In Europe, terror trail leads to Algeria
Police in four countries have arrested more than 50 suspects in recent weeks.
LONDON — In an Arab butcher's shop, near a mosque that British police recently burst open with battering rams, an Algerian with a goatee cautiously emerges from behind a curtain. "No one here will talk to you," he says. "Not anymore."
Fear is a constant companion in Finsbury Park, a neighborhood teeming with young Muslims, and a mix of Arabic and African markets and shops. As Britain steps up the war on terror, these local Arabs, many of whom have lived in this country for years, fear they could mistakenly end up on a list of suspects and be thrown in jail for months under Britain's new antiterror laws.
Britons worry that such neighborhoods are hiding places for terrorists. A spate of recent arrests, the discovery of a workshop to create the lethal toxin ricin, and the murder of a policeman in Manchester on Jan. 14 are fueling a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment here.
Suspicion is focusing on the Algerian community - some 240,000 refugees who have fled both government repression and the death squads of Algerian Islamic fundamentalists.
Over the past six weeks, European investigators in four countries have arrested more than 50 people with suspected links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Police have uncovered explosives, chemicals, fake passports, and documents, including maps of the London Underground.
Algerians are consistently among those detained - a fact that Western intelligence officials say points to the formation of a North African network of Al Qaeda that is preparing to act.
Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, referring to the arrests Friday of 15 Algerians and a Moroccan in northeastern Spain, said police had broken up a "major terrorist network" linked to the Algerian Salafist group, a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which he said had clear links with Al Qaeda. He said the network also had connections with suspects recently arrested in France and Britain.
Oliver Roy, terrorism expert and research director at the Paris think tank CNRS, says that it would be alarming if the so-called Algerian connection is confirmed. Until now, Al Qaeda has tapped Westernized Arabs in Europe, who have no connections to active terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Should it be proven through the recent arrests that any of the Algerian suspects are linked to Algerian Islamist extremists, it would mean that Al Qaeda has access to infrastructure and a social foundation that it has not had before.
"There's a lot at stake," says Mr. Roy. "All these arrests were only possible because the British government changed its strategy and finally cracked down. Everybody knew that Finsbury Park was full of people connected to Al Qaeda. But it is only now that the British decided to crack down on them and when they did, they turned up evidence that led to all these arrests."
The recent arrests in Britain and on the Continent are raising fears of an imminent attack against targets in Britain.
When a London subway train accidentally derailed over the weekend, injuring dozens, many feared terrorism. Andrew Clubbe, a young bank employee, acknowledges that the news of the past week has left him nervous. "When I arrived at Paddington Station I just hoped there wasn't a bomb," he says.
Across town, Finsbury Park has provided a focus for public fear. The local mosque is home to Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian-born cleric who has metal hooks instead of hands, which he says he lost during Afghanistan's struggle against the Soviets. British tabloids refer to him as "Hook" and call for the government to deport him. European intelligence officials and investigators say the Finsbury Park cleric, under observation since Sept. 11, has links to several of the terrorist cells that were broken up in recent weeks.
In November police arrested three men in north London and found documents investigators say link the men to terrorists living outside Britain. On Jan. 5, police raided a house in another north London community and found what they described as a workshop to make ricin, a deadly toxin. Police arrested six Algerians.
The ricin trail led police to Manchester on Jan. 14. During questioning of three Algerian suspects, one of the men broke loose and stabbed Detective Constable Stephen Oake to death. In a predawn raid Jan. 20, police used battering rams to break down the doors of the Finsbury Park mosque. Inside they arrested seven men, four of whom have since been released, and uncovered documents and computer disks which police say provided details about the terrorist network developing in Europe.
Four days later, on tips from British and French investigators, 200 Spanish police swooped down on the suspected Al Qaeda cell there. Officials said the Spanish arrests were part of a French investigation into a 2001 foiled bomb plot against targets in the French city of Strasbourg. In arresting the 16 suspects, police seized false passports and other documents, as well as explosives, chemicals and other bomb-making materials. "There was enough explosive to have been used on an airplane," said British terrorism expert and former military officer Mike Yardley.
Some of the suspects arrested in Britain are asylum seekers - a detail that has been seized upon by the British tabloid press.
The Sun, Britain's largest-selling tabloid, ran a recent headline proclaiming that Britain had become a "Trojan horse for terrorists." It prints coupons against asylum seekers for readers to cut out and send to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The paper published a picture last Friday allegedly showing letter carriers pushing hand trucks with boxes of 50,000 coupons.
The press outcry goes beyond tabloids. Commenting on the the policeman's death in Manchester, the conservative Daily Telegraph urged the government to withdraw from the European convention on human rights - to make it easier to deport unwanted asylum seekers.
Human rights groups and organizations that work with asylum seekers are stunned by such actions. "These reports give the impression that all asylum seekers are terrorists or criminals," says Fazil Kawani, spokesman for the Refugee Council.
Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, says he has received death threats by phone and e-mail, and that the "constant barrage from the media" is encouraging a vigilante atmosphere.
Although police returned control of the Finsbury mosque to the community on Thursday, the doors remained closed when members came to pray on Friday. Local Muslim leaders wanted to bar Abu Hamza from preaching his usual firebrand sermons.
So the cleric led 80 of his followers in prayer on the pavement in front of the mosque, and, shouting "Allah is great," they made their bows to Mecca before a line of police in yellow reflective gear and bobby hats.