One o'clock on an overcast Friday afternoon, and the faithful are heading for an unmarked door on a non-descript, rainy, redbrick street in north Leicester. On the first floor of the Mosque of Piety, 50 men kneel in two rooms. The sermon focuses on a Muslim's duty to be of good character and to contribute to his community and society as a whole.
An hour later the worshippers stream out along the grey pavements of the grubby suburb of Highfields. Ahead of them the net curtains twitch and the doors are quickly closed. The men walk swiftly on, their heads bowed against the gusting wind.
'Terrorists are not Muslims,' one worshipper told The Observer. 'They have nothing to do with our religion.' But less than a year ago there were men in their congregation who disagreed.
There have now been 17 arrests in Leicester in the past three days. The doors started going in at 6.30am on Thursday when residents of Hamilton Street, Skipworth Street, and Holkham Street were woken by scores of policemen swarming all over a dozen houses.
When officers smashed the flimsy door of the house next to Peter Whitehead's on the St Matthews estate, he was unsurprised. He had been suspicious of his neighbour for months. 'After 11 September a lot of newspapers printed pictures of suspects and he immediately went and shaved his beard off,' Whitehead, 73, said. 'Everyone round here is happier now he has gone.'
In the city yesterday the mood was still tense. Patrol cars prowled the narrow streets of the north-eastern suburbs. On Friday, heavily armed police ringed the magistrates court - more used to dealing with drunken pub fights than international terrorist conspiracies - where, as if to ram the week's message home, the first two men charged in Britain with playing active roles in al-Qaeda went into the dock.
One was charged with being director of operations for the terror group, the other a key financial agent.
The Midlands was not the only part of Britain jolted last week by the exposure of alleged terrorists. As the police led their suspects to waiting cars in Leicester, a man allegedly linked to al-Qaeda was arrested in north London.
Elsewhere, Special Branch officers and MI5 are hunting for Abu Qatada, a fiery Islamic cleric who disappeared from his north-west London home three weeks ago. As first reported by The Observer, Qatada has been linked to bin Laden by investigators in Jordan - although he has denied any involvment in terrorism. He has no passport and is believed to be in Britain. No one knows where.
In Newcastle on Friday, a Palestinian appeared in court accused of being a member of Hamas, the Middle Eastern terror group, and in Birmingham two other alleged Islamic militants were in court denying charges of plotting a bombing campaign. Somewhere in the UK, Omar al Bayoumi is hiding, the 44-year-old Aston University student suspected by the FBI of bankrolling the terrorist cell responsible for flying an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon.
Although Bayoumi denies any wrongdoing, he was arrested by armed police in Birmingham in the immediate aftermath of the attack before being freed for lack of evidence. The FBI now claims it has more evidence that points to his guilt. The British police say they are 'interested in speaking to him'.
Since 11 September there have been dozens of arrests throughout the country. A handful have been under the Government's new emergency internment legislation. Many have been for alleged immigration offences. The rest are being held under suspicion of breaking existing anti-terrorist laws.
So many suspected al-Qaeda terrorists have now been arrested in the UK that Belmarsh, the high-security prison in south-east London, has got a special wing for the 'Binmen' - as they have been dubbed by guards. Their cells are next to those occupied by the Real IRA.
The lesson now appears clear. There are al-Qaeda links from Brighton to Bolton, from Scotland to Slough. The idea that Islamic extremism was limited to a few loud-mouthed polemicists in north and west London has been shown to be nothing more than a comforting fallacy.
'For years the intelligence community has tried to play down the levels of activity and the threat from Islamic extremism in Britain,' one London-based security expert said yesterday. 'But they can't do that any longer.'
In Washington, Paris and capitals across the Middle East and Asia, officials charged with winding up al-Qaeda are pointing to the UK. They say that Britain is more than just a haven for Islamic dissidents and a centre for the dissemination of extremist propaganda. The French and the Americans maintain that the UK has played a key role as a logistics base for al-Qaeda itself and was critical to the 11 September attacks.
