Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights

For Osama Bin Laden there is nowhere quite like Britain. Not only are we the loyal, vulnerable partn

Zero hour arrived ahead of schedule for the 23 suspects in the plot to bomb airliners bound for the United States. The first arrest came on 10 August, eight days before the apocalyptic D-Day they had allegedly planned. Neighbours of 17-year-old Abdul Mumeen Patel in Clapton, east London, awoke to the sound of police sirens, screeching tyres and the battering down of doors. Suddenly the boy they knew as a polite, quiet student was said to be at the centre of a plot to smuggle liquid explosives on to international flights and to detonate them, killing hundreds, maybe thousands. Could he really have changed so fundamentally without anyone noticing?

I know their surprise because I have experienced it myself. I knew Ziad Jarrah, one of the suicide bombers who took over United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey, on 11 September 2001 and eventually crashed the airliner in a field in Pennsylvania. Until the conclusive evidence emerged, Jarrah's parents, who live in Beirut, insisted he was just an innocent passenger. Desperate, they produced photographs of their fun-loving son drinking wine at a wedding in the company of women.

Like them, I had not detected the change in him. Yes, he had gone missing for a while when he was a student in Hamburg, and yes, his girlfriend had reported that he had a new, religious circle of friends, but then, to his parents' relief, he resurfaced and announced that he intended to go off and study in Florida. Who could possibly have guessed that he was heading out there to train as a pilot so he could fly a plane loaded with passengers into a building full of innocent people?

In five years, however, something very important has changed. What was in 2001 an unimaginable transformation, a freak of nature, has now become - whatever the surprise being felt in Clapton and Walthamstow, High Wycombe and Birmingham - almost a factory production line. Al-Qaeda's leadership has surveyed the world and it has identified Britain both as a rich source of recruits and as an important target. The leaders' simple strategy is to put the two together, so today their proxies know every way there is to take average young British men and deliver them to martyrdom.

The training has changed since Ziad Jarrah's day. Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has joined George W Bush in his "war on terror", and has attempted to flush out the jihadi movements within his country. This means that the training camps that Jarrah attended, in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, can no longer operate openly. So they have simply gone underground. Young men now go to madrasas in Pakistan whose sheikhs are sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden. These places operate ostensibly as schools, but behind the walls and the gates guarded by men with Kalashnikovs, classes sit under the banyan trees in the sumptuous grounds learning jihadi philosophy and military techniques. It is no longer necessary for British recruits to trek all the way to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan to hone their skills; they can learn how to use weapons and explosives and receive the psychological indoctrination for death missions at the madrasas.

And if you can't afford to go to Pakistan, or can't get the time off work, there are options closer to home. There are training camps in Wales and Sussex; some radical groups have been known to rent sports halls in London suburbs such as Ealing, and even in the city centre, to deliver training unimagined by their hosts. The guidance is very Islamic: for female recruits, a female sports trainer is provided. One specific female trainer travels from Cardiff to a different city every week just to give instruction to young women interested in jihad.

In other cases, military training is provided by Muslim former members of the British armed forces who have acquired battlefield experience at the expense of Her Majesty's Government. And the recruits do not turn up at these sports halls as if for some fundamentalist rally: they wear tracksuits and the latest trainers, careful not to attract unwanted attention.

For some, there is no need even to leave the bedroom; there are chatrooms on the internet that carry all the knowledge required for a terrorist attack, and the contacts ready to exchange experiences are available to those in the know. Access to these chatrooms is restricted. The user needs a password that he can get only after applying to those who run the websites. That process gives those running the websites a ready-made pool of sympathisers and also allows them to keep an eye on recruits. For visitors to these sites, the feeling is one of belonging to a global jihadi village, as if there were no geographical distinction between Birmingham and Kandahar. Always ready to "help" the new recruits are some of the many thousands of British citizens who graduated from the old training camps in the days before 9/11.

