Britain moves on terror boosters
Thursday, Britain detained 10 foreign nationals it says are a threat to security. The government plans to deport them.
LONDON — Britain took dramatic steps Thursday to deport Islamic radicals, heralding a new approach to domestic terrorism.
The British government detained 10 foreigners and planned to deport them to their home countries once it had received assurances that they would not be subjected to torture and inhumane treatment.
Among the men is Sheikh Omar Mahmood Abu Omar, or "Abu Qatada," a Palestinian cleric, who has been called Al Qaeda's "spiritual leader in Europe." Eighteen videotapes of his sermons were found in the German apartment used by three Sept. 1, 2001 attackers. He is wanted by France for links to Algerian terror groups, and by Jordan, which convicted him in absentia for planning terror attacks in in 1998 and 2000.
"What you're seeing the government do is actually fairly clever," says Bob Ayres, a security analyst at Chatham House. "By going after and deporting high-visibility foreign nationals they're setting a precedent. And in the current climate, the courts aren't going to go against public sentiment and oppose the government over this."
The British government announced Thursday a new agreement with Jordan that suspects deported there will not be mistreated - this would ensure that Britain does not break its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights - and the Foreign Office hopes to sign more, similar agreements soon.
Abu Qatada is one of 10 foreign terror suspects released in March after Britain's highest court ruled that anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks was unlawful. Some of those detained had been held up to three years, without charges or trial.
After the court ruling, Abu Qatada was swiftly re-arrested under new anti-terror measures that allow suspects to be kept under house arrest.
The deportations aren't "going to stop the brain-washing that has already happened, but it will cut off one source of indoctrination of the next generation," says Mr. Ayres. "It's not a short-term solution but it will have a long term effect."
The other leading figure of British Islamic militant scene, Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Syrian, was arrested in Lebanon Thursday. He fled there after he was secretly recorded by London's Sunday Times, which infiltrated a meeting where Bakri praised the 7/7 London bombers, who he called the 'Fabulous Four.'
Tabloid newspapers, led by The Sun, reported that the "Evil Cleric Bakri" had lived in Britain for 20 years without holding a job or paying income taxes. It also said that he received a $370,000 home and a $50,000 car from the government.
In the British press, Bakri has quickly become the whipping boy for a range of controversial issues such as Britain's immigration policies, welfare abuse, and fraudulent asylum seekers.
"I left on Sunday. Britain is now like living under Saddam Hussein," Bakri told reporters in Beirut. "If the government wants, I'll go to the British Embassy with my passport and hand in my right to UK residency."
The latest moves by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government were widely praised. "It shows that something can be done," says Shiv Malik, a writer for The New Stateman and expert on British extremist groups.
"What you do is that you make these people appear illegitimate. However it's a very delicate game," says Mr. Malik. He warns that in the long term the support of the Muslim community is the key to ridding Britain of extremists."You don't want to the state to be seen as the guiding hand in this. You need Muslim communities to this for themselves, with the support of the wider community."
"The progressive Muslims have to defeat the ideas of these extremists. If the government seems to be acting in a totalitarian or repressive way you'll only give succor to these ideas that is West is waging a war against Muslims," says Malki.
But it is still unclear how the British government intends to deal with other radicals who have been born and brought up in the UK and perhaps hold only British passports. Another challenge is the proliferation of radical Islamic material on the internet - which remains a key resource for budding militants across Europe.
The Blair government is proposing a new laws that include criminalizing indirect incitement to terrorism. This might also ban Muslims from referring to suicide bombers as martyrs and also allow prosecution of those who have undertaken or planned to undertake training in terrorist techniques whether in Britain or abroad.
Although public opinion overwhelmingly backs the proposals, some are concerned that these may mark the end of Britain's tradition of tolerance towards foreign dissidents, and as well as imposing new curbs on freedom of speech.
"These rights are the most precious values of our society and we should not surrender them in the face of the terrorist threat," says Doug Jewell at Liberty, a civil rights group. "We will defend this by maintaining our unity in defense of our values."