Internet spreads terror to Britain
It is 11pm on Tuesday and Omar Bakri Mohammed's loyal band of followers hunch over computers and laptops at secret locations across Britain to listen to his defiant message to the west.
Many are hoping that the Muslim cleric, who lives in the Lebanese capital Beirut after being banned from the UK, will spell out his views on the Government's decision to give Salman Rushdie a knighthood. Bakri does not disappoint them.
After listening to Bakri's lecture for more than two hours on a secretive internet chat room, one participant asks in a written question: "Is there a new fatwa against salman and the queen for giving [the knighthood]?"
Speaking with a heavy middle eastern accent, Bakri responds: "Salman Rushdie, no doubt what he did was an apostasy… not because he get knighthood but because he insulted the honour of the prophet Mohammed (with his book The Satanic Verses)… He is murtadd (a traitor for rejecting Islam) anyway so there isn't any need for a new fatwa… People like him deserve to get the capital punishment."
Bakri and his followers had their discussion on a webcast. The webcasts can run several times a week, and up to 70 people a night log in, each with an individual password.
We discovered extremists posting messages and images on a recently established, password-protected pro-Islamist site. It is on sites like this that Bakri's broadcasts are referred to openly, with advice on what time they begin and even requests not to "arrive" in the chatroom late. There are also dozens of photographs celebrating, among others, Osama bin Laden, and a tasteless message expressing "amusement" at photographs of American soldiers killed by terrorists.
Vigil, a privately funded intelligence group, believes much of the extremist material comes from al-Qaeda sympathisers in Britain.
Many secretive websites had urged Muslims to protest against Sir Salman's knighthood by attending a rally in London on Friday. On the same day, the Muslim Council of Britain attacked Tony Blair for rewarding an author who had "vilified" Islam.
The growing use of webcasts and websites by extremists has been highlighted by Ed Husain, a London-born former jihadi who turned his back on militancy.
"There is an unchallenged, unreported Islamist underworld in the UK in which talk of jihad, bombings, stabbings, killings and executions is usual," he warned recently. "Rhetoric is an indication of a certain mindset and, I think, the prelude to terror.
"In internet chatrooms… the Islamists break news of beheadings in Iraq, the downing of US helicopters and discuss who is next on their agenda of killing and destruction."
Mr Husain, 32, formerly a member of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahir but now a PhD student, had his own chilling insight into the sinister activities of his political opponents when he read a poem about him posted on several websites. Supposedly written in the "first person" by Mr Husain, it likened him to Judas and included the lines: "I dread the return of the Caliphate (Islamic government) / Who will apply to extradite me / Put me on trial / And then execute me / As a traitor."
Mr Husain believes the poem is a coded call for Muslims to murder him and warned: "Unless we stem the rising tide of radical Islamist rhetoric in Britain, a prelude to jihadism, then the carnage of Baghdad may well erupt in Bradford and Birmingham."
Last week was not the first time that Bakri has been discovered spreading his message of hate on the internet. Vigil has also obtained recordings of Bakri encouraging his followers to behead their enemies and kidnap Westerners. Bakri was excluded from the UK last year on the grounds that his presence was not conducive to the public good.
Vigil is alarmed by the increased use of the internet by Muslim extremists. Its director, Dominic Whiteman, said: "It is not a coincidence that the rise of the internet and al-Qaeda were simultaneous. The internet is al-Qaeda's oxygen."
According to security sources, there are two ways of tackling the growing problem - physically destroying the websites using expert technology or infiltrating them to obtain intelligence.
Glen Jenvey, a freelance counter-intelligence investigator, set up an internet sting - purporting to be a Muslim extremist website operator - which provided evidence linking Abu Hamza, the British radical Muslim cleric, to terror camps.
Hamza was jailed for seven years last year for inciting murder and race hate. He is seeking to overturn the verdicts and is fighting moves to extradite him to America.
Last week, the Government revealed that there are currently 52 people who are not permitted into the UK because they are suspected of involvement in terrorism. However, the internet means that, despite their ban, their extremist views can still be "exported" to Britain through the worldwide web.
The EU announced a month ago that it wanted to strengthen its monitoring of militant Islamist websites. "Terrorists use the internet not only as a means to communicate and spread propaganda, but also to radicalise, recruit and train terrorists, to spread instructions on how to carry out concrete offences and to transfer covert information," a meeting of ambassadors concluded.
Patrick Mercer, the former Conservative spokesman for homeland security, said of the growing use of the internet by militants: "This is a much greater threat than people realise. Radicalisation is taking place on a number of different fronts and more people are sympathetic than we dare believe. The only way to penetrate this is by the careful development of intelligence sources and a clear understanding of the radicalisation process."