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Great Britain: Crackdown On Terrorism Faces Pitfalls

  • Kathleen Moore

Police in Britain this week launched their most dramatic antiterrorist raid yet, when they swooped in on a North London mosque notorious as a magnet for Islamic radicals. British authorities are trying desperately to track down potential terrorist plotters following another raid earlier this month that netted traces of ricin, a deadly poison. But observers say they face two big potential pitfalls -- causing widespread fear among the population and alienating an already wary Muslim community.

Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The residents of Finsbury Park in North London were awakened early one morning this week by unusual noises at their local mosque.

These were no late-night worshippers -- this was the British police, with the help of a helicopter and a battering ram, staging their most dramatic antiterrorist raid yet.

Scotland Yard's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter described the 20 January scene.

"At about 2 o'clock this morning, about 150 police officers entered the mosque, opened the doors using our usual door-opening equipment, went into the premises, and they searched those premises looking for documents and, in doing so, we've arrested seven people and taken them to a Central London police station."

Finsbury Park mosque is a well-known magnet for radical Islamists. For years, it's been under the control of Abu Hamza al-Masri, an extremist cleric who hailed 11 September 2001 as a "towering day in history." Richard Reid, the man who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic passenger flight with bombs in his shoes, is believed to have worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque.

But the cleric was not the target of this week's raid. Police said it was linked instead to the discovery of a small trace of ricin, a deadly poison, during a raid earlier this month on an apartment in London.

There have been other recent raids and arrests by antiterror police. One earlier this month in Manchester saw a police officer stabbed and killed.

And late last year, three men were charged with planning a terrorist attack, though the government dismissed newspaper reports of a plot to release deadly gas on London's metro system.

Speaking on 21 January, Prime Minister Tony Blair added to the jitters when he said that it is inevitable that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network will target the U.K.

"I believe it's inevitable that they will try in some form or another. And, indeed, I think we can see evidence from the recent arrests that the terrorist network is here, as it is around the rest of Europe and around the rest of the world."

Bill Tupman is an expert on policing and criminal justice at Exeter University in the U.K. He says police are under pressure to produce results, which is what prompted the recent raids.

"There's been an acceleration in police inquiries and search warrants as a result of this find of small traces of ricin, which has been interpreted as meaning that a small or medium quantity has been created and is somewhere at large in the U.K. At present, we don't know how much was created, and we don't know what it was created for, so there's a rush to try and find it before it's used."

But the authorities face some major pitfalls in their hunt for any potential terrorist plotters. On the one hand, they want to keep the public informed. But in doing so, they risk ratcheting up public fears.

A blunder by the Home Office (Interior Ministry) in November last year highlights this dilemma. The ministry issued a release warning of a possible chemical or nuclear terrorist attack on the U.K. But that message was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a toned-down, more general warning to avoid mass panic.

So are people likely to be comforted that police are staging raids and arresting suspects, or will they be more nervous than ever? Tupman says, "I think it's seen as positive in that the intelligence was not complete fantasy. The problem is that there are so many stories coming in [suggesting an attempted terrorist attack is likely] that without a result, you start to think you're dealing with shadows and rumors. But the beginnings of a discovery of things like ricin justifies the high state of alert and means that you can look at your intelligence again and think that some of this is correct and it's not all smoke and mirrors."

Another challenge to Britain's terror crackdown is one that has dogged the government since the 11 September attacks on the U.S. -- how to avoid alienating Britain's Muslim community.

A poll last month by the BBC showed that most British Muslims don't believe the government line that this is a war on terrorism. They think it's a war against Islam.

The men arrested in this week's mosque raid include six north Africans and an Eastern European that "The Times" daily reported is Albanian. Suspects arrested in other raids have been Algerian. Roughly a dozen other foreign nationals, all Muslim, have been detained indefinitely under the country's Anti-Terrorism Act.

Police say they took care to be as respectful as possible in the mosque raid. They did not enter the prayer hall, and they sought advice from Muslim colleagues beforehand.

But some Muslims are still angry at what they see as a violation of a place of worship. Others say the raid was designed to silence any Muslim opposition to a possible war on Iraq.

Inayat Banglawala of the Muslim Council says the police were entitled to search the mosque, since it should not be used as a "place for wrongdoing." But he says the authorities have to be careful if they want to avoid further undermining the trust of the Muslim community.

"If the raids are not carried out in a transparent manner, if those arrested are not brought before a court and charged and just detained indefinitely, then yes, that will increase the feeling that this is becoming a war on Islam. So to prevent that, it's crucial that police act in a transparent manner and produce any evidence they have before a court of law so people can see, yes, there is a reason for their actions."

Abu Hamza, the radical cleric who is also suspected of involvement in an alleged Yemeni terrorist plot, was not the target of the raid. But Banglawala says the raid should strengthen the hand of Britain's Charity Commission, which oversees the mosque and wants Hamza removed. It is angry that he has used his sermons to make inflammatory and political comments.

"The charity commission has already forbidden Abu Hamza from preaching at the mosque, and we believe that this police action two days ago will help the trustees hopefully regain control of the mosque and take it away from the hands of those who only preach hatred."

Some of Hamza's most recent comments may actually give some comfort to Britons anxious about an imminent terrorist attack. He said the people of Britain are "respected by the most radical Muslim groups because of their opposition to the Iraq war and support for Palestine."