Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THE ENEMY WITHIN

Britons have been shocked by revelations that their country has become a hotbed for terrorists

ARTHUR KENT October 8 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THE ENEMY WITHIN

Britons have been shocked by revelations that their country has become a hotbed for terrorists

ARTHUR KENT October 8 2001

THE ENEMY WITHIN

Britons have been shocked by revelations that their country has become a hotbed for terrorists

ARTHUR KENT

Usually the golden coattails of an English summer, the gentle atmosphere and unthreatening skies of the days in late September, draw some reaction—albeit one typified by shrugs and moans among inhabitants of this damp, phlegmatic, sometimes sullen island nation. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” residents like to complain. “We’ll pay for this with rain tomorrow.” But this week, Britons paid little mind to the weather. There were greyer clouds that captured people’s attention and held it; other signs more sinister than those foretelling autumn rain.

Most striking, there was the face ofTony Blair. Forget “ashen”—the man’s complexion was chalk-white as he spoke to the television cameras. Somehow the voice and body language were different, too. This was no longer the implausibly successful Labour Prime Minister, striding confidently through the early days of his second term. Here instead was a leader who was coming to realize that he and his nation were in for the fight of their lives.

The Prime Minister had heard a dire forecast from his most senior counterterrorism officials. Britain had been penetrated more deeply than ever imagined; its coastal points of entry and airports had been accessed again and again by a shocking number of terrorists and their accomplices, many of whom are still present and active today. Finding them all, and preventing future suicide attacks, could well prove impossible. Britain, like Canada, has been slow to adapt legislation to address these new generations of terrorists; only this year has it become illegal in Britain to plan or contribute to armed struggle in other countries.

Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch, known as SO 13, has determined that 11 of the hijackers who conducted the attacks in the United States had stayed in Britain prior to setting off on their suicide missions. Chillingly, none had come under police surveillance, and some of die terrorists made repeated journeys in and out of Britain during the nine months preceding Sept. 11. At least five of them left London airports in June bound for America. According to the profile of Al-Qaeda assembled so far by American and European investigators, this pattern of travel indicates that Britain was, and possibly still is, the base for the planning and funding cells that helped launch the teams that carried out the attacks.

Two of the men arrested in Britain thus far are Lotfi Raissi and Kamel Daoudi, both Algerian by birth; the former a pilot, the latter suspected of being the computer specialist for an Al-Qaeda-related group called Tafkirwal Hijra (Anathema and Terror or Anathema and Self-denial). Raissi insists he was taking flying courses near Heathrow airport solely to qualify as a commercial pilot. With British prosecutors, armed with a warrant from the FBI, accusing him of training four of the hijackers to fly, they launched the process to have him extradited to the U.S.

Daoudi, meanwhile, is alleged by French police to have been part of a terror cell on the threshold of mounting an attack. French officials say his arrest in Leicester, England, was related to the nabbing of half a dozen other men in Belgium, the Netherlands and France last week. Some are suspected of plotting to fly a helicopter packed with explosives into the American Embassy in Paris. Daoudi fled to Britain, French authorities say, when the wave of arrests began. That he was detected is a credit to improved tracing, but his ability to pass through immigration controls is yet another indication of the porousness of Britain’s borders.

As the British media struggle to keep up with the multitude of investigations, any regular listener to all-news radio could be forgiven for keeping a note pad handy to stay straight on all the names, plots and alleged outrages. But Britons have been told in no uncertain terms that there’s good reason to pay close attention: the commissioner of the London metropolitan police, Sir John Stevens, warned publicly that Britain could be the suicide attackers’ next target.

His deputy, assistant commissioner David Veness, told the BBC this week that citizens have to accept that terrorism has now become a global menace, and that “we need to recognize that the nature, the scale and the significance of this change is seismic.” Heeding the call for assistance from the public, people in Britain have made nearly 4,000 calls to police antiterrorist hodines.

Meanwhile, police operations across the country to prevent future attacks are the most sweeping ever seen—or not seen, which is how the counterterrorist authorities prefer it. There are few clues as to how well the manhunt is going. But some are emerging, and Macleans has received reliable information about one arrest that has not yet been publicly acknowledged by the police.

According to a source within London’s diplomatic community, French Embassy staff last week detected a suspect on an FBI watch list at the embassy’s consular section. Security officers at the consulate had become suspicious of a Saudi national, a young man waiting in line for a visa outside the building. He was one of hundreds there that day; the long line of travellers seeking French visas is a daily fixture on the sidewalk opposite the grand Victorian buildings of the Natural History Museum. But his face stood out: his photograph was included in one of the alert documents issued to European police by the Americans.

