It is a wonderful, typically British scene. I am sitting in a Manchester curry house, wondering whether to choose the Madras or the korma. The place is humming with Arabic, and a number of extended families have gathered to eat at adjacent tables. A few children skip past. My lunchtime companion is, at 24, three years younger than me. His name is Hassan Butt, and he'd like to martyr himself in Britain for the sake of Islam. I order the korma.
In the past year, Hassan and I have become steadfast dining partners, if not exactly firm friends. Over curries, pizzas and saccharine soft drinks, in London and Manchester, I have discovered what makes him tick. "Pray to Allah that he accepts me as a martyr," he muses. "If that's tomorrow, then tomorrow. If not, then whenever Allah wills." Why don't you get on with it, I ask. "Everything needs to be done in an organised manner, with the current organisations that are working around the world."
Hassan earned himself a reputation for hyperbole when he rang the Today programme from Lahore in 2002. He asserted that, as a representative of the Islamist organisation al-Muhajiroun, he had recruited up to 1,000 British men to Islamic causes in the Middle East. He then returned quite freely to the UK, where his appetite for controversy remained undiminished.
He claims he has met a further thousand Brits who, like him, would subscribe to a martyrdom operation within Britain if given the chance. He knows of five Brits and one American, all university educated, who have left the UK in the past two months heading for a desolate jihadi training camp in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, he met with an autonomous Islamist cell in the UK which possessed large quantities of Semtex, and which was capable of launching an immediate and major attack. So presumably, I say, MI5 are tracking you pretty constantly. "Without a doubt," says Hassan.
In seeking to negotiate a rigorous course in its war against terror, the British government has alluded persistently to the inevitability and imminence of a terrorist strike against the UK. The recent "revelations" that al-Qaeda plans to attack financial institutions in London and New York will not have taken many by surprise. More than 400 have been arrested under anti-terrorist legislation since 9/11. It is, we are reminded, a case of when and not if. Whatever view one takes of this position, there can be little doubt that a combination of political prudence and expedience has prevented the opposite case - namely, that the threat to this country is low - being made either in parliament or in the media. However, many private security firms would agree that there is little risk of a terrorist attack in Britain. This explains the paradoxes inherent in the British war on terror. It explains why Britain has not yet been attacked. It explains the government's intransigence in refusing to boost the budgets of emergency planners. It explains why MI5 is only now beginning to recruit more Arabic speakers; and why the task of forcing Abu Hamza to trial was left to the Bush administration.
In reality, the threat to this country from terrorism is no greater than the threat posed by a variety of terrorist groups in the course of the past 30 years. You are still, statistically speaking, more likely to take your own life than you are to be killed by terrorists.
The decision to overstate the threat to the UK is, in itself, a plausible counter-terrorism strategy. One need not look far beyond the spate of "London terror plot" headlines to learn that no specific threat has been made against any British institution. Such a thesis - that we're safer than we've been told - leaves a couple of pressing questions. First, is it not likely after attacks in New York, Bali, Istanbul and Madrid, that Britain will be the next target for Islamist ire? And second, does not the presence of Islamist provocateurs such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abu Hamza and Hassan Butt make our streets dangerous?
To address these questions I spoke to Mohammed Sifaoui, a French Algerian journalist who, posing as a terrorist sympathiser, managed to infiltrate al-Qaeda cells in both France and the UK. Flanked by secret service agents - the French government has pledged to protect him for the foreseeable future - he met me in a Parisian hotel. Sifaoui, who as a result of his bravery has become uniquely expert on the Islamist mentality, believes that Britain exhibits paradoxical behaviour in relation to terrorism. It is anomalous, for example, that Britain quite evidently provides a safe haven for those, such as Butt and Hamza, who have terrorist sympathies. "The most sought-after terrorists in the world," he says, "have found shelter in the UK . . . They propagate their ideology there. They distribute booklets on their philosophy - giving them out freely outside mosques."
