The British Connection

President Jacques Chirac has been the first foreign head of state to visit the USA in the aftermath of the 11 September tragedy. It was not only a visit of courtesy. A day before the tragic events of New York and Washington, a Judiciary information has been open in Paris about a group of Islamic extremists based in Belgium and Netherlands, which apparently had planned to blow up the American embassy, according to the confession of Jamel Beghal, a French-Algerian extremist, arrested last July in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). Jamel himself who has sojourned in the United Kingdom had been trained in an Afghani military camp as a member of “Attakfir wal hijra” – a radical extremist group to which belongs also another militant arrested on September 13 in Brussels: Nizar Trabelsi. The latter is originally from Tunisia. He was dwelling in Essonne – a Parisian suburb- and had also sojourned at least one time in Afghanistan. Whether the operation against the American embassy in Paris was scheduled to occur at the same time than the American operation or not, is not known. But it seems that the four persons arrested last Thursday in Netherlands (: two French, an Algerian and a Netherlander) are suspected to be linked to Jamel Beghal and Nizar Trabelsi. The Netherlands prosecutor has however declared that there is no evidence of their eventual implication in the terrorist operations in the USA. At the time this story is being posted, the French police have arrested seven other suspects belonging to the same network.

Just after his return from America, President Chirac received British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for a short consultation in the Elysées Palace. Both leaders pledged to back any “effective U.S. action against the ‘menace’ of terrorism.” After the breakfast meeting, Chirac said: “I believe that neither England nor France could fail to present if the response is… effective.” Mr. Blair, recognizing the “need to take action” said: “I hope that in the next few days we demonstrate as a world our complete solidarity in this fight which is so important to us.”

The positions of London and Paris concerning the Islamic fundamentalism have never been close, though. The French have always reproached to the British their “laxity” in dealing with people considered in France as “dangerous”. Even before the July-September 1995 string of blind terrorist acts in France, there has always been a great distrust towards the British handling of the Islamist network. According to the French daily Le Figaro – 3 Nov. 1995- “the trail of Bouallem Bensaid, GIA leader in Paris, leads to Great Britain. The British capital has served as a logistical and financial base for the terrorists.”

The next day, Le Parisien reported that the author of the GIA terror attack inside France was former Afghan mujahideen leader Abu Fares, who was given a residence visa in London, despite the fact that he was already wanted in connection with the bombing of the Algiers airport. Abu Fares’s London-based organization, according to Le Parisien, recruits Islamic youth from the poor suburbs of Paris and sends them to Afghanistan, where they are trained as terrorists.

According to the French sources, the GIA (Algerian Armed Islamic Group), which was responsible for the assassination of Algerian President Mohamed Boudiaf on June 29, 1992, has its international headquarters in London. Sheik Abu Qatabda and Abu Musab communicate military orders to GIA terrorists operating in Algeria and France via the London-based party organ, Al Ansar. Sheik Abu Qatabda was granted asylum in Britain in 1992 after he was condemned to death in Algeria for acknowledging responsibility for a bombing at Algiers airport. A third London-based GIA leader, Abu Fares, oversees operations targeted against France. He was granted asylum in Britain in 1992 after he was condemned to death in Algeria for acknowledging responsibility also for the same operation that killed nine people and wounded 125 in Algiers airport. He was also suspected of bombing three Paris train and subway stations and an open-air market.

While asking for the extradition of some suspects from London, the French kept wondering whether the British intelligence had been actually outwitted by the terrorists. For an institution that has two hundred years history of exercising influence across the steppes of Central Asia, where Islam had been probed, prodded, and profiled by the British East India Company, and by its successor British India Office’s Arab Bureau, since the times of James Mill and, later, Lawrence of Arabia, it was rather a shame not to know who exactly was living on its territory!

France, to be sure, was not the sole country to complain to the British about this matter. Well before the Islamic terrorism struck at the heart of America, it was the Arab countries themselves that were hit. Here are some examples:

  • In July 1998, a former British MI5 officer, David Shayler, revealed that in February 1996, British security services financed and supported a London-based Islamic terrorist group, in an attempted assassination against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Then-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Shayler charged, in an interview with the British Daily Mail, sanctioned the action. Speaking to the BBC on 5 August 1998, the same Shayler said: ” We paid é100,000 to carry out the murder of a foreign head of state. That is apart from the fact that the money was used to kill innocent people because the bomb exploded at the wrong time. In fact, this is hideous funding of international terrorism.”
  • The Saudis complained several times to the British authorities about the activity of the expatriate Mohammed al-Massari, who called for the overthrow of the House of Saud, and they asked for his extradition with particular insistence. A rumor wanted him allied to Osama Bin Laden, who apparently was maintaining a residence in the wealthy London suburb of Wembley. According to the same sources, London is also the headquarters of Bin Laden’s Advise and Reform Commission, run by Khaled al-Fawwaz. But if the British Home Office granted al-Massari a four-year refugee permit to remain on British soil, the decision to seal off Bin Laden’s account, seemingly managed by K. Fawwaz, was taken as late as September 20, 2001.
  • On November 17, 1997, the Gamaa-al-Islamiya (the Islamic group) carried out a massacre of tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in which 62 people were killed. Since 1992, terrorist attacks led by this gang claimed at least 92 lives. Yet, according to the Egyptian authorities, the leaders of this organization have been provided with political asylum in Britain and repeated efforts to have them extradited met with stern rebuffs. On December 14, 1997, British Ambassador to Egypt David Blatherwick was summoned by then Egypt’s Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and handed an official note, demanding that Britain ” stop providing a safe haven to terrorists, and cooperate with Egypt to counter terrorism.” In an interview with the London Times the same day, Mr. Moussa called on Britain ” to stop the flow of money from Islamic radicals in London to terrorist groups in Egypt, and to ban preachers in British mosques calling for the assassination of foreign leaders.” The Times added that Moussa was “outraged by reports that é2.5 million had come from exiles in Britain to the outlawed Gamaa-al- Islamiyah”.