After last week's raids - and with a wave of further arrests imminent - the UK does appear to be far more significant than previously thought. Letters found in al-Qaeda camps by The Observer show bin Laden's men had links with British Islamic organisations dating back to 1998. There were even plans by some terrorists, apparently British, to bomb the City.
So how did so many significant al-Qaeda figures live and work in Britain for years, sometimes after being granted political asylum, and never get picked up? Was it the British policy of 'watchful toleration' that was flawed? Or was it the sheer difficulty of finding the militants? And how many more terrorists are there planning mayhem from nondescript flats on wet, terraced streets?
Tonight, in a half-bombed-out compound 20 miles north of Kabul, a tall, olive-skinned Libyan will sleep on a hard concrete floor. He will be watched carefully by American Special Forces soldiers and British Marines. They are there to make sure that, this time, Anas al-Liby does not escape.
When al-Liby was captured during the assault on al-Qaeda's fortified cave systems in eastern Afghanistan, the CIA was jubilant. The 38-year-old was one of bin Laden's closest aides, with a $25 million (£17m) reward on his head. The British intelligence services were happy too - and relieved. They had let al-Liby slip through their fingers three years ago. The veteran militant was traced during the investigation into the British cells connected to al-Qaeda's attack on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 but, although he had been operating in Britain for some time and had even been granted asylum here, the Libyan was a step ahead of the authorities. By the time police raided his Manchester flat, he had disappeared. All detectives found was a computer containing a comprehensive bombmaking manual authored by al-Qaeda. That manual formed crucial evidence at the trial of the bombers of the East African embassies in New York last year - but to have had its owner, or author, in the dock would have been a lot better.
The failure to capture al-Liby was embarrassing. It showed up the problems MI5 and the police were having in rolling up the terrorist network in the UK. Their defenders blamed restrictive legislation, a pedestrian legal system and a lack of funds; their detractors said the security services were incompetent and unprepared for a post-Cold War, post-IRA world. Either way, 1999 and 2000 were not good years for the men at Thames House and Scotland Yard. Even hard information, let alone convictions, was very difficult to obtain. But by the beginning of last year MI5 and its European counterparts knew they were on to something very big and very frightening. The problem was, nobody knew exactly what it was.
The French were getting closest. After years of fighting the Algerian terrorist threat to the French mainland, the DST (the domestic security service) had more expertise in tackling extremist Islamic groups than any other agency outside the Middle East. For a decade they had been warning the British and American security communities that a failure to take the Islamic threat seriously would have appalling consequences. By the end of the 1990s their warnings were being heeded in Washington and Whitehall. Co-operation between the Americans, MI5, the DST and the French foreign intelligence service, the DGSE, was boosted. Soon it was showing results.
The lucky break came last July, when an unassuming Arab businessman was picked up at Dubai international airport for travelling on false French papers. Djamal Beghal, a 36-year-old Algerian, was flying back to Europe from Pakistan when he was arrested. When French intelligence officers were invited to interview him, they swiftly realised that they had stumbled upon one of their prime suspects. The French had been looking for Beghal since he left the suburbs of Paris in the mid-1990s for London's Islamist underworld, where he soon established himself as an energetic recruiter for al-Qaeda, travelling the country spreading the message of jihad. During this period he shuttled between addresses in Leicester and London. He is thought to have recruited both a French-Moroccan student called Zacarias Moussaoui - who is currently in custody in the US suspected of being the so-called '20th hijacker' - and Richard Reid, the 28-year-old Briton arrested in December after trying to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes on a Paris to Miami flight.
Under intensive questioning (and possibly torture) by Dubai's secret police, and a series of sessions on theology with Islamic clerics opposed to al-Qaeda, Beghal cracked. He confessed that he had been training in Afghanistan for a year at an al-Qaeda camp run by Abu Zubeidah, one of bin Laden's most capable and trusted lieutenants and the man some tipped to succeed him. Beghal revealed he was returning with final instructions from the al-Qaeda leadership to unleash attacks on targets across Europe, including the US embassy in Paris.
