The Magazine

Alive and Well and Living in London

Why won't Britain extradite Islamic extremists?

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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A few days before the March 11 suicide bombing that rocked Casablanca, Moroccan police arrested a big fish: Saad Husseini, number two in the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), the outfit responsible for terror attacks in Casablanca in 2003 and Madrid in 2004 that killed a total of 236 people. But while Husseini sits in jail, his boss, Mohamed Guerbouzi, lives a free man in Britain, despite being sentenced in absentia to a 20-year term by a Moroccan court.

Morocco has sought Guerbouzi's extradition, but the British government refuses even to arrest him, deeming the evidence provided insufficient, according to the newspaper Aujourd'hui Le Maroc. Indeed, London still hosts a Who's Who of dangerous Islamists--Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the main Tunisian Islamist party; Anjem Choudary, deported from Lebanon to the United Kingdom in 2005 and seen taking part in the violent protests of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad; the Saudi national Saad al-Faqih, listed as a supporter of al Qaeda by both the U.S. Treasury and the United Nations, and so on. There's a reason for the moniker the British capital earned in the 1990s (also the title of a 2006 book by the journalist Melanie Phillips)--Londonistan.

For over a decade, French authorities have been frustrated by their British counterparts' relative inaction on extremism. In the 1990s, when a French investigative magistrate went to London to interview eight suspected members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), for instance, British authorities denied him access to the suspects. In 1998 and 1999, the DGSE, the French equivalent to the CIA, reportedly mounted its own surveillance of London's Finsbury Park mosque and of extremist leaders such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada.

Christophe Chaboud, head of the French antiterrorism coordination unit, told the Guardian that Britain failed to take action against Abu Hamza long after it was given ample evidence of his extensive involvement in terrorism. It wasn't until 2004 that Hamza was finally arrested. He is now serving a seven-year sentence for soliciting murder and inciting racial violence. And it took Britain ten years to finally extradite Rachid Ramda, the mastermind of the 1995 terror campaign in France that killed 8 and injured more than 100.

One explanation for the tolerance British authorities display toward Islamic radicals was offered by Alain Chouet, former head of the antiterrorism unit at the DGSE. Citing British colleagues, he told authors Stéphane Berthomet and Guillaume Bigot in 2005 that Islamists had deposited hundreds of millions of pounds in London banks. Said Chouet, "Nobody wanted to kill the golden goose."

Defenders of British policy reasoned that by allowing radicals to stay in Britain, the authorities could keep them under surveillance and thus prevent attacks on the homeland. Unfortunately, that calculation turned out to be wrong.

On July 7, 2005, London was attacked, at a cost of 52 lives, and Prime Minister Blair announced, "The rules of the game have changed." He appointed a select committee to advise him on tackling extremism. One of its members, however, was none other than Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss Islamist denied entry to the United States in 2004 and to France as long ago as 1995 for his dubious connections. Unsurprisingly, the first recommendation of this task force was to cancel Holocaust Memorial Day (instituted in 2001) because it was "offensive to Muslims," a recommendation that so far has not been adopted.

One of Britain's main Muslim nongovernmental organizations, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), describes Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi--who defends suicide attacks on civilians in Israel and U.S. troops in Iraq in his popular commentaries on Al Jazeera TV--as a "defender of human rights." The MCB spokesman recently stated, "To call for violence against British society is unacceptable," implying that against other countries it might be fine. The longtime general secretary of the MCB, Iqbal Sacranie--knighted by the queen in 2005--said of writer Salman Rushdie back in 1989, after the Ayatollah Khomeini deemed Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses blasphemous and called for his murder: "Death perhaps is a bit too easy for him." Rushdie recently retorted: "If that's the only moderate Muslim Blair could find!"

According to conservative MP Michael Gove, this picture is dispiriting for genuinely moderate Muslims. They see the most religiously conservative and politically provocative groups enjoy the lion's share of attention, and they wonder how serious the British government is about countering extremism.