The consulate’s security team, all French nationals, waited for the man to enter the doorway of the building, then took him into custody. In his bag, according to one witness, were fake identification papers, a pilot’s licence and a form, not yet filled out, for the rental of a private aircraft. His visa application form indicated he wished to leave London for France immediately. According to a worker at the French Embassy, the suspect was turned over to London police.

Though unsettling in its scope, the police crackdown is overdue, at least in the view of many civilians here. Britons have become accustomed in the past few years to the spectacle of religious zealots brazenly shouting support for worldwide terrorism in television news reports—reports filmed right around the corner, at times, or in a neighbouring English town.

Two activists in particular have tried to rally support for violent groups who use Islam as their banner. Mullahs Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri have drawn ever larger crowds as they openly encouraged young men to seek out military training—a euphemism for embarking on a pilgrimage to the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. At the mosque he runs in North London, Abu Hamza has called for a jihad against Western infidels, and according to The Sunday Times, was recorded earlier this year preaching: “What are you training for? So you can get [the unbeliever] and crush his head. So you can rip his throat. So you can rip his intestines out, cut them in half.”

Strong stuff, even for a citizenry seasoned by 30-odd years of lurking terrorism, the variety spawned closer to home and imported to England from Northern Ireland. To date, there’s been little hard evidence that Abu Hamza’s oaths are anything more than the outbursts of a hatefilled cleric craving a moment in the spotlight. But now, he and activists like him have been placed squarely under the security services’ spyglasses. That’s because so many of the terrorist suspects arrested around the world since Sept. 11 are thought to have benefited enormously from the extremist underground in Britain, which has been created both by hidden money from abroad, from sources such as Osama bin Laden’s network, and more depressingly, with funds raised locally— British pounds for suicide bombers.

A member of Massoud’s extended family told Macleans via satellite telephone this week that two suicide bombers had obtained a television interview with Massoud. They detonated explosives hidden in the shell of a camera after they’d asked the commander one question: what would he do with Osama bin Laden if he were to capture him? One bomber died instantly, the other was shot dead after running from the bomb-scarred building, crying “God is great.”

Case in point, the event that some intelligence analysts now theorize was a signal for the attacks in the U.S. to commence: the Sept. 8 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, former commander of antiTaliban forces in Afghanistan. Hard evidence has emerged that shows that the killing was planned and prepared, in part, in Britain.

Documents recovered at the site, according to the Afghan source and Western diplomats who have visited the scene, show that both attackers travelled from London via Pakistan before making the trek to northern Afghanistan. Moroccanborn, but adopting Algerian identities, they lived in Britain for a time, and there are clues, as well, of their membership in a radical British-based organization with links to bin Laden’s deputy Ayman alZawahiri. The new leader of the Northern I Alliance, Mohammed Fahim, who fought I at Massoud’s side for two decades, has in! dicated that the recovered documents will be released to journalists this week.

This connection is sufficient to make any policeman’s blood run cold. Al-Zawahiri is the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the ruthlessly efficient terror group thought to have had Mohammed Atta, one of the suicide pilots who struck the World Trade Center, as a member. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri has been a hunted man since the early 1990s, and is suspected to have had a hand in attacks such as the attempted assassination in 1995 of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the 1997 machine-gun assault on tourists at Luxor, Egypt, in which 70 people died.

In terms of aspiring to the highest offices of bin Laden’s construct of Terror, Incorporated, al-Zawahiri was a kind of lethal alter ego to Massoud. The Afghan guerrilla leader’s populist resistance to foreign aggression in Afghanistan was always exemplified by a humane, caring attitude towards civilians—and foreigners. In contrast, al-Zawahiri seeks purification of the world by way of destruction; all nonbelievers are to be cleansed in the blast furnace of sudden death.

Bad enough that his operatives made it to Massoud’s camp—Northern Alliance leaders are said to be shaken that their security failed so dismally. But for the killers to have meandered, as well, through Britain, one of the strongholds of the Western world, and gained strength there—this cuts to the very bone of the self-esteem of the British policing and intelligence-gathering community. With Massoud’s assassination, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri shamed both what is arguably the toughest, most inspired guerrilla army in the world, with 23 years of stubborn experience behind it, and the real-life operatives of the world of James Bond, Her Majesty’s secret security and police services. That’s bad news, and Britons are bracing for more. Like the autumn rains, it seems, terror is just over the horizon.