UK fights image as terrorist haven
By CNN's Jim Boulden and Diana Muriel
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Abu Hamza is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges. Mohammed Al-Masseri is accused by Saudi Arabia of advocating the overthrow of the kingdom's ruling family. Abu Qatada has been convicted in Jordan for inciting terrorist acts.
Despite what Middle Eastern courts say is clear evidence of extremist links, these men have lived openly in London for years, denying all allegations of terror links.
They either have been given political asylum or outright British citizenship -- over loud objections from Middle East governments.
"Some of them were granted political asylum, some of them were granted free passage, some of them just moved around … freely and there was no action taken and those are the masterminds and those are the financiers," says Egyptian presidential spokesman Nabil Osman.
"Only now when America asks for drying up financial channels for those terrorists, the international community is a bit more active."
London has a proud history as a safe haven for political dissidents. British and European laws prohibit extradition of anyone facing a death sentence.
"The death penalty is of enormous importance," says attorney Geoffrey Robertson. "Britain is understandably reluctant to extradite anyone, a British citizen or any other citizen, to a country where if convicted they will be executed."
Yet in the face of mounting pressure, Britain is now retooling all its asylum, refugee and extradition policies, which are often seen as cumbersome.
U.S. authorities want four people accused of terrorist activities tied to Osama bin Laden extradited from Britain to the United States.
Three of them were detained back in 1999 after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, and their lawyers are still fighting the case before the House of Lords.
The other, Abu Doha, was indicted in New York just days before September 11 for allegedly masterminding the plot to blow up Los Angeles Airport in 1999. It could take years before he is extradited.
The UK government was particularly embarrassed by claims that up to 15 of the September 11 hijackers moved through London on their deadly mission.
It has proposed tough new anti-terror laws that may restrict activities of, or even imprison, men like 40-year-old Palestinian Abu Qatada, a preacher of militant Islam.
Qatada lives in a west London house and has received taxpayer income support.
But the U.S. Treasury Department recently froze a bank account it has linked to Qatada.
Tapes of his speeches were found in the apartment used by suspected hijacker Mohammed Atta.
And associates of Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be pilot arrested in Minnesota a month before the September 11 attacks, told CNN he was also impressed with Qatada and probably had gone to hear Qatada preach at a London community centre.
In a rare TV interview at his house with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Qatada told CNN he didn't know any of the suspects tied to his name. He denied media reports that he knows Bin Laden and rejected Jordanian claims that he orchestrates terror attacks.
But his message to all Muslims is clear.
"We teach them religion, and religion requires them to live the life of Muslims and not the live of those who are not Muslims," Qatada said through a translator.
"In turn, it is the duty of a Muslim to live by Islam and not to be subjugated or enslaved by the lives of the others, America or the others. Islam must be lived as it is, without mixing with others. This is what I preach."
When asked why he sought refuge in Britain, Qatada said, "I couldn't go to an Arab country. If I could have gone to one I would have. I came to see the state that wasted the land of my forefathers in Palestine."
Other radical scholars under scrutiny in Britain include Saudi dissident Mohammed Al-Masseri and Egyptian Abu Hamza, who runs a mosque in north London and whose two sons were arrested in Yemen while allegedly trying to carrying out terrorist bombings.
Al-Masseri spoke to CNN in the days after the September 11 attacks but was careful to remain inside British law -- even while admitting he tells followers they can take up arms.
"If you have something to wage war for, then you go into the battlefield," Al-Masseri said.
"For example, Kashmir, there is nothing to be done here (in Britain). We know that Britain is the one to give birth to both India and Pakistani Kashmir, and the mess is partly British done, fine. But that is not to be settled here. If you want, go and fight there. There, not here. As long as you are here, under the realm of the queen, a passport or extended leave to stay, you have to keep the peace."
One dissident, Egyptian Yasser al-Siri, has been caught in the widening anti-terror net.
The 38-year-old has lived in London since 1994, having fled here after being convicted in absentia by Egypt's military court for his role in the attempted assassination of the prime minister.
He now stands accused in Britain of conspiring to murder former Northern Alliance military chief Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated in Afghanistan on September 9.
Al-Siri's supporters agree he is a harsh critic of Egypt but say emphatically that he is no terrorist.
Since September 11, the government here has been under enormous pressure from allies, opposition parties and the British media to do something about the perception that Britain remains a haven for terrorists and their supporters.
But with so many of the September 11 terrorists having passed through London -- and so many people already here suspected of terrorist links -- it will be hard for Britain to lose the stigma of a terror port of call.
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