LONDON — For years, radical Islamic activists have operated freely in Britain, raising money for their cause, beaming satellite TV spots or running Internet sites condemning America in support of al-Qaida.
But even supporters of Osama bin Laden's ideology say the London bombings were the wrong thing to do.
"The goal here was illegitimate," said activist Yasser al-Sirri.
Al-Sirri, head of the Islamic Observation Center, said Muslims who live in Britain — even those who consider the host government their enemy — have an Islamic duty under an unwritten "security covenant" to obey the country's rules.
His comments suggest a possible split within Britain's radical Islamic community about how to wage the struggle against the West — through terrorism like Thursday's bombings or through psychological warfare as well as violence only in clearly defined combat zones.
"God says if anyone wants to do something (against the country), he must leave that country and fight them outside. ... He can go to Iraq and fight the American forces there, or British forces, but he shouldn't (kill British civilians). What's the fault of the civilians?" said al-Sirri, an Egyptian accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan.
He said Islam puts limits on the form and extent of jihad, or holy war, one can wage. Many Britain-based Islamic radicals also fear the attacks will lead to a crackdown that will prevent them from operating freely.
Attacks made radicals’ lives worse
"I am sure many of the radicals are extremely unhappy with what happened. It will make their lives more difficult now. They will not be able to do things as freely as they used to," said Mishari al-Thaydi, a Saudi writer who follows Islamic militants closely.
True, the British government supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And bin Laden had warned that Britain, as well as some other European countries that have troops in those countries, would be the target of an attack.
But some radical activists were convinced London would not be hit. It was too useful, the thinking went, as a base for transmitting bin Laden's message worldwide.
Despite a recent tightening of security — including a Prevention of Terrorism Act that allows authorities to place terror suspects under house arrest — Britain's long history of tolerance has given Islamic extremists the impression that they could operate undisturbed as long as they don't make trouble.
Saad Fagih, a Saudi-born Islamic activist in London, said he thought targeting Italy would have generated a bigger impact because of the outpouring of emotion caused by the fatal shooting of an Italian intelligence agent by U.S. soldiers in Iraq as he escorted a freed Italian hostage.
An attack on Italy would have put pressure on the government to withdraw troops from Iraq, much as last year's Madrid bombings led to the fall of Spain's conservative government and the departure of Spanish troops, Fagih said.
Fagih, who is under U.N. sanctions for alleged links to al-Qaida — links he denies — said he believed bin Laden knew that an attack on Britain would turn Muslims in Britain against al-Qaida. That's something he says bin Laden would have wanted to avoid.
Al-Thaydi, the Saudi writer, said London was the cultural base of the radicals, while Germany was where military planning took place. Members of the so-called Hamburg cell, for example, allegedly carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
"Military operators didn't work in London. They used to come here on holidays," al-Thaydi said.
London attack expected
But to many people, an attack on London was just a matter of time.
"London was a college for many radicals," said Jamal Khashoggi, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in London. "They were graduating radicals; they were exposing them abroad and it wouldn't surprise me that some of them are the ones that carried out the attacks or (were) some of their students."
London has its share of extremist preachers, including Abu Qatada, the 45-year-old Palestinian cleric described by British officials as bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe" and an inspiration for Mohammed Atta, the lead Sept. 11 hijacker. His real name is Sheik Omar Mahmood Abu Omar.
After spending three years in jail, he was freed in March and has been kept under strict surveillance — he is electronically tagged and required to live under a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. He is denied the use of telephones or the Internet and must apply to the government to talk to outsiders.
Other radical preachers include the jailed Abu Hamza al-Masri as well as Omar Bakri. London is also home to a wide range of radical thinkers who espouse the al-Qaida ideology.
Islamist activist: Brits won't react like Americans did
Many Islamist activists expressed hope that Britain wouldn't resort to curbing free expression or cracking down on their activities.
"The British will not react like the Americans (did) — revenge cowboy behavior response," Fagih said. "The British will sit down and discuss the reasons, the circumstances, the consequences and they will take the decision accordingly."
"And I think they will reach the conclusion that putting restrictions on freedoms of Muslims will not help. It will actually increase the chances of terrorism," he said.
The London bombings fresh in the minds of Americans, President Bush called on Congress on Monday to extend provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire at year's end.
The Patriot Act, Congress' swift reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, allowed expanded surveillance of terror suspects, increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado and permitted secret proceedings in immigration cases. Now, more than a dozen provisions are set to expire later this year. Congress has begun working on renewing them amid fresh criticism — from members of both parties — that the law undermines basic freedoms.
A headline in the London-based Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-owned paper, reflected the apprehensive mood of some mainstream Muslim Arabs in Britain.
"We told you to ban (the radicals). Today we say expel them," the headline appearing on an article by Abdelraham Rashid said.
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