London, 11 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw has promised new laws to curb the activities of Islamic extremist groups, and other international terrorist organizations, who have adopted London as their base in exile.
The move follows criticism from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who attacked Britain for giving shelter to fugitive Islamic extremists and hence encouraging attacks such as the Luxor massacre last month in which 58 tourists and four Egyptians died.
The Egyptian government claims that large sums of money are routed through London to a rebel group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group) which claimed responsibility for the Luxor killings.
Over the past 18 months, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel have also denounced the presence in London of Islamic extremists who allegedly use it as a haven from which to mastermind terrorist operations in their homelands.
In response to the criticism, Straw will begin consultations on two new laws next month that would ban fund-raising in Britain for terrorist groups, and make it an offense to conspire to plot terrorism abroad. But Straw refuses to propose a ban on incitement to terrorism demanded by many Middle East governments.
Straw himself identified one of the main problems facing a liberal democracy when asked to crack down on political groups.
He said a ban on incitement to terrorism would damage free speech. He said if such legislation had been enacted, it would have been illegal to campaign on behalf of the African National Congress when Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist in South Africa.
In the past two years Britain has been embarrassed by the large number of Islamic radicals who have sought refuge on its soil. London has replaced Paris as the traditional center for Arab and other Muslim dissidents opposed to their governments. (More Arab newspapers are published in London than any place in the world)
By one estimate, there are at least 15 radical groups in London seeking to overthrow established governments in the Muslim world. Analysts say many of them make no secret of their commitment to violence or terrorism to achieve their goals. Most oppose the Mideast peace process, denounce current rulers, and want secular governments to be replaced by Islamic regimes. Some exiled militants have been accused of using Britain as a base from which to send instructions via the Internet to Middle East terror cells
Israel claims that London is a center for money-laundering for groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. France claims that Britain gives sanctuary to Algerian terrorist leaders. Turkey claims that London is a haven for the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party.
Earlier this year, followers of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, a London-based opponent of the Egyptian government, staged a show trial of Mubarak in London's Trafalgar Square, after which he was "sentenced to death." Another dissident, Muhammad al-Masari, a Saudi physicist, uses London as a base for his campaign against the Saudi Royal Family. (The British government tried to expel al-Masari to a Caribbean island but was overruled by the courts.)
Last year, Islamic groups proposed a huge rally in London to which many overseas militant Islamic leaders were invited. Britain denounced the rally after Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria protested, but said it was powerless to ban it. In the event, the rally was canceled when organizers could not find insurance cover. Analysts say Islamic militancy takes several forms in Britain. Some groups conduct foreign policy by extension on behalf of a state -- such as Iran or Saudi Arabia -- and are financed by those governments. Journalist Philip Johnston says a London-based exile, the late Kalim Siddiqui, who supported the fatwa, or death sentence, on Salman Rushdie, was widely seen as Teheran's man in London.
According to Johnston, London has become a center for exiled Islamic group for several reasons. They include a history of tolerance toward dissident ideas and those who articulate them; flexible asylum laws; a colonial past that has given Britain a 1.5 million-strong Muslim community to whom the militants can preach; and a large overseas student population. Unlike most other European countries, Britain does not forbid foreign exiles from engaging in politics providing they do not break British law
Analysts say the Islamic extremists, and the often lurid coverage given to their activities in the media, have made life difficult for Britain's Muslim community, reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices, and linking the Islamic faith with violence and irrationalism.
Partly for this reason, Muslim moderates, many from the large Pakistani and Indian minorities, last month announced the formation of a Muslim Council, the first umbrella organization to represent Islamic interests in Britain. Supporters say the council will aim to work for a more enlightened appreciation of Islam, emphasizing its traditions of justice, responsibility and cooperation.
In the interim, Britain will press ahead with a review of its anti-terror laws -- and seek to curb those extremist Islamic groups whose pamphlets and newsletters according to Johnston, are "often a blood-curdling incitement to violence and insurrection."