In addition, Britain is used as a convenient transitional home in the travel plans of those with militant Islamic inclinations. "It's now known," he says, "that the majority of the young guys who were living in the west and who left to go to training camps in Afghanistan had a tightly outlined itinerary - they went through London to Pakistan. And then from Pakistan to Afghanistan." Hassan Butt reinforces this impression, telling me that there is now a dedicated camp in Pakistan specifically for the use of British Muslims seeking to obtain military training. According to Butt, regular groups attend the camps for periods of up to three months, and subsequently either return to the UK or remain in the Middle East.
Sifaoui goes on to suggest that the significance of the roles played by British-based Islamists in attacks abroad is unparalleled. Before 9/11, he says, "Islamists considered the UK as a secondary base for their actions. To take a few examples . . . there were terrorist attempts in France in 1995, financed from the UK - that's a reality. General Massoud's assassination on 9 September 2001 was also financed in the UK - that's a reality. The kidnapping of western tourists in the Yemen was organised by London and probably by Abu Hamza - his son was involved with it."
Post-9/11, this pattern of British Islamists being implicated in attacks abroad has hardly altered. Here are just a few examples. Zacharias Moussaoui, from Brixton, is charged with being 9/11's "20th hijacker". In 2002, Richard Reid, a Brit, tried to blow up a plane out of Paris with a bomb in his shoe. Last year, Asif Hanif, from Hounslow, martyred himself in Israel. Omar Sheikh, the man convicted of the murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, is British.
Yet British Islamists target other countries. Why? According to Sifaoui, it has long been recognised by the British Islamists, by the British government and by UK intelligence agencies, that as long as Britain guarantees a degree of freedom to the likes of Hassan Butt, the terrorist strikes will continue to be planned within the borders of the UK but will not occur here. Ironically, then, the presence of vocal and active Islamist terrorist sympathisers in the UK actually makes British people safer, while the full brunt of British-based terrorist plotting is suffered by people in other countries.
"The question becomes a moral one," concludes Sifaoui. "Should the British authorities accept that there are terrorists in their country who kill others abroad? I think that today the British authorities must face their conscience . . . I would say the following: make the choice - ensure your citizens' security [which is totally legitimate] while putting at risk those abroad. Or put your citizens at risk and maybe save those who are abroad. If the UK . . . can accept that an attack was prepared in the UK to kill women and children in Germany, France, Turkey, Scandinavia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco or Algeria - then everyone will come to their own conclusions."
I find Sifaoui's theory substantiated when I speak to Sheikh Omar Bakri, who heads up al-Muhajiroun, perhaps the most contentious Islamist group in the UK. He tells me the story of the companions of the prophet Muhammad who, when travelling to Abyssinia, were given protection and hospitality by that nation. The result of this generosity is the Koranic notion of covenant, namely that as a Muslim it is de rigueur not to attack the inhabitants of any country in which one finds oneself living safely. This, according to Bakri, makes it unlikely that British-based Muslims will carry out operations in the UK itself.
If it is true that terrorist sympathisers use their freedoms in the UK to focus on foreign operations, then two further questions must be answered. First, can this "situation" be characterised as a deliberately unethical policy, unspoken by the British government but effected by the security service? A Foreign Office source suggested to me that, technically, by proceeding in this manner, the government may be flouting UN resolution 1373 of 28 September 2001 - ironically drafted by the British. The resolution calls on states to: "(c) Deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens; and to (d) Prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other states or their citizens".
And, second, what of my lunch partner Hassan? Is he posturing in order to fill me, and the wider British public, with fear? What of the autonomous Semtex-ridden Islamist cell whose members are ready to launch their strike at any moment? Hassan suggests that there are Islamists who are prepared to break their covenant with the British. And he warns that "any attack will have to be massive. After one operation everything will close down on us in Britain".
The British must wait to see, therefore, whether the deliverer of the massive attack will be Hassan himself. I, for one, will not be holding my breath. Apart from anything else, I enjoy our lunches.