His confession put investigators on the trail of a vast terrorist network with cells in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Britain, all linked to the ultra-extremist group Takfir-wal-Hijra (Anathema and Exile) - whose followers believe that even Muslims who disagree with their ultra-puritanical brand of Islam are 'infidels'.
Immediately after 11 September, an international police operation picked up dozens of Europe-based sleepers linked to the Takfiris and al-Qaeda. The trail swiftly led to Britain and the now notorious Finsbury Park mosque, which had become a magnet for Islamic extremists throughout the 1990s.
No one expected that the trail would also lead to Leicester. But when French police turned up at Beghal's appartment just outside Paris looking for the man suspected of being the network's computer expert, Kamel Daoudi, they found that he had slipped the net. With MI5, they tracked the 27-year-old down - first to Britain, and then to Leicester's Highfields area,where Beghal and his associates had established a cell.
On 26 September, Leicestershire police made their first arrests. Daoudi was picked up and deported to France within days. It is now clear that Baghdad Mezziane and Brahim Benmerzouga - the two Algerian asylum-seekers who appeared last week in Leicester magistrates' court charged with membership of al-Qaeda - were arrested in the same raids.
But as winter set in and the bombing began in Afghanistan, the focus of the investigation switched back to the more familiar Islamist territory of north and west London. Yasser al-Sirri, a well known Egyptian dissident who ran the Islamic Observation Centre, a press and information service for the Muslim world, was picked up for his alleged role in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance.
Meanwhile, Abu Qatada, the London-based cleric, was identified as the prime target of new anti-terrorist legislation, which allowed the police to detain foreign suspects indefinitely without charge in the public interest. Under interrogation in Dubai, Beghal had named Qatada as his inspiration. It also emerged that Leicester's little-known Mosque of Piety was a key centre for his group and other bin Laden sympathisers.
Days after the new anti-terrorist legislation came into force, the police picked up eight further suspects in dawn raids. Qatada slipped the net - another embarrassment for MI5 and the police.
But the round-up was accelerating. Each new arrest generated leads. In the last three weeks there have been breakthroughs. Prisoners taken in Afghanistan - including al-Liby - have started talking. And suspects picked up elsewhere - such as the Algerian-born Said Laidouni, who was arrested on Christmas Eve in Paris after the CIA intercepted a telephone call - have helped to fill the gaps in the security forces' knowledge.
Electronic eavesdropping of the sort that located Laidouni is increasingly being used to trace al-Qaeda operatives and it is thought that surveillance data combined with information from al-Liby, Laidouni and other newly interrogated suspects, prompted last week's Leicester raid.
But the question marks remain. Al-Qaeda's diffuse structure makes it very hard to be sure that entire cells have been rounded up.
'You are always going to leave a lot of people behind and evidential requirements - even with new legislation - means that you can't get half the people you want,' said one British former anti-terrorist officer. Scotland Yard chiefs have said that there are hundreds more al-Qaeda men active in the UK. Others put the number of Islamic extremists at more than 1,000.
Defence lawyers are concerned that innocent people are being arrested as police forces use the new climate to round up 'the usual suspects'.
Lawyer Gareth Peirce, who is representing several suspects, said: 'Aid workers, dissidents and those struggling against oppressive regimes all now qualify as terrorists. They are being rounded up by police and intelligence services who have no comprehension of the culture, religion and way of life of these refugee communities.'
The case of Lotfi Raissi could cause the British authorities some discomfort. The Algerian pilot, who was arrested and imprisoned last year, is alleged to have trained some of the 11 September hijackers. He denies everything and MI5 now admits that it is unlikely that the Americans will be able to produce sufficient evidence to justify his detention.
Such concerns are unlikely to stop further arrests. Security sources have told The Observer that a wave of further arrests across the UK is being planned - although this risks alienating the Islamic community and jeopardising the flow of essential intelligence on which many operations are based.
Politicians and policemen alike are aware of the risks - but say the stakes are too high to hold back.
