Britain's first 'school for martyrs' raided by police

Secluded former convent in Home Counties once visited by Abu Hamza is sealed off by anti-terrorist officers amid claims it was used to train militants
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anti-terror police yesterday raided what is being reported as allegedly Britain's first home-grown jihad training school after a lengthy surveillance operation by the security services.

Scotland Yard has confirmed that the operation, at the Jameah Islameah School near Crowborough in East Sussex, is linked to the arrest of 14 men in London on Friday night, including 12 at a Chinese Halal restaurant. Police have set up a three-mile exclusion zone around the property as they continue to question the men, who are believed to have been visitors to the school.

Those under investigation are believed to include Abu Abdullah, who was described last night as Abu Hamza's No 2. The former spokesman for the cleric has repeatedly caused controversy. He recently said that President George W Bush is a "scalp that needs to be taken" and that he would "love" to kill British soldiers in Afghanistan.

The News of the World quoted a Home Office source as saying the school was being used to host training weekends for militant Muslim youths. "The training was extreme and macho. It involved endurance in bad weather and bonding. In that sense it was like combat training. They were being groomed for terror."

Police said that the people in the school had been "very co-operative" and that no arrests had been made following the search, which began at 6am yesterday.

Founded in 2003, the Jameah Islameah school had only nine pupils, aged between 12 and 15, when it was inspected by Ofsted last December.

In a damning report, inspectors said that the school did not provide satisfactory education or a broad and balanced curriculum for its pupils. It is understood that the £3m former convent set in 54 acres of woodland has been visited by Abu Hamza, the jailed radical cleric.

The local MP, Charles Hendry, said that Hamza had reportedly brought a group of followers to the school one weekend, but had been asked to leave by its management. Hamza is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for inciting his followers to kill non-Muslims.

One local resident who refused to be named said rumours had been circulating for "some time" that the school was being used to teach young Muslim extremists. "The school does nothing to integrate in the community. You rarely see any of the pupils or people associated with the school in the village."

The raid which triggered the police operation at the Jameah Islameah School was at a Chinese Halal restaurant in Southwark on Friday night. More than 50 police officers entered the restaurant at 10pm and ordered all the suspects and customers to stay inside.

Mehdi Belyani, who owns the restaurant where the arrests took place, said a group of around 15 men and two small boys had come in for dinner an hour before the police arrived. "The police stayed for more than two hours talking to the group one by one," said Mr Belyani. "The men were very calm and I could not hear what was being said. When the police came in to my restaurant they apologised but said they were suspicious of some of the customers."

The arrests in London are understood to have followed months of surveillance but are not connected to the suspected plot to blow up transatlantic planes. The 12 men picked up in Southwark and the two arrested under anti-terror laws elsewhere in South and East London on Friday night are currently being held at Paddington Green police station.

A further two suspects were arrested in unrelated dawn raids on Saturday morning at three addresses in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester and are also currently in custody.

On Friday, it was revealed that police and intelligence agents are attempting to track thousands of people believed to be directly or indirectly involved in terrorism.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Met's anti-terror branch, said in an interview with the BBC that the threat from extremism was being generated in the UK. "What we've learned since 9/11 is that the threat is not something that's simply coming from overseas into the United Kingdom," he said.

"What we've learned, and what we've seen all too graphically and all too murderously, is that we have a threat which is being generated here within the United Kingdom."

There were two unrelated arrests in Manchester as officers searched three houses in the Cheetham Hill area. The two suspects were both relatives of a man arrested last month, said Omar Shaukat, a family friend. Neither he nor police identified the suspects.

Afzal Khan, the former lord mayor of Manchester and now a race relations adviser, said the outlawed radical group Al-Muhajiroun had been recruiting members in the area, a diverse neighbourhood where Muslims and Jews live in close proximity.

The area's Muslims have pushed most of the group's members out of local mosques in the past two years, and one imam even used physical force to stop a fundamentalist from operating in his mosque, Khan said.

"This community stood up to extreme elements long before Prime Minister Tony Blair began urging moderate Muslims to confront fundamentalists," he said.

However, he conceded, "There are still these unsavoury elements operating here."