Next Stop, Londonistan

It's Friday evening and the faithful stream from the city's mosques, a few whose famous imams draw thousands to hear fiery speeches condemning Americans and Jews.

As an American woman abroad, with fresh memories of the events of September 11, it is somewhat chilling to be caught unexpectedly in the sea of white-clad worshippers, all of them, apparently, male.

Not even one other woman -- in western garb or wearing a headscarf -- is in sight as the crowds jostle, heads down as they rush through the dusk to home and dinner.

The streets are lined with restaurants and small businesses, among them Islamic bookshops selling tapes made by some of the better-known imams, or Muslim religious leaders.

One local Muslim cleric, Abdullah el-Faisal, was arrested by anti-terrorist police on charges he made race-hate speeches urging followers to kill Jews and non-believers. Tapes of his sermons -- one title is "No Peace with the Jews" -- are sold openly in Islamic bookshops for the equivalent of about $2.80 each.

Newer tapes, released since September 11, instruct Muslim males to train for battle, promising 72 virgins in Paradise to those who die in holy war.

At another mosque complex near the city is a training ground said to be the site where dozens of Muslim men have learned how to assemble AK-47s and other military tricks before heading to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.

These crowded streets are not in Karachi or Kabul. They are nowhere near President George W. Bush's "axis of evil". They are in a city some anti-terrorism investigators have dubbed 'Londonistan,' the thriving militant Islamic community in and around the capital of Tony Blair's Britain, Washington's closest ally in its war on terrorism.

Experts on international terrorism say the heartland of violent Islamic extremism is now none of the official fronts of the war on terror. They say its center is Western Europe -- mainly, but not exclusively, Britain, which granted asylum to a stream of Muslim militants during the 1990s and where the tradition of freedom of expression that once sheltered Karl Marx has now extended to the widespread, and very open, cause of jihad.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion here -- with 1.5 million to 2.5 million adherents -- many of them immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh and many critical of extremism. But experts say there are two groups of Britons particularly drawn to militant Islam. One is young, generally single Muslim men of Asian descent who are angry over unemployment and racism and who put religion above country. Society here remains wary of foreigners, with newspapers and pub conversation filled with talk of "asylum-seekers" -- many of them Muslims -- blamed for a litany of social and economic problems.

"Politicians should really take note," said Barnie Choudhury, a commentator on the BBC's Radio Four, recounting how young Muslims in Britain expressed envy of those who have died in Afghanistan.

"One thing you cannot take away from, what appear to be ordinary Muslims, is their right to believe. And this, along with their anger, is their common and driving force. Remember the old soldiering wish for volunteers rather than conscripts.

"These young men assure me they are not members of any radical groups. They do not see themselves as supporting terrorism. They see themselves as fighting for their religious freedom."

The others most drawn to Islam are western converts who, in a nation where attendance at Christian churches has dropped dramatically, look to Islam for direction in their lives and offer recruiters an easily exploited mix of zeal and ignorance, experts said. One of these converts was Richard Reid, also known as Abdul Ra'uff, a former small-time crook now infamous as the "shoe bomber" who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight to Miami. Reid had converted to Islam in prison.

Reid belonged to the U.K.-based militant group al-Muhajiroun, which seeks to make Britain an Islamic state. "Al-Muhajiroun has one goal," Anjam Choudry, its U.K. chairman, told the Observer newspaper. "We would like to see the implementation of the sharia law in the U.K. Under our rule this country would be known as the Islamic Republic of Great Britain." Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, founder of al-Muhajiroun, sparked outrage after September 11 by urging young Muslims to go fight for the Taliban. Some senior politicians responded by saying that any Britain who fought against the country's troops should be prosecuted for treason.

Al-Muhajiroun also described Blair as a "legitimate target" because of his support for the U.S. campaign to oust the Taliban.

Militant Islamists who have spent significant time in London include Zacarias Moussauoi, a Frenchman detained in Minnesota and charged with complicity in the September 11 attacks, Djamel Beghal, another Frenchman held for his alleged role in a plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, commonly known as Sheikh Omar, the prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl.

