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+ "Armchair Jihadists"

from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map Our second day in London begins with a meeting with Sheik Abu Hamza al Masri, the infamous leader of the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. The "20th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, were among his congregation. Like Saad, he likes to talk to the media. But he tells us a slightly different story.

"Al Qaeda is structurally dismantled, but morally it is stronger than ever."

I nod, but I really don't know what he means. Sounds good though. Next to him -- just off camera -- is a young man who has accompanied the sheik but refuses to give me his name. "It doesn't matter," he assures me. I mention that Scott, our cameraman, was threatened the day before when trying to photograph the exterior of their mosque. Abu Hamza says, "You are lucky, other journalists have been beaten up." I smile at the guy with no name and he just looks at me blankly.

Sheik Abu Hamza picks up where Sheik Bakri left off. He says the Koran instructs him "to terrorize tyrants" -- to terrorize anyone who attacks Islam, to terrorize whoever is the enemy. British law allows free speech. But as I listen to him, I am thinking that there is no way in hell that he would talk the way he does in the U.S. without landing in jail.

from Marcela Gaviria

It's been one of those mornings. I have a hard time waking up and I'm late checking out of the hotel. The van is late picking us up. And Sheik Abu Hamza, the fiery cleric from Finsbury Park, our 10 a.m. interview, is not picking up the phone.

Alex, our driver, heads out to the corner of Uxbridge and Old Oak Road to pick up the blind, handless sheik. Abu Hamza has refused to tell us where he lives, and after 30 minutes of waiting at the corner I have a feeling he has stood us up. Meanwhile, we have already spent a fortune on a suite in the Landmark hotel where we are setting up for the interview.

While Scott and I fiddle about with the DV cams and the mics, Martin reads us Abu Hamza's rap sheet. "He is wanted in Yemen for murder and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. ... He runs the mosque where Zacarias Moussaui and Richard Reid used to frequent. ... He is alleged to be related to Khalid al-Midhar, the hijacker on Flight 11. ... He had his hands blown off in a land mine while fighting in Afghanistan." I'm sure things will get pretty confrontational in the interview and joke with Marty that Hamza might punch him with his claw.

The doorbell rings in our suite, and we find Abu Hamza escorted by a young jihadist wearing combat gear and a khafiya. Hamza is a barrel-chested man that looks every bit like a 21st-century pirate. But I actually like him. He is open and blunt and unapologetic.

Sheik Abu Hamza al Masri.
"The Koran instructs us to terrorize the tyrants. ... The Koran does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. ... Sept. 11 was a reaction to the acts of war that we have endured for years. ... The United States' arrogance is the root cause of all of this."

It is fascinating to me to hear the mindset of a true jihadist. Here is a man who fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and even though so much of what he says would make the average American's stomach curdle, I find him quite reasonable. Until he tells us about how he has taught techniques of self-defense in his mosque, like mining the skies with hot air balloons filled with explosives that will bring down spy planes trying to patrol the skies.

After we wrap the interview, I find myself lining up to pay the hotel bill for a second time in a day. A handful of Saudis have congregated near the front desk. The man next to me is paying a bill for 39,000 pounds. The young Saudi couple to my left are trying to decide if they should stay in a suite that costs 1,500 pounds a night or simply take the presidential suite. I corner the Filipino receptionist and try to get more information. "How long did the guy who spent nearly $55,000 in hotel charges stay?" "Oh, about a week." "Is this common?" "Oh yes, we have many clients from Arabia."

As we ride through the streets of London, I wonder why Sheik Hamza or Sheik Bakri don't speak more vehemently against the corruption and materialism in their own back yard.

from Martin Smith

London police in front of the Finsbury Park Mosque.
We leave for Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, but go through a very expensive fleecing, courtesy of a bevy of mistakes made by our New York office, our travel agent, and British Air, and we just make our gate as the attendant announces last call for Flight 109. On board I open the Evening Standard to see that Omar Bakri has made news by threatening that there will be more Sept. 11-type attacks if the U.S. invades Iraq. His smiling picture reminds me that the guy is a lot of fun if you can ignore everything he says.

I think, too, that the London sheiks and dissidents have it easy waging jihad from armchairs and air-conditioned flats. "They must makes jokes about these guys in the hills of Afghanistan," I say to Scott and Marcela. We try to sleep. Seven hours later we walk out into the 100-degree heat and infinite humidity of Dubai.

Later, I reflect on what I might have learned in London. I think no one really told us anything new about Al Qaeda or bin Laden. They either aren't willing or, perhaps more likely, they don't know much.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

+ Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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