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Protest too much?

Terrorism | Muslim groups in Britain circle wagons after recent arrests

Issue: "Iraq: Bravo Company's story," Aug. 21, 2004

The August arrests of more than a dozen Muslim terror suspects in Britain mobilized Muslim advocacy groups into public-­relations mode. One rallied behind suspect Babar Ahmad, arrested under a U.S. extradition warrant that cites his possession of a classified computer file detailing a U.S. Navy fleet in the Middle East.

The group, called Stop Police Terror, quickly recruited Mr. Ahmad's father to speak at an Aug. 8 conference in London. "You must all think that my son is a cold-hearted monster who was involved in some kind of evil plot," said Ashfaq Ahmad, who is from Pakistan. "I ask you as a father not to allow the demonizing of my son to destroy the life of an innocent man."

The 12 other arrestees were implicated in plots to attack London's Heathrow Airport and U.S. financial institutions. The global sweep arched from Pakistan to New York and came two weeks after the arrest of computer programmer Mohammad Khan. In Pakistan, authorities arrested 30 suspected al-Qaeda militants, and the FBI arrested two suspects in Albany, N.Y., believed to have connections to Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in northern Iraq. The Bush administration has maintained the terror threat level as investigators shovel through the evidence yielded by the worldwide arrests.

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Behind the British arrests is a 2001 anti-terrorism law, which provided for stronger law-enforcement powers such as detaining foreign terror ­suspects indefinitely without trial. Muslim advocacy groups protest the measure, but immigrant counterparts, particularly Pakistani Christians living in London, say they should spend more time winnowing terrorists from their ranks instead of protecting them.

"They're complaining to the government that the Muslim community has become a target of the terrorism act," said Nasir Saeed, a Christian human-rights activist with the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. "So what's happening is they're ­supporting the terrorists instead of condemning them."

The United Kingdom has about 2 million Muslims; half are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. The two groups suffer the highest unemployment rates among all ethnic groups in Britain, according to 2001 census data, and are also the least likely to have higher education. That, says Christian activist Edgar Money, makes their communities more pliant to the ­messages of foreign firebrand imams in Britain's mosques.

Few Muslims who disagree with extreme Islamists are willing to say so publicly. "If they say they reject it [their community] will openly say, 'You're with the British government,'" said Mr. Money. But he sees slow change coming as more prosperous Pakistanis-who are happy with their lives in Britain-come out of the ­moderates' closet. In the meantime, Mr. Saeed says the British government should monitor regularly what the country's imams are preaching in mosques, and make it harder for ­foreign fundamentalist Islamic teachers to enter Britain.

Police have arrested almost 600 ­Muslims suspected of having terrorist connections since 9/11, charged about 90, and gained 12 convictions. But the British government is fast learning that its Muslim constituents make a powerful political force: More are pressuring their local members of ­Parliament to stop the crackdown. Suspects like Mr. Ahmad-with his father pleading that his son never received so much as a parking ticket-provide compelling faces for the Stop Police Terror's campaign against the government. Mr. Ahmad now faces five federal charges in the United States. Apart from the Navy document, which had battle plans for vessels fighting against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, federal prosecutors say he had a CD with tracks praising Osama bin Laden and ran a website supporting jihad.

The charges weren't enough to give pause to Stop Police Terror, which is planning demonstrations outside Britain's Home Office. While its followers ignore the problems in their Muslim communities, other British Pakistanis wonder how long Islamic fundamentalism will fester in the United Kingdom. "I'm concerned about my future," said Mr. Saeed. "We want Britain to be a peaceful country. We don't want to be like Karachi, ­Pakistan, where you leave in the morning for work and you don't know if you'll come back."

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