It is, we are told, by tracking some of these recruits through their training that the international intelligence services were able to foil the reported 18 August plot. That may be good news, but we must bear in mind that there are thousands more young British men on the same path, and they are learning ever greater discretion. Because of tightened security measures, it is mostly only the senior leaders of cells in Britain who travel these days. They can take advantage of their dual nationality - usually British and Pakistani - to travel as tourists. And their structures are loose, informal. Western analysts tend to lump all extreme Islamists into one neat package, labelling them as al-Qaeda operatives or supporters. The truth is that many of those involved, though they may well be ideologically sympathetic to al-Qaeda, have probably never had the chance to meet even a low-level leader of al-Qaeda, let alone receive instructions from the top.

Those people at the top exist, though. They are still at large, and still directing strategy. What is more, the success of the Taliban movement in regaining influence across a number of Afghan provinces has given them a freedom of movement that they lacked for years following the toppling of the government in Kabul in November 2001. Bin Laden remains a close ally of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, but his Arab foot soldiers no longer fight alongside Afghan troops, partly because they do not seem to be needed. This has given Bin Laden the chance to concentrate on his own fight against the United States and its allies, and to lay down the strategies that give us planned attacks of the kind apparently foiled on 10 August.

Five-star caves

He remains elusive. Intelligence officers in Pakistan, the men at the forefront of the battle against al-Qaeda, have told me that, despite aggressive interrogation, not one of the many people they have captured in skirmishes in the tribal regions that border Afghanistan has ever confessed to having met Bin Laden or to knowing of his whereabouts. He and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have operated apart in the years of the relentless hunt by the US and its allies, so that they can ensure the continuation of their battle.

Over the past five years, while a force of more than 70,000 well-equipped Pakistani soldiers has hunted them, the al-Qaeda leadership has enjoyed the hospitality and protection of the tribes of the Waziristan region along the Afghan border. It is true, moreover, that they have lived in five-star caves impenetrable to US surveillance. I once met a contractor from that region at a restaurant in Peshawar, who told me that the natural caves were adapted for discreet but comfortable living, using the most up-to-date construction equipment, bought by Arabs or Afghans belonging to al-Qaeda and sold on second-hand through their tribal contacts.

The network's international cell structure, like that of any sophisticated underground organisation, is made up of small, mobile units that have little knowledge of each other, so that the break-up of any one cell has no significant impact on the leadership's work or plans. When al-Qaeda came under a lot of pressure in 2003, after a string of arrests, we saw fewer of those trademark videotaped messages from Bin Laden and his deputy to followers worldwide. But the effect was short-lived. There are more than enough people ready to propagate al-Qaeda's ideology in Britain, the Middle East and the US, more than enough who are passing on the teachings of Bin Laden, a man they now speak of with reverence, always prefacing his name with the respectful title "sheikh".

Having watched for years the ease with which Islamist elements operate in this country, I was not surprised when the home-grown bombers brought carnage to London. Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria had long been frustrated by the British government's refusal to move against Islamist groups that were openly recruiting and raising funds in British cities. I blamed the security services, too, which were not ready when they should have been. Why did they not take more seriously the open warnings from radical Islamist leaders to Arabs and Muslims, advising them not to go to shopping centres or use the Underground in central London?

Al-Qaeda leaders see the same things that I see. They consider Britain a fertile recruiting ground, and have saturated many neighbourhoods with their literature and Bin Laden tapes that set out his goals in the terms likely to have most appeal here. Much blame has been heaped on Muslim community leaders for not doing enough to stop the march of radicalism (see above). Although the door of 10 Downing Street has been open to these leaders since the 7 July attacks, the government's approach has been all wrong: they have been asked to act almost as collaborators, as enemies of their own communities, which was bound to increase suspicion and scepticism.

Rather than that, they must be brought on board as partners, to be respected and to be involved in a real fight aimed at reducing alienation and bringing the Muslim community into the British system. That is the only policy that can halt the advance of Osama Bin Laden and his supporters in Britain. That, and an end to the British government's involvement in the American "war on terror", to its support for US policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to the presence of British soldiers alongside US forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. Those are Bin Laden's principal recruiting sergeants.

Zaki Chehab works for al-Hayat newspaper and for Lebanese broadcasting, and is the author of "Iraq Ablaze" (I B Tauris)

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights