of writing, Milanese prosecutors are building a case against those said to be involved in the seizure, including several CIA agents.31
Every European country has extremist imams and mosques, though few have the seemingly limitless tolerance of Britain in permitting their operations. The French intelligence agency, Renseignements Généraux, suggests that perhaps fifty of the nation's mosques, including thirty in and around Paris, are strongly militant. Belgian intelligence agencies believe that thirty mosques in their country serve as recruiting centers for movements that posed "an immediate, grave and specific risk to the survival of our democratic and constitutional order."
Reportedly, European dependence on Saudi oil made authorities reluctant to investigate radical activities at many mosques in Spain and elsewhere until recent terror attacks forced a wider investigation intervention.32
Apart from mosques, some Islamist charities have emerged as important contact points in militant organization and especially the transmission of funds. Most often mentioned are the Saudi-based charities that supply funds to European mosques and religious causes, like the Al-Haramain Foundation. Also under regular investigation is the European network of charities that supports Palestinian causes, groups like the British Interpal, which the U.S. government accuses of funding Hamas. When in 2006 British police investigated the conspiracy to destroy airliners, they alleged that participants were linked through Crescent Relief London, a charity formed to assist earthquake victims in Pakistan.33
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