LONDON — The disclosure that two British citizens were involved in a Tel Aviv suicide attack has come as a shock to Britain. It has not, however, come as a surprise for British Jews.
“I think we are saddened but not surprised,” said Henry Grunwald, president-elect of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the country’s main Jewish representative body. “We have been alerting the authorities for some time about our concerns regarding the fundamentalist parts of the Muslim community.”
Two members of that community, Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, are suspected of involvement in an attack that killed three and wounded more than 50 at a seaside Tel Aviv bar on April 30. A bomb carried by Hanif, 21, exploded. A second bomb did not detonate, though it remains unclear whether that was due to malfunction or a last-minute failure of nerve by Sharif, 27, who is still being sought by Israeli police.
British authorities brought six acquaintances of the two men in for questioning last weekend and are investigating the possibility that the two had links to Libyan or Algerian terrorist organizations. The two are thought to have gone to Syria for training and then crossed into Israel via Jordan, with hard-to-detect plastic explosives hidden inside a Koran.
The disclosure that Hanif and Sharif were British citizens has prompted a rash of public hand-wringing, with journalists, pundits and politicians asking how two young men from upstanding immigrant families, both with good secular schooling, could have abused their British passports to aid the terrorist cause and become suicide bombers.
For many Jewish community leaders, however, the news follows repeated warnings that the nation was turning a blind eye to the rise of a home-grown Islamic extremist movement that sooner or later would turn from words to action. “If you preach violence, those who listen will end up carrying it out,” Grunwald said. “For too long, there have been people in the Muslim community who have been allowed to get away with preaching violence. If people who break the law are prosecuted as they should be, the effect is to bring about a diminution of the incitement. We saw that with the right wing in the 1970s.”
British Muslims number about 1.6 million, according to the 2001 Census, slightly more than 3% of the overall population and nearly double the figure in the 1991 Census. It is the third-largest Muslim community in Western Europe and by many accounts the most politicized, with about 75% holding British citizenship. The vast majority trace their roots to the former British colonies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
British Jewry numbers only about 270,000, one-sixth the size of the Muslim community, and it is declining. While it has deep roots and is better integrated than the Muslim community, it faces what some see as a variety of danger signs.
Antisemitic incidents, traditionally a minor concern, increased by 75% last year, according to a new report by the security trust, an offshoot of the Board of Deputies.
Last January, police found traces of what was described as ricin, a deadly poison, in a north London apartment that authorities say may have been a terrorist lab. A series of arrests around the country led police to a mosque in Finsbury Park, a London neighborhood populated by both Jews and Muslims, where they discovered a cache of weapons.
Several outspoken clerics have since been arrested, including Abu Hamza, the imam of the Finsbury Park mosque, and Abdullah El-Faisal, a militant, Jamaican-born preacher. Efforts are underway to remove Abu Hamza’s citizenship, and El-Faisal has been sentenced to nine years in prison for inciting race hatred and soliciting murder.
According to a recent report in The Times, some 50 British Muslims have approached al-Muhajiroun, a leading militant group, to inquire about becoming suicide bombers.
The security trust is monitoring possible threats to Jewish targets in Britain, according to its director, Mike Whine. So is the Israeli embassy. Although there are no specific warnings at the moment of a terrorist attack on a local Jewish institution, the feeling is widespread that an attack may be inevitable.
“I think it was only a matter of time before a British citizen was involved in an attack in Israel,” Grunwald said. “It seems likely that something will happen here as well.”
Community leaders say the police have been responsive in addressing specific Jewish security concerns. Nevertheless, both the Board of Deputies and the security trust complain that the government’s overall approach to Islamic extremism has been characterized until recently by complacency.
The charge of complacency is supported by reports in several British newspapers that the British domestic intelligence agency, MI5, was aware of Hanif and Sharif because of their involvement with radical groups in Britain, including al-Muhajiroun, whose leader, Omar Bakri, openly expresses support for terrorist attacks. Bakri has avoided prosecution so far by stopping short of actually calling for attacks.
