Thursday, April 14, 2005

Britain still hub for Islamic militants



BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The U.S. indictment of three British nationals, including a senior al-Qaida operative, in an alleged plot to blow up financial buildings in New York and other cities once again highlights Britain's role as a center for Islamic militants.

The three men operated out of Britain for years until they were arrested in an August raid on a house in a London suburb. They are now awaiting trial before a British court on terrorism-related charges.

With their indictment in the United States, the suspects -- Dhiren Barot, Nadeem Tarmohamed and Qaisir Shaffi -- join a list of Islamic militants whom the U.S. government wants to extradite from Britain. The process could take years, and some militants may never be handed over because they could face the death penalty in U.S. courts.

For years, the British government monitored Islamic extremists but did not shut them down. Officials feared arrests would drive the groups underground, making them more difficult to track. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, though, British authorities moved to rein in those suspected of having ties to terror groups.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government tightened asylum and extradition laws and made incitement to religious hatred a criminal offense. Blair also gave police the power to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge.

Despite those moves, London is still home to Islamic militants from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. They were attracted to the city because it is a global financial center, an international travel hub and home to a vast immigrant population, including 2 million Muslims. Britain also has a tradition of taking in refugees and asylum-seekers.

"For many years, Islamic activists were able to operate with ease in Britain. Some openly advocated violence, while others tried to highlight human rights abuses in their homelands," said Diaa Rashwan, a leading expert on Islamic militancy at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. "After Sept. 11, it became harder for them to operate."

The presence of Islamic militants in London -- and their leaders' frequent pronouncements criticizing Middle East regimes and at times supporting Osama bin Laden -- generated a debate about asylum policies and the limits of free speech. The asylum issue has long strained relations between Egypt and Britain, which has been the favored destination of Islamic militants targeted by President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Since the early 1990s, Egypt has tried unsuccessfully to extradite nearly 20 militants from Britain. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the British had also rebuffed extradition requests from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. British courts have repeatedly ruled that militants should not be sent back to countries where there is a death penalty or where they could not be assured fair trials.

One of the most prominent militants that the Egyptians have tried to extradite is Yasser al-Sirri, a former leader of Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Al-Sirri, who was granted asylum in Britain, has been sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian military court.

"In Britain, there is a system of law which Tony Blair must obey," al-Sirri told Newsday in 2001. "Hosni Mubarak does not obey any law."

Shortly after the interview, al-Sirri was arrested for issuing statements on behalf of various militant groups. He has been in and out of British prisons several times since then.
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