September 12, 2002
LONDON -- As much of the world paused Wednesday to mourn the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, a group of Islamic militants gathered to discuss the "positive outcomes" of the violence they claim to reject, and to praise the aims of Osama bin Laden.
The fundamentalists, in what appeared to be the most radical Muslim gathering on the anniversary of the terrorist atrocities, said al-Qaida had a "rational justification" for the attacks, but denied having ties to bin Laden's terror network.
A dozen or so men with kaffiyehs over their faces stood on the steps of the north London mosque, barring about 50 journalists from entering the building, which is widely regarded as a center of radical Islam in Britain.
Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed said the meeting at Finsbury Park Mosque, titled "Sept. 11, 2001: A Towering Day in History," argues that the attacks were justified because Muslims must defend themselves against armed aggression.
"Al-Qaida turned the tables upside down; if you attack us, we will attack you," Mohammed said. "The way they see it, it's a just war." The comment, made inside the mosque, was filmed for television.
Mohammed heads Al-Muhajiroun, a militant group that recruits on university campuses and encourages members to join armed struggles abroad. It says its goal is to make Britain an Islamic state.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is wanted in Yemen on terror charges, said this Sept. 11 "is not a day of rejoicing."
"It's a day of thinking and rethinking and getting the message out. I know many Muslims are oppressed. This is not a day to celebrate," said al-Masri, one of Britain's most contentious Muslim radicals.
Al-Masri, who lost his hands and left eye fighting the former Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, is a prayer leader at the Finsbury Park Mosque, and denies supporting terrorism.
His funds were frozen by the U.S. Treasury for his alleged membership in the Islamic Army of Aden. That organization is linked to al-Qaida and claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed.
He has had British citizenship since 1985 and is protected by British law from extradition.
The words on Wednesday were not fiery, nor aimed at incitement, but Syrian-born Mohammed had warm words for bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, though he said he disagreed with their violence.
"Nobody loves them but the believers, nobody hates them but the hypocrites," Mohammed said.
"I don't believe in using violence, but Muslims have the right to defend themselves," Mohammed told journalists.
Mohammed said the meeting was not associated with al-Qaida.
"We don't know who they are. We share the same beliefs, the same divine texts, we pray in the same direction to Mecca, we share the same purpose of life and objectives, but we don't share their structure or their method," Mohammed said.
"Definitely al-Qaida has got rational justification for what they did on Sept. 11. Maybe I disagree with them, but they have the right to fight back especially after they (the United States) bombed Sudan, then they bombed Afghanistan."
The United States in 1998 launched a cruise missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant suspected of making chemical weapons. The attack was retaliation for the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, linked by U.S. officials to al-Qaida.
Al-Masri said the meeting had a message for President Bush.
"We are telling that crazy man to stop. Don't use the war beyond your borders," al-Masri said.
In a statement on its Web site, al-Muhajiroun said the event aimed at "analyzing and highlighting the lessons which can be derived from the incident" and the subsequent shifts in relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims and between nations.
"The event will discuss the positive outcomes from the 11th September not least of which is the clear crystallization of the two camps of Islam and Kufr (non-Islam), of believers and hypocrites and of those who follow the Messenger Muhammad and his companions (the salafis) and those deviant from this path," the statement said.
The meeting was greeted by a smattering of protests.
A dozen people apparently opposed to al-Muhajiroun demonstrated on one side of the street. "Keep Britain out of foreign wars, keep foreign wars out of Britain," said a banner, which bore the logo of the anti-immigrant British National Party. Opposite that group was a counterdemonstration mounted by about 30 Anti-Nazi League members, chanting, "Nazi scum, off our streets!"