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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
Bin Laden's strong links to Britain
Osama Bin Laden, the US's prime suspect for the terror attacks on New York and Washington
Bin Laden's links with the UK date back to the 1980s
By Nicolas Pelham in London

The al-Qaeda network of the prime suspect in the terror attacks on the United States, Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden, has been traced to over 30 countries.

But his connection to Britain is so strong that in recent years Washington faced calls to add the UK to its black list of states sponsoring terrorism.

And some Arab states now under suspicion accused Britain of giving harbour to Muslim militants.

So open was Bin Laden's presence that for most of the 1990s he maintained an office in London, named the Advisory and Reformation Committee.

Its UK spokesman, Khalid al-Fawwaz, was a businessman from the Saudi heartland of Nejd.

Abu Hamza who lost an arm and an eye in Afghanistan
Abu Hamza is an imam at a north London mosque
He befriended journalists, arranged trips to Bin Laden's Afghan hideout and circulated his fatwas urging Jihad from a Dollis Hill flat, armed with a fax machine and audio cassettes.

Britain's relationship with Bin Laden dates back to the 1980s when Whitehall and Washington pumped billions of dollars to Muslim fighters fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Arab volunteers recall fondly passing through Britain en route to Bin Laden's processing centre near the Afghan front.

With victory against the Soviets in 1989, many of the "Afghan Arabs" headed back to Britain.

Cash for Jihad

Like Beirut in the 1970s, London became a safe haven from which to broaden the Jihad armed struggle from Afghanistan to the secular regimes of the Arab world.

Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists, many of them ex-fighters, all made London their base and some 2,000 Middle East dissidents a year poured into Britain.

They were attracted, they said, by Britain's "traditions of democracy and justice". Most lauded violence.

Middle Eastern groups now banned in the UK
Egyptian Islamic Jihad
al-Gama'at al-Islamiya (Egypt)
Armed Islamic Group (Algeria)
Salafist Group for Call and Combat (Algeria)
Lebanese guerrilla organisation Hezbollah
Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Palestinian Abu Nidal Organisation
Islamic Army of Aden (Yemen)
Mujaheddin-e Khalq (Iran)

From the north London suburb of Cricklewood, Hamas published al-Filastin al-Muslima (Muslim Palestine).

The Jordanian militant, Abu Qurtada - who had been convicted for his activities in his own country - circulated al-Ansar - a pamphlet championing the slaughter of Algerian policemen and civilians.

Abu Hamza - an Egyptian-born imam at the Finsbury park mosque who lost an arm and an eye in Afghanistan - gave a fatwa praising assassinations that included those of prominent Middle East figures and a two-year-old Algerian child.

Followers held buckets after his sermons, collecting cash for Egyptian Jihad.

Mainstream Muslim leaders in Britain repudiated their interpretations, but the radicals did draw an enthusiastic fan club amongst some young British Muslims, often ill-versed in Islam.

But from Marx to Mandela, the UK has a long tradition of free speech for radicals.

However few believed the ex-fighters were providing significant logistical support to armed struggles abroad, and even less that their zeal might eventually rebound on the West.

Arab governments fighting armed Islamic insurgencies saw things differently.

Britain accused

Some suspected that, as in Afghanistan, Britain was continuing to use the Islamists for its foreign policy goals.

After Abu Hamza, welcomed the massacre of 58 European tourists at Luxor in October 1997, Egypt denounced Britain as a hotbed for radicals.

Treating a casualty of the Luxor massacre
Sixty-two people, most of them tourists, were killed in the Luxor massacre

The Egyptian State Information Service posted a "Call to Combat Terrorism" on its official web site.

Of its 14 most wanted terrorists, seven - it said - were based in Britain.

Foremost amongst them was Yasser al-Sirri, sentenced to death in absentia for plotting the failed assassination of an Egyptian prime minister, and still running - with British permission - the Islamic Observation Centre in London, a mouthpiece for Egyptian rebels.

Yemen, too, called for Abu Hamza's extradition.

And after a wave of bombings and kidnappings in 1998, the Yemeni authorities arrested eight Britons in possession of weapons and explosives. One was Abu Hamza's son.

Four months later, Britain briefly detained Abu Hamza, then released him.

But as the Middle East's violence spilled into Europe, so the pressure for Britain to rein in its militants grew.

Closer to home

Paris accused London of harbouring Algerian militants implicated in the Paris metro bombings and the massacres of civilians in Algeria. Months later, the United States added its voice.

In February 1998, Saudi dissident Mohammed al-Massari and Omar Bakri, leader of al-Muhajiroun, signed a statement calling for attacks on American targets.

Sixty UK groups added their names. Two weeks later, Bin Laden echoed the call.

"In compliance with God's order," read the fax released from his London office, "we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims to kill the Americans."

Months later, two US embassies in East Africa were bombed.

Under American pressure, British police arrested Bin Laden's UK representative, Khalid Fawwaz, and three years on he remains in jail, challenging extradition to the US.

Anti-terrorism act

Parliament passed a new anti-terrorism act, reversing centuries of tradition and making it illegal for anyone in Britain to promote armed struggle abroad.

Twenty-four organisations - most of them Muslim militant groups, including al-Qaeda - were proscribed.

There are further signs the heyday is over. Abu Hamza continues to spout his rhetoric, but police at the gates now mount a round-the-clock guard.

For their own protection, say the police, but also for surveillance.

The British police admit they are monitoring the more vocal preachers but they also know that the US hijackings have been blamed on those who rarely caused a stir.

And in the minds of Britain's policy makers the old confidence that giving militants freedom of speech might give the UK freedom from militant violence is fast ebbing away.

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