An underground film showing the slaughter of Algerian soldiers is being used as a recruitment tool for British Islamic radicals
Afghanistan - Observer special
Sunday January 27, 2002
The trail runs from a wet corner of a west London street to the dusty mountains of eastern Algeria, from a garage on the Thames to the Mediterranean, from a mosque off north London's Seven Sisters Road to Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.
In one direction the trail is a conduit for volunteers and money - both heading for Islamist rebels fighting a brutal war against Algeria's government. In the other direction flow political refugees, communiqu¨¦s boasting of the numbers of 'infidels' murdered each month and, towards the end of last year, a single smuggled video.
Rumours of the video had been circulating for several weeks. There was even talk about it in the bazaars of war-wracked cities in eastern Afghanistan. It was reputed to be of appalling violence - and one of the most effective recruiting tools ever used by a terrorist group. It was also said to be circulating in the UK.
The Observer obtained the video last week from a contact within the British Muslim community. It was worse than anything expected.
According to the badly printed cover, the video, simply entitled 'Algeria', had been prepared by the 'publicity service (audiovisual section) of the Groupe Salafiste pour Pr¨¦dication et Combat (Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting or GSPC)' - the most radical of the Islamic terrorist groups who have been fighting the Algerian government for more than 10 years.
The feared GSPC is one of the groups that has refused a recent government amnesty and truce. It is also closely linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation and is thought to have been set up by some of his closest lieutenants using the Saudi-born dissident's money.
According to security sources, the first copy of the GSPC video arrived in the UK just a few days before the 11 September attacks. Since then, bootleg copies have been passed around Britain's extremists who have been anxious to play it to potential recruits.
Screenings have been arranged both in private homes and, often after prayers, in mosques. Many showings have been timed so that young people, students and schoolchildren, can attend. Several are alleged to have taken place in Finsbury Park mosque in north London where the radical cleric Abu Hamza often leads prayers.
There are fears that the video could have been used to indoctrinate vulnerable young men who have come to the mosque seeking spiritual guidance following 11 September.
'There are many people at the more radical mosques who come searching for a purpose in life,' said one former MI5 agent who infiltrated Finsbury Park mosque.
'They often know very little about Islam and trust the older men to show them the way. But they are shown the path of violence.'
Both Richard Reid, who was overpowered as he tried to set off explosives in his shoes on a Paris-to-Miami flight last December, and Feroz Abbasi, the 22-year-old former computer student from Croydon who is currently held in Guant¨¢namo Bay prison camp by the Americans, attended Finsbury Park. Abbasi's mother, Juma, last week accused Abu Hamza of brainwashing her son after he had sought spiritual guidance from him 18 months ago.
Last week at the mosque, where worshippers once included Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected twentieth hijacker, and Djamel Beghal, believed to have been bin Laden's European operations director, The Observer was able to buy videos showing shocking footage from Afghanistan and Bosnia.
One video called The Mirror of the Jihad showed Taliban forces in Afghanistan decapitating Northern Alliance soldiers with knives. It was distributed by an Islamic organisation based in Paddington, London. Another video, shot in Bosnia, advocated a 'jihad to wipe out atheism'. Each cost ¡ê10.
Extremists are increasingly using videos as a means to drum up support and publicise their cause. Last year an al-Qaeda video prepared by Osama bin Laden's group in Afghanistan showing militants training cut with pictures of Israeli soldiers firing on rioting teenagers in Gaza and the West Bank was circulated between radicals worshipping at the Finsbury Park mosque. In the video, bin Laden referred to 'spectacular events to come'.
But none of the videos was as shocking - and as potentially dangerous - as that obtained by The Observer .
The GSPC video starts with a flickering screen of Arabic script: an injunction to 'Fight them until the sentence of God is carried out on Earth.'
Then, with a soundtrack of chanted verses from the Koran, more commands scroll across the screen. 'You have to kill in the name of Allah until you are killed,' viewers are told. 'Then you will win your place forever in Paradise. The whole Islamic world should rise up to fight all the sick unbelievers. The flag of Jihad will be forever held high.'
The commentary continues: 'Our enemies are fighting in the name of Satan. You are fighting in the name of God.'
Then clear, bright images take the place of the script. From the bushes beside a remote mountain road, guerrillas watch the approach of a government convoy. There is a huge explosion as the trucks hit a bomb, and prolonged firing.
When the militants get to the scene of the blast they find carnage. There are corpses strewn across the ground. One hangs over the tailgate; where once there was a conscript's head there is a mess of bloody matter. Another lies on the ground with his brains, on which the camera lingers, spread around his shattered skull. A fighter nonchalantly fires bullets into a corpse.
