The sidewalks where terror breeds
Outside a small, red-brick mosque, a young Muslim in sneakers and a white robe is lecturing a cluster of young men gathered on the sidewalk.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The London bombings ... were about striking terror into the heart of the enemy," he thunders, just one week after the 7/7 attacks that killed 56 people and wounded hundreds more.
Muslims around the world are being slaughtered, he tells them. "All we ask them is: 'Remove your troops from Muslim lands and we will stop all of this.' " The men nod in agreement. One glances into the baby stroller he's pushing. Car after car races past.
The preacher, who calls himself Abu Osama ("Father of Osama"), is one of a new breed of British radicals thriving at the margins of London's Muslim community.
Young, independent, and streetwise, they are preaching in urban slang outside the confines of Britain's mosques. They are helping teens and 20-somethings beat drugs and alcohol. And they are inspiring a new pool of impressionable young Muslims to consider killing their fellow Britons.
These radical bands constitute a small fraction of London's 1 million Muslims. But their freewheeling ideology - hardened in the jihadi echo chambers of cliques like Abu Osama's - is creating a new subculture within Britain's Islamic community. So far, the growing influence of these informal, maverick groups has gone largely undetected - and unchecked.
As older, camera-courting, foreign-born extremists like Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza al-Masri recede from relevance, their younger counterparts are striking out quietly and independently with a new brand of do-it-yourself radicalism.
"On the ground level, people like Bakri don't communicate with the youth," says Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at Chatham House, a think tank in London. The fragmentation of British radical groups and their dispersal underground, he adds, is the "worst of all possible options."
"When the Muslim Council of Britain [MCB] said 'We must be vigilant,' this pushed [radical groups] underground," says Abdul-Rehman Malik, contributing editor at the Muslim magazine Q-News, based London. As radicals fled to minor mosques and homes, Britain's security services, and even mainstream Muslims, lost track of them.
Did the 7/7 bombers come from Bakri's circle? "Probably not - it's something far more insidious," says Mr. Malik. "It's beyond the Omar Bakris; it's a low rumble."
Abu Osama, just 30, was born and raised here in East London, amid peeling paint and dingy kebab shops. "I know English. I know Britain. But if I live here, I must speak for Muslims elsewhere," he says, stressing that he belongs first to the ummah, or global Islamic community.
Abu Osama's faith deepened early. Watching his Pakistani immigrant father struggle to support his family of seven, he sought strength in Islam.
"I began praying and studying when I was 16, and since then I've been like this," he says, pointing to his long, curling beard.
Abu Osama first spoke publicly eight years ago; he has since won ardent followers.
Last fall, addressing a meeting of scores of British radicals, he sighed: "At the moment in Britain there is no jihad." Faces fell around the hall.
"Yet!" he exclaimed suddenly, to approving murmurs. The jihad would soon come, Abu Osama predicted, and he urged his listeners to embrace its arrival.
On 7/7, the jihad came. The suicide bombers were aged 18 to 30 - the same age as Abu Osama's cohorts. By portraying militancy as the ultimate expression of piety, Abu Osama and preachers like him are leading young Muslims down the path toward violence.
"Some of the people tell you Islam is a religion of peace because they think that then you'll want to convert," says Dublin-born convert Khalid Kelly, who soaks up Abu Osama's sidewalk sermon. "But you cannot possibly say Islam is a religion of peace; jihad is not an internal struggle."
Armed struggle was the last thing on Mr. Kelly's mind until his conversion several years ago. "I was your average Irish drunkard, partying and so on," he says. Arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a nurse, for brewing his own alcohol, Kelly found Islam in prison - an increasingly common arena for Muslim conversion and radicalization.