Some people believe that Britain has been caught in the American geostrategic game to the extent of believing, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski that Islamic fundamentalism could be played as a card to destabilize the Soviet Empire all across South Asia. The national security adviser of President Jimmy Carter was actually the man who coined the famous expression “arc of crisis”, when in a Time magazine cover story published on Jan.15, 1979, he described Iran, Afghanistan, and the Indian subcontinent as posing a grave challenge to the West.

Time’s story on “The Crescent of Crisis” ended with the following observation: “In the long run, there may even be targets of opportunity for the West created by ferment within the crescent. Islam is undoubtedly compatible with socialism, but it is inimical to atheistic Communism. The Soviet Union is already the world’s fifth largest Muslim nation. By the year 2000, the huge Islamic populations in the border republics may outnumber Russia’s now dominant Slavs. From Islamic democracies on Russia’s southern tier, zealous Koranic evangelism might sweep across the border into these politically repressed Soviet states, creating problems for the Kremlin… Whatever the solution, there is a clear need for the U.S. to recapture what Kissinger calls the ‘geopolitical momentum’. That more than anything else will help maintain order in the crescent of crisis.”

Another thesis views the USA, Brzezinski included, as schooling in British geopolitics, in all what concerns the Islamic world. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • Rommy Fullerton set up Afghan Aid U.K. in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the early stages of the war. Her husband, John, has written a lot on Afghanistan. The main sponsor and funder of the group was Viscount Cranbourne.
  • Radio Free Kabul was formed almost immediately after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, by Lord Nicholas Bethell, a former lord-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. Lord Bethell had served in the Mideast and Soviet sections of MI6.
  • In 1983, Radio Free Kabul sponsored the formation of Resistance International, which pulled together various “freedom movements” sponsored by the Thatcher and Reagan-Bush administrations, including the Afghan mujahideen, the Nicaraguan Contras, anti-Castro Cubans, and various anti-Communist eastern European and African movements.
  • The Committee for a Free Afghanistan – CFA- was founded in 1981 in the aftermath of a trip by Prime Minister Thatcher and Radio Free Kabul founder Lord Bethell to the United States, dedicated to building support for the mujahideen. It provided funds for almost all the “Peshawar Seven” groups of mujahideen.
  • Before shifting against the West, Osama Bin Laden was one of the financiers who played the ” great game” in that region. Along with Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood leader he founded in the mid- 1980s the Services Office (Maktab al Khadamat: MAK), which established recruitment centers around the world. Azzam was killed by a car bomb in late 1989; the MAK split, with the extremist factions joining Bin Laden.
  • Bin Laden ran the Jihad Committee which includes the Egyptian Islamic group, and the Jihad Organization in Yemen, the Pakistani al-Hadith group, the Lebanese Partisans League, the Libyan Islamic group, Bayt-el-Imam group in Jordan, and the Islamic group in Algeria. According to some sources, this committee has a bureau in London.

These are the main assumptions concerning what the French call the “British connection”, meaning the Islamic network in Britain, and probably a little more. An important question has to be cleared, though. It concerns the terminology. For so far, there is not an agreement between the Western observers as regards the exact signification of the terms: Islamism, Islamists, or fundamentalists. Last week, the French magazine “L’ express” ran a cover story headlined “The Islamists attack the West”. Such an expression omits that many pro-Western Arab regimes are actually Islamists. Yet, they have been hit by the Islamic terrorism.

So, where is the difference, may one ask?

The difference has been well explained by an American writer, Mr. Marc E. Fisher, who after receiving a letter of protestation from one of his fundamentalist readers, who happened also to be American, answered him as follows:

“Point taken. We tend to get careless with our terminology when referring to unfamiliar groups, whether that unfamiliarity is due to faith, culture, or skin color. To ascribe terrorist acts to a blanket class of people called ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’ would be as misleading as saying that all Christian fundamentalists danced with poisonous snakes and spoke in tongues. My apologies for the discrepancy. “Then Mr. Fisher stated that he meant only “those who believe that their faith justifies the use of violent force and the killing of ‘infidel’ Americans and Israelis. And he concluded:” In the future interests of accuracy, we will refer to ‘Islamic extremists’ or ‘Islamic terrorists’, not as a catch-all generalization for all Muslims but as a way to separate the true and peaceful fundamentalist from the more radical (and violent) believer.” (Conspiracies and Extremism. 09/14/98).

If this definition could convince the other Westerners, so much the better for the communication between civilizations! At a time when America is seeking to form a great coalition against terrorism, maybe it is important to remind ourselves that the Arabs and the Muslims – Islamist states included (Saudi Arabia for example)- experienced this kind of blind terrorism well before it reaches the USA.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.