Current issue dated: 26 August 2006| 2015
| Lebanon report | News | Cartoons | Alex Callinicos | Comment | Features | The British upturn | Letters | Reviews | Editorial | Debate and Comment | News & Reports | Meetings and events
THE POWER OF THE LEBANESE MASSES
See the links below for our exclusive reports of how the Lebanese people fought Israel » more
Tommy Sheridan, and fellow member of the Scottish Parliament Rosemary Byrne, have called a meeting on 3 September to bring people together to discuss launching a new socialist party in Scotland » more
Tabloid headlines, broadsheet comment pages and ministers’ speeches are once again full of lurid claims about Muslims and "integration" in the wake of the decision on Monday of this week to charge 11 suspects over the alleged "terror plot" to blow up planes with liquid explosives » more
Acclaimed Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef spoke to Jonathan Maunder the about his life and work, and about the current state of politics and poetry in the Middle East » more
Danziger's photographs were exhibited at the International Aids Conference in Toronto, Canada, last week » more
Bob Light gives a personal view of the career of a controversial director » more
» Lebanon: freedom from below
Simon Assaf reports for Socialist Worker from the south of Lebanon on how an invading Israeli army was defeated by the resistance - and by the popular solidarity movement that emerged across the country
» Was Liban Lait milk factory destroyed for profit?
Photographer Guy Smallman is in Lebanon taking photographs for Socialist Worker and here describes the wreckage of the Liban Lait dairy plant that was destroyed by Israeli bombs
» The battle of Aita al-Shaab
Socialist Worker journalist Simon Assaf and photographer Guy Smallman were among the first to reach the border town of Aita al-Shaab after the Israelis withdrew
» Hizbollah's media awareness
Never let it be said that Hizbollah are not media savvy
» Sameh Naguib in Egypt: ‘Israel’s defeat has transformed the region’
John Rees spoke to Sameh Naguib from the Centre for Social Studies in Cairo about the consequences of Israel’s defeat
» Solidarity actions in Egypt
John Rees of the Stop the War Coalition reports on the emergency meeting of the Cairo Conference organising committee last weekend
» The power of the Lebanese masses
See the links below for our exclusive reports of how the Lebanese people fought Israel
» US and its allies try to regain lost ground
The victory for the resistance in Lebanon is a major blow against both Israeli aggression and George Bush’s plans for a “new Middle East”
» Tommy Sheridan calls for new Scottish party
Tommy Sheridan, and fellow member of the Scottish Parliament Rosemary Byrne, have called a meeting on 3 September to bring people together to discuss launching a new socialist party in Scotland
» Great opportunity to move forward in Scotland
Many socialists and working class people around the world celebrated Tommy Sheridan’s recent libel victory
» Activist voices debate the future of the Scottish left
Scottish activists discuss the potential to build a wider movement
» 'Terror' hype sparks racist backlash against Asians
Tabloid headlines, broadsheet comment pages and ministers’ speeches are once again full of lurid claims about Muslims and "integration" in the wake of the decision on Monday of this week to charge 11 suspects over the alleged "terror plot" to blow up planes with liquid explosives
» Oxford police get busy over Aki Nawaz meeting
Police officers tried to block a meeting in an Oxford church hall because it featured Aki Nawaz of radical Muslim hip-hop act Fun-Da-Mental, according to the organisers
» Time To Go demonstration gathers momentum
The Stop the War Coalition’s Time To Go demonstration in Manchester on 23 September is just weeks away
» Best Internet coverage
Socialist Worker rounds up some highlights from internet coverage and analysis of events this week
» Much rhetoric but little delivery at Toronto Aids Conference
The great powers, and politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair bear the heaviest responsibility for the death toll of Aids
» PFI in the health service: the price of a light switch? Just £333
HOW MUCH does it cost to change a light switch? £333, if you’re an NHS hospital locked into a private finance initiative (PFI) contract
» Strike ballot starts at NHS Logistics
A GROUP of workers who could bring the NHS to a halt in three days have begun balloting for strikes to oppose privatisation
» Hospital closure plan
The department of health has warned that more hospitals across England will close in order to claw back NHS deficits
