Young Muslim radicals promote violent activism
Underground groups band together in pursuit of jihad.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
GREENWICH, ENGLAND -- Outside a small, red-brick mosque, a young Muslim in sneakers and a white robe is lecturing a cluster of young men gathered on the sidewalk.
"The London bombings ... were about striking terror into the heart of the enemy," he thunders, after the July 7 attacks that killed 56 people and wounded hundreds more.
Muslims around the world are being slaughtered, he tells them. "All we ask them is: 'Remove your troops from Muslim lands and we will stop all of this.'" The men nod in agreement.
The preacher, who calls himself Abu Osama, is one of a new breed of British radicals thriving at the margins of London's Muslim community.
Young, independent and streetwise, they are preaching in urban slang outside the confines of Britain's mosques. They are helping teens and 20-somethings beat drugs and alcohol. And they are inspiring a new pool of impressionable young Muslims to consider killing their fellow Britons.
These radical bands constitute a small fraction of London's 1 million Muslims. However, their freewheeling ideology -- hardened in the jihadi echo chambers of cliques like Abu Osama's -- is creating a new subculture within Britain's Islamic community. So far, the growing influence of these informal, maverick groups has gone largely undetected -- and unchecked.
As older, camera-courting, foreign-born extremists such as Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza al-Masri recede from relevance, their younger counterparts are striking out quietly and independently with a new brand of do-it-yourself radicalism.
"On the ground level, people like Bakri don't communicate with the youth," says Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at Chatham House, a think tank in London. The fragmentation of British radical groups and their dispersal underground, he adds, is the "worst of all possible options."
"When the Muslim Council of Britain said 'We must be vigilant,' this pushed [radical groups] underground," says Abdul-Rehman Malik, contributing editor at the Muslim magazine Q-News, based in London. As radicals fled to minor mosques and homes, Britain's security services, and even mainstream Muslims, lost track of them.
Did the July 7 bombers come from Bakri's circle? "Probably not -- it's something far more insidious," says Malik. "It's beyond the Omar Bakris; it's a low rumble."
Yearning for jihad
Abu Osama, just 30, was born and raised here in East London. "I know English. I know Britain. But if I live here, I must speak for Muslims elsewhere," he says.
Abu Osama's faith deepened early. Watching his Pakistani immigrant father struggle to support his family of seven, he sought strength in Islam.
Abu Osama first spoke publicly eight years ago; he has since won ardent followers.
Last fall, addressing a meeting of scores of British radicals, he sighed: "At the moment in Britain there is no jihad." Faces fell around the hall.
"Yet!" he exclaimed suddenly, to approving murmurs. The jihad would soon come, Abu Osama predicted, and he urged his listeners to embrace its arrival.
On July 7, the jihad came. The suicide bombers were aged 18 to 30 -- the same age as Abu Osama's cohorts. By portraying militancy as the ultimate expression of piety, Abu Osama and preachers like him are leading young Muslims down the path toward violence.
Hard-line mosques are an intoxicating arena for disillusioned young Muslims, Britain's fastest-growing, poorest and worst-educated minority.
"The pull to Islam in general is not bad," says Malik. "It gives [young people] a sense of identity and spirituality that is important to their lives."
However, the perceived persecution of Muslims worldwide can imbue their faith with a politics of resentment; they see the world divided into two opposing groups: Muslims and others.
Concerned that radical groups might capitalize on discontent, mainstream Muslim leaders have deliberately shunned those who advocated violence.
Some say the effort to weed out extremists is a sign of progress. Others say it has backfired, throwing together vulnerable young Muslims and hard-liners.
Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Muslim leaders to discuss ways to confront this "evil ideology." As Blair pushed legislation to deport radical clerics, the group announced plans for a task force, and clerics pledged greater cooperation with security officials. However, analysts say mainstream clerics may struggle to reach young Muslims already committed to radical ideology.
Last fall, Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the MCB, told The Christian Science Monitor that the extent of radicals in Britain was being hyped up by the press. "The reality on the ground is that there is almost nothing there," he said. "Islamic terrorism: Much of it is a media myth."
Then came the slaughter of July 7. From cafe-studded central London, mainstream Muslim organizations declared that such suicide attacks were un-Islamic.
Over in East London, though, Abu Osama's group argues that attacks on civilians by Palestinian, Kashmiri and Iraqi militants are seen as legitimate by the majority of the world's Muslims.
Many British Muslims are torn between two worlds. Every year, many young British Muslims visit the Middle East to explore their roots and often to study Arabic and Islam in a traditional environment. Most return to the West, their curiosity satisfied, to continue their lives. A few, by accident or design, return deeply transformed.
Several of the July 7 suspects, too, are believed to have traveled to Pakistan, where investigators believe they may have hardened their faith. Officials are also exploring whether the four suspects made contact with an Al-Qaida aide linked to al-Masri, the radical cleric.
British-born radicals "would have felt a secret excitement of having become the spearhead of a mission that would make them renowned in martyrology," says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University, Scotland.
Despite this bleak outlook, though, even such conservative Middle Eastern countries as Saudi Arabia and Yemen have successfully defused the anger of Islamic militants through an intensive program of religious dialogue and youth outreach.
At the East London mosque, Abu Osama's street preaching has evolved into a theological debate: Should one defend Islam worldwide by fighting in Britain? For these men, it's not just a philosophical exercise. Their conclusions could tip the balance of security across the country.