London, Terror Training Ground?

Scotland Yard's hunt for suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States has uncovered a dirty secret.

The agency's anti-terrorism task force's efforts have revealed to the public what many in the intelligence community had long suspected: London has become a breeding ground for terrorist sympathizers, if not terrorists themselves.

Dissidents have long taken advantage of the United Kingdom's generous asylum laws to flee their homelands and settle in London.

Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, explains that while Britain has tended to offer asylum to "dissidents from countries that can best be described as 'not democratic,' it is fair to say that some perhaps have abused this hospitality and promoted militant activity from London."

Such British hospitality explains how Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, aka Abu Qatada — dubbed "bin Laden's ambassador to Europe" by British intelligence sources — arrived in the United Kingdom.

Qatada says he fled persecution in his native Jordan, but upon being granted asylum in Britain was charged in absentia with murder and sentenced to death for his involvement in a series of explosions in 1998.

Qatada insists he is merely a cleric, spreading the word of Islam, and that he has been unfairly labeled by the Jordanian, British, and American governments. He lives with his wife and four children in a small home on the outskirts of London. Last week, the government froze his bank account after it was alleged he had some $270,000 in the bank despite collecting welfare benefits. Qatada denied the existence of the funds.

"It's only lie upon lie," he said.

More lies, he says, are allegations he is tied to bin Laden. Despite claims he met with bin Laden in Pakistan in 1989, and that he serves as one of al Qaeda's stooges in Europe, the cleric denies ever meeting America's most-wanted man. But that's not to say he doesn't support him.

"Bin Laden, as far as I know, is a Muslim, and he is seeking to liberate his lands from the invaders, and I see nothing wrong with that. It is the duty of every Muslim to support him."

British intelligence suspect Qatada has helped recruit and train young Muslims to fight holy wars in places like Chechnya and Afghanistan. Qatada, however, says he's just a teacher — one who hopes his students will fight for Islam.

Sources tell ABCNEWS one of those former students was Zacharias Moussaoui, who has been held in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. Law enforcement officials suspect Moussaoui was intimately involved with the terror plots.

Moussaoui's brother told ABCNEWS that Zacharias was not a believer in fundamentalism until he arrived in the United Kingdom from France. Moussaoui shared a South London flat with a man named Jerome Courtellier, who was arrested in Rotterdam, Netherlands in connection with plans to attack U.S. installations throughout Europe. Bin Laden is also believed tied to those plans.

Another allegedly schooled by Qatada was Djamel Beghal, who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates last June, when he confessed to being a member of al Qaeda. Beghal has since been extradited to France after telling authorities about the alleged European plots.

Sources close to the investigation say Beghal told authorities of his involvement with a bin Laden associate in London named Abu Katada, who is believed to be Abu Qatada. The cleric denies knowing Beghal.

Though they have tried, the British government has been unable to firmly link Qatada to any terrorists.

Last February, he was arrested as authorities tried to prove a connection between him and a group of 13 arrested in Jordan on charges of plotting terrorist attacks in the United States on millennium eve.

"The British government imprisoned me for four days, because they suspected I was a terrorist," he said. "I was very surprised by the stupid nature of the questions I was asked."

Tangled Web

London's web of fundamentalism does not begin or end with Abu Qatada. His fellow cleric, the one-eyed, hook-handed Sheikh Abu Hamza, preaches jihad from the Finsbury Park mosque.

Abu Hamza has long been believed to have connections to the Islamic Army of Aden, a Yemen-based fundamentalist organization credited with taking 16 tourists hostage in 1998. Shortly after the tourists were seized, Abu Hamza issued a statement on behalf of the Islamic Army, and few have questioned his ties to the organization.

Two weeks ago, a former prime minister of Yemen said the group was tied to al Qaeda, which played an active role in the kidnappings. Yemen has renewed its request for Abu Hamza to be extradited, but the British government has turned down similar requests in the past.

Law enforcement sources say they believe Abu Hamza has used the Finsbury Park mosque as a recruitment center, and that — like Abu Qatada — he has been instructing young Muslims in the ways of jihad and encouraging them to travel overseas to fight. Islamic sources also say the Finsbury Park mosque has long been the site of weekly meetings among tightly knit groups of extremists, organized by Abu Hamza.

Further Links

While Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada have been on the radar of international law enforcement agencies for some time (Qatada's name is on the FBI watch list), the investigation that followed the Sept. 11 attacks has identified several others as linked to bin Laden or other terrorist organizations.

Perhaps the most significant catch British authorities have made in recent weeks has been Lofti Raissi. Acting on a tip from U.S. law enforcement officials, British authorities arrested Raissi, his wife, and his brother-in-law in the days following the attack.

He subsequently appeared in a London court and was charged with having provided flight training to four of the men suspected of hijacking the planes in the United States. The British prosecutor said U.S. law enforcement officials possess evidence linking Raissi directly to the hijackers. The United States has begun extradition proceedings, but many speculate an unwieldy extradition process could take years.

In response to the growing concern about terrorist sympathizers using London as a haven, the government is mulling over new legislation that limit fundamentalists' ability to spread radical views. It's unlikely, though, that these laws will discourage the likes of Abu Qatada.

The cleric told ABCNEWS "the Muslim nation has woken" and that the United States should expect more bloodshed.

"You were the ones who began the war," he said. "As for how it will end, you are the ones who started it, so don't ask how it will end."

When asked if this meant there will be more attacks, Qatada said, "The American people will suffer much."