Critics say the authorities and the public have seemed willing to tolerate extremists such as Bakri, Hamza and El-Faisal, treating them more as rabble-rousers than as real threats. Many attribute the authorities’ seeming reluctance to take action partly to a fear of being seen as stigmatizing a large and growing religious minority. Partly, too, it stems from an unspoken sense that much of the extremist rhetoric in the Muslim community is directed at the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, who is widely disliked here.
In recent months attitudes appear to have changed. The ricin scare, compounded by direct British involvement in Palestinian terrorism, has raised concerns even among moderate Muslims that the next target may well be in Britain.
“We need to be scared,” wrote Fuad Nadhi, a prominent mainstream Muslim writer, in The Guardian newspaper. “The end of the war in Iraq might even usher in the beginning of our own intifada.”
The security trust has called for Britain’s anti-terrorism and anti-incitement laws to be enforced more scrupulously against the most radical local Islamic groups. The trust and the Board of Deputies submitted a joint memorandum last month to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, calling for coordinated action to be taken against British-based terrorist groups.
However, Nadhi, like other mainstream spokesmen, insisted the only way to stem the radicalization of British Muslims is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A crackdown of the type encouraged by Grunwald and the Board of Deputies — or the mass deportations being urged by some tabloids — would serve only to radicalize even more Muslims, who already feel they have “no viable stake in society,” Nadhi wrote.
Moreover, several leading editorial pages — including left-wing papers that usually back Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party — warn that such stepped-up security measures could turn MI5 into a “thought police.”
Jewish community leaders say such fears are exaggerated. “There is no freedom to kill,” said Lord Greville Janner, a longtime Labour leader and vice president of the World Jewish Congress. “In any decent country you have to strike a balance between individual freedom and the protection of the population. It is the duty of the government to strike that balance,” he said. “On the whole I think Britain has drawn the line pretty successfully for quite some time. But clearly, there is a serious problem, and the laws will have to be enforced on an individual basis at each particular time.”
The investigation of the Tel Aviv bombing began swiftly, with Scotland Yard arresting six people — including Sharif’s wife, two sisters, a brother and brother-in-law — and handing them over to MI5, the domestic intelligence agency. A team of British investigators was also dispatched to Tel Aviv to assist in the Israeli investigation. “We are cooperating fully with the Israeli authorities,” said a spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Neither Scotland Yard nor MI5 would comment on the investigation, citing an information blackout on anti-terrorism investigations.
Israel confirmed that it was receiving full cooperation. “We appreciate all the assistance and cooperation we are getting from the British authorities,” said Shuli Davidovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in London. “We are getting everything we need.”
Hostility to Israel continues to run high, however, and the line between it and antisemitism continues to fade. The national union of college professors, the Association of University Teachers, was to vote this week on a resolution calling on all British universities to consider severing ties with Israeli universities. The union’s national executive was said to oppose the boycott, but critics said it had made almost no effort to block the measure from being adopted.
British Jews were stunned, too, when a senior figure in the ruling Labour Party, Tam Dalyell of Scotland, attacked the prime minister in an interview last weekend for “being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers.” He singled out Lord Michael Levy, a top fundraiser and policy adviser to Blair, along with former aide Peter Mandelson and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Mandelson has a Jewish father and Straw has a Jewish grandfather, but neither considers himself Jewish.
Meanwhile, according to The Times, MI5 seems preoccupied with heading off efforts by the Mossad to penetrate British Islamic groups, after Sharon ordered Israel’s intelligence service to ramp up its operations in Britain, which were curtailed in 1987.
“For MI5,” the newspaper wrote, “the prospect of a Mossad-Muslim war in Britain magnifies the nightmare already posed by the infiltration of mainstream British Muslim groups by radicals bent on a terrorist holy war.”
Davidovich would not comment on Mossad activities in Britain.
Ha’aretz and JTA contributed to this report.