» Council homes in Wales in danger
Ballots to decide the fate of council housing are set to take place in six local authorities across Wales in the coming months
» City bonuses could solve the pensions ‘crisis’ overnight
Extraordinary figures released last week showed the scale of plunder by Britain’s top bosses
» Tim: Glorifying the Pakistani cricket team
» Polish migrants and unemployment
Alex Callincos unravels the myths about immigrant workers
» Nick Danziger: documenting lives shaped by Aids
Danziger's photographs were exhibited at the International Aids Conference in Toronto, Canada, last week
» The 14,000 people infected with HIV every day deserve hope
Nkhensani Mavasa is deputy chairperson of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and attended the Toronto conference
» Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef on 'bullet censorship'
Acclaimed Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef spoke to Jonathan Maunder the about his life and work, and about the current state of politics and poetry in the Middle East
» Political lessons for the rank and file
In the last of our series Dave Sherry looks at the cost of trade union loyalty to Labour
Palestine solutions | Stalin’s Russia | Botswana demonstration over Lebanon | Inspiration from Spain’s Revolution | Racial profiling at Heathrow | Wrong to back Hizbollah | Tommy Sheridan - a victory? | No sympathy for civil servants | Visual culture of Chartism
» Pedro Almodovar: an artist hiding behind celebrity?
Bob Light gives a personal view of the career of a controversial director
» Volver: Almodóvar returning to the start
Translated, Volver means “To Return” - and this film is, in many ways, a return for director Pedro Almodóvar
» Keith Coventry | Voices of Animals and Men | Three Billy Goats Gruff
» Blame the rich, not migrant workers
Immigration | Israeli war crimes | Racism is just not cricket
» Resisting relaxation
Chancing on a commemoration to the Resistance while on holiday in France, Mike Rosen delved into the radical history of the region
» Fighting post privatisation
Workers protested in five areas across Britain last Saturday and handed out thousands of leaflets against plans to close post offices and transfer services to WHSmith stores—and now workers in Wales have voted for a strike
» Caretakers’ battle with Leeds North West Homes
A group of caretakers in Leeds are taking industrial action over pay
» Oxfordshire postal workers postpone strike
Postal workers in Carterton and Witney in Oxfordshire have given management another week to come up with a deal to avoid a strike
» Four Royal Mail distribution centres vote for action
Over 1,000 Royal Mail workers in four distribution centres across England have voted in favour of industrial action against heavy-handed management handling of changes to mail circulation
» Mediation in Merseyside and Cheshire ambulance dispute
Ambulance workers in Merseyside and Cheshire have won independent mediation in a bitter dispute over pay and conditions
» Firefighters to strike on Merseyside
Firefighters in the FBU union on Merseyside will strike for four days next week against a programme of job cuts
» Three-day strike planned at Whipps Cross hospital
Workers employed by Initial Rentokil at Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone, east London, plan a three-day strike to win the same terms and conditions as colleagues employed by the NHS
» Reports round-up
Strikes on South West Trains | Gatwick Express dispute planned | Pension strike vote in Cumbria | Asylum seekers’ lawyers to strike | Are prison staff locked into deal? | Strike plan inflates Pirelli tyres pay | Croydon tram workers
» Crucial disputes for tube and rail unions
Rail unions face a series of challenges over the coming weeks after declaring disputes in key areas
» Stansted workers are angry over pay
About 500 GMB and T&G union members, working for Swissport at Stansted airport were due to strike this weekend
» Bus workers
First Centre West buses strike | First South Yorkshire drivers accept improved offer
» Bmibaby pilots to strike
Pilots at UK budget airline Bmibaby have voted to strike in a row over pay and pensions
» Anti-war round-up
York march | Aberdeen anti-war rally | Merseyside meeting hears Lebanese journalist | Derry protesters campaign | Fairford protesters on trial
» Behind the airport queues
The furore created by the alleged terror bomb plot last week has generated an intense and bitter row between the airline bosses and the airport operator, BAA, about the handling of the crisis and the ongoing restrictions imposed on air travellers which have made travelling from Heathrow and Gatwick an absolute nightmare for many