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14 Held in Raids Targeting British Terror Training

The sweep in London is followed by the search of a countryside Islamic school. In Manchester, two are arrested in an unrelated terror case.

September 03, 2006|Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

MARK CROSS, England — A former stately orphanage that is now a decrepit Islamic school was searched by police Saturday as authorities announced 14 arrests in an investigation of possible terrorist retreats and recruitment in the wooded English countryside.

Officers sealed off the Victorian-era, 100-room institution and its 54 acres of grounds at dawn, hours after they arrested 12 suspects in a raid on a South London Chinese restaurant frequented by Muslims.

Two others were arrested elsewhere in London in an operation that followed months of surveillance by police and MI-5 intelligence services. Searches were underway at the suspects' homes and in Manchester, where two more people were arrested in a separate terrorism case.

All 16 detainees, who were not identified, were arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.

Police said the sweep had no connection to an alleged plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners that led to two dozen arrests here last month or the July 2005 bombings on the London transit system.

The latest arrests also were not connected to any imminent plot, authorities said. Rather, they said, the raids were an attempt to catch those in Britain planning and recruiting for terrorism, focusing on young Muslims who may be drawn into militant networks through outdoor programs in the countryside.

The Jameah Islameah school run by a Muslim charity in this rural village of East Sussex, in southeast England, was providing a Koranic education to about a dozen youths and served as a retreat center for Muslims, police and neighbors said.

"Friday nights after people came up for Friday prayers, they camp here for the weekend," said a police spokeswoman at the cordoned-off site, who under police protocol was not named. She said school officials were cooperating in the search, which was expected to take several weeks.

In Britain, as in France and Italy, militant groups have long used outdoor activities as a cover for recruiting, radicalizing and training followers, according to European anti-terrorism officials. The training in Europe has tended to center on physical conditioning and martial arts rather than firearms or explosives.

Recruiters use outdoor excursions to promote bonding and to screen for promising prospects, who are sometimes sent on for terrorist and combat training at foreign camps, particularly in Pakistan, said a British law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation.

"It's not unusual within Muslim communities for quite large groups to go on camping trips and team-building activities," said the official, who requested anonymity because police were not authorized to discuss the investigation. "But the thinking is that extremist groups use this for talent-spotting. You have individuals who spot talented ones for aptitude and send them on for training in Pakistan, Afghanistan or other foreign venues."

Investigators are primarily interested in the activities that have gone on in the sprawling wooded areas around the campus in East Sussex, the official said.

The concern is not new. The investigation of last year's transit bombings focused public attention on this trend because of published photos of the bombers on a rafting excursion. Moreover, Al Muhajiroun and other British militant groups have conducted outdoor and survival excursions as part of their radicalization process, experts said.

Once the site of a Catholic orphanage and junior seminary, then a ballet academy, the rambling, ornate facility was transferred to the Jameatul-Uloum-al-Islameyah charity in 1992, according to government records. Its declared purpose was to teach young Muslims to become teachers and assistant imams.

Neighbors and government inspectors said that the facility had fallen into disrepair, and that teachers and students did not mix much in the community.

"The place is in quite a derelict condition. A friend of mine went there, and it was pretty peculiar," said Daphne Street, who lives near the school. "They said they were taken along the corridors. One of the doors was open, and there were people in there, and there was hardly any floor. I mean, the center had gone out, and they were all sitting around on the edge, I guess. She was quite horrified."

Nick Benson, head of the Mark Cross Village Assn., said there seemed to be only about a dozen students at the school.

"We see them occasionally walking on the street; they're always wearing their traditional costume, not European-style clothes. They just kept to themselves," he said.

In an interview with London's Sunday Express, school proprietor Bilal Patel said radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al Masri, sentenced in February to seven years in prison for inciting murder and racial hatred, had once booked a school camping weekend with about 15 followers.

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