Sheikh Omar was born and educated in London. He had been indicted in the United States in connection with the 1994 kidnapping of four Westerners, including an American, in India, even before Pearl's death.

Police estimate that al Qaeda has recruited about 200 Britons. At least five Britons are in U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba and at least 20 are believed to have been killed by U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden's links to Britain are so strong that he maintained an office in London for most of the 1990s, named the Advisory and Reformation Committee.

In February, the Guardian newspaper said it had seen documents from Spain, Italy, France and Germany showing that most of the known attacks planned or executed by al Qaeda in the past four years had links to Britain.

British security sources dispute the report.

"All the clues lead to London. All the roads lead to London," a senior German intelligence officer told the newspaper.

A mosque in Finsbury Park in north London has become particularly well-known. Moussaoui was a regular there, along with other named al Qaeda operatives, such as Beghal and probably Kamel Daoudi, also being held for alleged involvement in the Paris embassy plot.

Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian former professional soccer player now being held in Belgium, who is alleged to have been the designated suicide bomber in the Paris-embassy plot, is also thought to have frequented the mosque.

In February, the Observer, citing intelligence sources, said hardline Islamists had practiced with Kalashnikov AK-47s at the Finsbury Park mosque, where hardline cleric Abu Hamza often leads prayers. Hamza, who was born in Egypt and lost an arm and an eye in Afghanistan, is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges. Britain has refused his extradition.

One of his fatwas, or edicts, praised assassinations including those of prominent Middle East figures and a two-year-old Algerian child. After his sermons, followers used buckets to collect donations for Egyptian Jihad.

MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence, says its agents have reported that scores of Islamic extremists had been sent from the mosque for training in Afghanistan. Feroz Abbassi, a computer engineer from Croydon in south London, who is now held at Guantanamo Bay, was "indoctrinated" at the mosque, according to his parents.

The list of names goes on -- another fiery local cleric, Abu Qatada, has been named in American court testimony as a member of al Qaeda's fatwa committee. He disappeared from his home in west London around Christmas, just before he could have been detained under antiterrorist legislation Britain introduced after September 11.

So what does Britain, which lost hundreds of citizens in the World Trade Center collapse, make of this?

Scotland Yard has said an estimated 100 individuals with links to bin Laden are based in the country. The agency has detained dozens under the toughened anti-terrorism laws.

Many here are angry, asking why the government had failed to act. "Why didn't Britain crack down on the enemy within?" was the headline of one critical editorial in the Yorkshire Post. Despite concern from rights groups, there has been little public opposition to the new laws making it easier to crack down on militants.

There was local fury when a few Muslims demonstrated happily after the September 11 attacks and again when 200 Muslim protesters chanted anti-western slogans and burned pictures of Blair and Bush after U.S. warplanes began bombing Afghanistan.

"That is not the real Britain," I was assured repeatedly.

Blair has done his best to convince skeptics that Britain's alliance with the United States is in the country's best interest. And he has assured Muslim leaders that that alliance is not a threat to Islam.

That message may not be easy to get across.

A BBC poll in November showed that 80 percent of British Muslims believed the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan were wrong. It said 57 percent of the 500 surveyed did not agree with Blair's contention that the war in Afghanistan was not a war against Islam. Thirty-four percent agreed with him.

And a full one-quarter said they supported British Muslims who had gone to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.

The events of the last sixth months have only further alienated segments of the community already deeply divided from the British mainstream. Two cities in northern England were shaken by race riots between whites and Asian Muslim youths in July, weeks before the September 11 attacks.

Things may get worse in the months ahead.

As U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney toured the Middle East in March sounding out Arab leaders about a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, Britain's Home (Interior) Secretary, David Blunkett, warned Blair's cabinet that military action against Saddam Hussein could provoke serious civil disorder in Britain.

Some Muslim leaders agreed, saying that Muslim radicals, already frustrated over Afghanistan, would only become angrier -- and perhaps more alienated -- if Britain backs another campaign against a Muslim state.

Patricia Zengerle is a reporter and editor who has worked in New York, Pittsburgh and Miami and now lives and works in London.

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