At the mosque on a terraced street, terror suspects came to worship

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The Independent Online

A small end-of-terrace house doubling as a mosque in Leicester was at the centre of Britain's anti-terror campaign when it emerged that many of the men arrested this week as part of the investigation worshipped there.

A small end-of-terrace house doubling as a mosque in Leicester was at the centre of Britain's anti-terror campaign when it emerged that many of the men arrested this week as part of the investigation worshipped there.

The Taqwa – meaning 'piety' – mosque in Harewood Road, home to a strict branch of Islam called Salafia, was frequented by at least six of the 17 men and women detained yesterday and on Thursday under new anti-terrorism legislation and immigration restrictions. Muslims attending the mosque for lunchtime prayers declared themselves surprised and upset at the prospect of alleged al-Qa'ida members in their midst.

The Taqwa mosque, which was established about six years ago, is a two-up, three-down red-brick townhouse built in 1901. There is no sign on the door and no indication from the outside that it is a place of worship. But as time approached for prayers, worshippers arrived, knocked on the wood and glass front door and went inside, past another door bearing the sign: Sisters Only.

The Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicester describes the Harewood Road site, and another Salafia mosque, Masjid al Taybah, in Prospect Hill, Highfields, as small, secretive and puritanical attended mainly by north African and Arab hardliners.

But yesterday that description seemed a little awry, with most of those attending prayers clearly of Asian extraction, English-speaking and prepared to talk openly about the arrests.

"It has come as a terrible shock – they seemed like normal guys," said Abdul Razak, who has lived in Leicester for 30 years. "They did not display any radical tendencies. I didn't really speak to them and I don't know their names. Some had arrived recently and others had been here about two years.

"If they have done something wrong, then it is right that they should be punished. But there is some upset over the new terrorism laws. It seems as if they are being regarded as guilty until proven innocent."

No one at either of the Salafia mosques admitted to knowing the identities of those arrested – nine on Thursday and eight yesterday, including nine on terrorism offences – but they said they were of north African and Arabic extraction rather than indigenous Asian. It is understood that a number are French-speaking Algerian. On Thursday, two Algerians who were arrested in September, Brahim Benmerzouga, 30, and Baghdad Meziane, 36, were charged with a total of 14 offences relating to directing and and raising funds for al-Qa'ida.

A third French-Algerian, businessman Djamal Beghal, arrested in Dubai on suspicion of being Osama bin Laden's head of European recruitment, is understood to have told interrogators that he had recruited men from the Taqwa mosque to fight for al-Qa'ida, but that was denied.

Idrif Yaraich, uncle of the mosque's 18-year-old imam, named only as Suleyman, said: "That really is a load of rubbish ... We don't know the identities of these people because we don't know the names of those arrested, but we think about six of them came here ... There was no recruitment."

Around the Highfields, Northfields and St Matthews areas of the city, there was evidence of the police operation. Broken doors were being guarded by officers in at least eight streets. Next door to one address raided in Guilford Street, a young mother, who asked not to be named, said: "It's very scary to know that someone like that could be living next door to you."

Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicestershire, said he was afraid the British National Party and National Front might try to capitalise on the arrests. "There has traditionally been very good race relations here and we are working hard with the police to keep it that way," he said.

It was unclear last night whether the arrests had come to an end, but forensic scientists were still examining the raided premises for evidence.

At a house in Severn Street, where two policemen stood guard outside the front door and an officer was dusting a first-floor window for fingerprints, one of the residents suddenly leaned out of a window to speak to reporters. Wearing a black and white dressing gown and appearing relaxed, he refused to say what his home was being searched for. "I'm just helping them," he said. "They're asking me questions and I'm making them cups of tea." Then, with the police officers laughing, he slammed the window shut.