Then there is excited shouting as the militants notice that one soldier is still alive. 'He is moving, he is moving,' calls out a fighter. A militant calmly bends down and runs a knife across the wounded conscript's throat. The images of the blood pumping from his severed carotid artery is shown five times during the video. The throats of the dead on the ground are then cut too.
Much of the video is less gruesome. A GSPC leader is shown planning an attack and explaining his tactics to his troops. His men are shown marching through the dusty scrubland of the Algerian hills. Others are shown baking bread, making clothes or dividing weapons and ammunitions seized from the dead government troops. They are show conducting a bizarre ritual: lining up to be blessed by a comrade dressed in black and representing the 'angel of death'.
But soon the video reverts to violence. Another attack is shown: an ambush in which 12 government conscripts - ordinary young men doing their national service - are killed and eight injured. The dogtags and identity papers of the dead are held up to the camera.
'God loves people who kill in his name,' the commentary says. 'The enemies of Islam are scared. The Jews and the Christians know that they have lost [the war] and want to stop us spreading the truth.'
Algerian security officers learned about the tape soon after it surfaced in the UK in September. However, although the Algerian ambassador made a formal complaint to the Foreign Office, MI5 and the police are not believed to have seized any copies of the tape or arrested any of those involved in its distribution - despite their identities being widely known.
'We would clearly like to see such a powerful fundraising and recruiting tool taken out of circulation as soon as possible,' said one Algerian security source. It is thought that the same tape has been copied and distributed in France - where there is a large Algerian community, elsewhere in Europe and throughout the Middle East.
Algerian security services have been liasing closely with their British counterparts. They told The Observer that the GSPC video has been smuggled in and distributed by a group of Islamic activists based in west and south London who have been living in the UK for several years.
The Algerian sources also revealed that there are more than 200 individuals in the UK who are linked to terrorist activities in Algeria alone. Some are merely sympathisers or political activists, but the list includes dozens of men implicated in the murders of policemen, soldiers, government officials and innocent civilians.
Many have followed the typical path of Islamic radicals: spending years in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets before returning to their home countries to lead extremist Muslim movements. They come to Britain to flee the resultant government crackdowns.
British police are keen to interview Jordanian-born Abu Qatada, a senior cleric at the Rossmore Road mosque near Baker Street in London. Qatada was top of a list of suspects handed to the Home Secretary by the intelligence services before Christmas to be detained under new internment legislation.
According to one eyewitness, com muniqu¨¦s from the GSPC and other groups acclaiming the deaths of government troops in militant operations in Algeria were, at least until recently, frequently posted on the noticeboard at the Rossmore Road mosque.
British police, who have raided Qatada's West Acton home, are not the only security agency hoping to trace the cleric. The Americans have named him as a terrorist suspect and Jordanian police have alleged his involvement in an abortive attempt to blow up hotels and other tourist sites on Millennium eve. They claim the plot was masterminded by bin Laden.
The disclosure that the new Algerian tape, which is illegal in the UK, was circulated with such ease will increase concern about Britain's seeming inability to round up terror suspects here.
Last week, investigators in Spain said they had discovered that two suspected al-Qaeda members arrested in Barcelona were in close contact with other members of the group in Britain.
Court documents show that Najib Chaib, a Spaniard of Moroccan origin who was arrested eight days ago in Barcelona, made several visits to London where he met Qatada, who was described by Spanish judge Baltazar Garz¨®n as 'the spiritual leader of Mujahideen across Europe'. Qatada, 42, denies all the charges against him. His lawyer says he is the victim of a 'witch hunt'.
Arab veterans of the Afghan war in London say that, after being granted asylum in the UK in 1993, Qatada became a magnet for leading dissidents on the run from the Middle East and Pakistan. Fighters from conflicts in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Palestine flocked to his Islamic centre in White City. In Hamburg, videos of Qatada's lectures were found in the flat used by Mohamed Atta, who led the terrorist attacks on America. Other Islamic tracts written by Qatada were found by The Observer among the effects of fleeing al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan.
On Friday at Finsbury Park mosque hundreds of worshippers from scores of countries came to pray. In the lobby two vendors sold militant literature and videos with titles like 'Jihad in Afghanistan' and 'Terror in Chechnya'. Cassettes of Islamic militant scholar Ahmed Deedat bore titles like 'Why Islam is the dominant religion' and 'The War Against Rushdie' and there were several hundred cassettes of speeches given by Abu Hamza on sale for ¡ê1.50 each.
Hamza, who lost one eye and a hand in a mine explosion in Afghanistan, arrived a little after lunchtime, ready to deliver his Friday sermon - the khutbah. 'We are under constant surveillance here,' he told his supporters. 'But it is always the way with Islam - we have to fight for what we believe in. Now, more than ever, we have to change people's minds. We have to tell them the evils of democracy, capitalism and communism.'
A few yards away, the videos were selling well.
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