Intelligence experts say "Londonistan," as they call it, has been a center of Islamic fundamentalist activity in Europe since the 1980s. The North London Central Mosque, the site of a raid Monday by British police, is, according to European law officials, the beating heart of that activity. The mosque's leaders claim it is a harmless house of worship catering to the needs of faithful Muslims, but investigators say it has been a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic extremists, producing self-styled holy warriors such as Richard Reid, the Al Qaeda-supporting "shoe bomber."
American and European officials have no doubt that it also serves as a link between local extremists and Islamic warriors from Chechnya to the Middle East. The Egyptian-born imam of the mosque, Sheik Abu Hamza al Masri, has publicly hailed Osama bin Laden as a liberator of the Middle East and regularly calls for a jihad against the West. This is not mainstream Islam, or even nonviolent fundamentalism. The mosque's very existence has been a rebuke to Muslims trying to lead quiet, normal lives in Britain.
The police raid shows a new and necessary unwillingness to compromise with terrorism in Britain, after a series of shocks. These include the discovery of an Al Qaeda-related terrorist network linked to possible production of the deadly poison ricin. Seven people arrested in the raid Monday are suspected of having ties to that ring. Another of its suspected members stabbed a Manchester police detective to death during an earlier investigation of a makeshift laboratory.
The mosque raid, during which police found canisters of tear gas, a stun gun, an imitation firearm and potentially incriminating documents, was a sign that Britain is going from using radical Muslim activity as a valuable source of intelligence to attacking it directly.
Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Monday on BBC Radio that the raid did not seem to be sacrilegious and that a mosque should not be used to perpetrate criminal activities. The police themselves went out of their way to avoid the appearance of trampling on religious sensibilities, wearing cloth-covered shoes and using Muslim police officers to help plan the raid.
No matter how carefully they proceed, the sight of police officials storming a place of worship is bound to evoke feelings of unease in Americans as well as Britons. President Bush has correctly stressed that the United States is fighting terrorism, not the Islamic world. Though fiery speeches are a staple of some American mosques, nothing resembling the virulence and systematic organization of Britain's fundamentalist mosques has surfaced in the U.S. The 9/11 hijackers themselves sought to keep a low profile, rather than openly denouncing the U.S.
Islamic radicals have deftly exploited Britain's liberal free speech and political asylum laws to establish a safe base. Britain's raid, with the support of moderate Muslims, will help safeguard those liberties.