| Abu Hamza al-Masri (AFP)
London, Jan. 20 (Reuters): Police used battering rams and ladders to raid a London mosque today in Britain’s biggest anti-terror operation since September 11, arresting seven men as part of a wider probe into the discovery of ricin poison.
Police said the north London mosque was a centre for recruiting violent Islamic extremists and supporting their operations in Britain and abroad.
As two helicopters circled over Finsbury Park before dawn — illuminating the mosque with spotlights — about 150 officers in riot gear swarmed out of dozens of police vehicles.
They climbed up to windows with ladders and used hand-held rams to get through doors, witnesses said. Advised by Muslim colleagues, the officers avoided prayer areas “to show our respect for the Muslim faith” and instead scoured accommodation and office spaces, a police statement said.
Police gathered documents and arrested seven men — six north Africans and one east European — from inside the mosque and two adjacent homes.
“We have no quarrel with the regular attendees at the mosque,” assistant police commissioner Andy Trotter said. “This has been a very successful raid today.”
It was the most dramatic in a series of counter-terrorism swoops in recent months, with the pace quickening after the discovery this month of deadly poison in a London flat.
The mosque is the base of one of Britain’s most outspoken Muslim clerics, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who won notoriety for praising Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network, which Washington blames for the September 11 attacks.
Egyptian-born Masri, who has one eye and wears a hook where a hand was blown off by a landmine, was not arrested.
He lashed out at the British government, calling the raid part of an unfair “war on Muslims” and a knee-jerk reaction to last week’s stabbing to death of a policeman in another anti-terror operation in the northern city of Manchester.
“This is just because (Prime Minister Tony) Blair wants to cover his mistakes,” Masri said.
“I’m not concerned — they have already taken my passport, they have taken my money, and now the only thing left for them to do is to crucify me.” Scotland Yard said the raid was linked to the seizure on January 5 of a small amount of ricin, one of the world's deadliest poisons, in the nearby Wood Green district.
“Police believe these premises have played a role in the recruitment of suspected terrorists and in supporting their activity both here and abroad,” the police statement said. No chemicals were found at the mosque, police added. Masri, leader of a group called Supporters of Sharia (Islamic law), said two of the arrested men were security staff while the other five were volunteers.
Britain has arrested more than 200 terror suspects since the September 11 attacks, with most of those detained said to be north African and mainly Algerian.
Many have been released without charge though the number held has surged since November.
Masri accused London of persecuting Algerians in its drive to break up alleged terror cells. “This is a conspiracy against Algerians in Britain,” he said. A Blair spokesman said the operation had the Prime Minister’s “full support.”