LONDON, May 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- British security services have launched one of their widest crackdowns to date on suspected Al-Qaeda sympathizers seeking to raise money and recruit members in the United Kingdom.
The May 24 sweep netted eight people believed to have Libyan nationality. At least one was working for an Islamic relief agency whose stated aim is to raise money for Muslims in poor parts of the world. Police suspect the group's real priority is to aid jihadist activities.
A Lot Of Work Left To Do
“I think that certainly the police and the intelligence services in the European countries are much more aware of the recruiting activities and are trying hard to track down those who are involved," said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "But I think it’s premature to say that they have succeeded in stemming the flow of recruits. I think there is still a great deal of work to be done, and therefore we should be cautious.”
Wilkinson says the huge British operation last week shows both the recruitment networks’ and the security services’ determination in the battle. The sweep involved some 500 uniformed and plainclothes officers in several cities across the United Kingdom. The eight detained men were charged with “facilitating terrorism abroad.”
Police sources say this term refers to recruitment and fundraising for Iraqi insurgents. One of those arrested is reported to have trained in Syria and two others are listed by the United Nations as having terrorist links.
Wilkinson says the number of arrested suspects and the fact they were scattered across the country suggests that the recruitment groups have been in operation long enough to put down extensive roots.
Active Across Europe
“This is not something that should surprise people," he said. "This activity, I think, is going to be carried out in many European countries over a long period of time, because we know that there are sympathizers, supporters, and militants at work. Not only recruiting and spreading propaganda, but raising funds.”
Francis Gregory, a terrorism specialist at the University of Southampton, says there is no doubt such groups are active in Britain and other European countries.
“I know the U.K. authorities have been concerned for some time that there has been recruitment going on in the U.K. for people to go out to Iraq," Gregory said. "The actual connections of the recruiting process to Al-Qaeda directly, I think, are more problematic, but no doubt there are some linkages.”
Gregory says the security services have now adopted a strategy that attempts to catch any such activities at an early stage, as soon as there is enough evidence for an arrest warrant.
“As you would imagine, [the groups are most active] in the larger European Union countries with considerable number of Muslim communities within their territory," Gregory added. "Obviously, within France, Germany, Italy, and of course, the United Kingdom.”
Foreigners In Iraq
Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says the majority of insurgents in Iraq do not come from Europe, but from the Middle East and South Asia. He estimates the European recruits to number only about 1,000 -- or some 5 to 10 percent of the total.
This, he says, is based on the level and tempo of activity that is being undertaken by people like Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Amyas Godfrey of the Royal United Services Institute in London says he thinks the fact that a foreign group -- Al-Qaeda -- recruits other foreigners for suicide operations that kill Iraqis ultimately will create a backlash in the country against the global network.
“There is evidence that [al-]Zarqawi is losing a lot of popularity amongst the Sunni, because he himself is a foreigner, and they don’t appreciate the fact that he is now killing Iraqis wholesale, and he is not targeting coalition forces," Godfrey said. "And that’s the sort of backlash he is receiving. He is a foreigner, he is not Iraqi, and he is killing Iraqis.”
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is believed to be trying to foment civil war between Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni communities as one way to make the country untenable for U.S. forces.