TIMESONLINE… A SECRET MI5 report on Islamic extremism in Blackburn has raised “potential concerns” about some radical Muslim factions known to Jack Straw, the local MP and justice secretary.
A senior security figure who has seen the report said it underlined concern among cabinet colleagues that Straw could be “too close” to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a prominent Muslim umbrella group. The government formally severed links with the group after a blazing row over extremism earlier this year.
“Jack’s a bit too close to the MCB — he sometimes appears to suggest they are the only game in town. There is a concern that proximity to them may colour [his] judgment,” the insider said.
The secret report on Islamist extremists in Blackburn was produced in August last year by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), based at MI5’s London headquarters.
The security figure emphasised that Straw was not mentioned in the report. “That is not the protocol of these reports. But the JTAC document does raise some potential concerns over some individuals who are key figures in the town. It’s a small pond and by definition they are figures Jack would know or know of,” he said.
It is not the first time that fears have been raised over the influence of Islamists in Blackburn, where the majority of the electorate is Muslim.
When Tony Blair sacked Straw as foreign secretary three years ago, it was suggested that the move was prompted by White House concerns about his views on the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, then US secretary of state, was said to have been shocked to discover the influence of Muslims in Straw’s constituency when she visited him there in 2006.
In March Hazel Blears announced that the government was formally suspending links with the MCB after Daud Abdullah, its deputy general secretary, signed a public declaration calling for military action against Israel after the war in Gaza. Blears, then communities secretary, believed the declaration also appeared to advocate attacks on the Royal Navy if it tried to stop arms intended for Hamas being smuggled into Gaza.
Despite the ministerial “blacklisting” of the MCB, Straw remains close to several of the group’s key figures in Blackburn. Critics claim that through a network of mosques they are able to deliver “blocks” of hundreds of votes among Muslim Labour voters. One long-standing supporter of Straw is Ahmed Sidat, who has previously served for four years as the Blackburn representative of the MCB’s central working committee. He is also chairman of the Cumberland Street mosque, Lancashire’s oldest.
Moderate Muslim leaders claim the mosque has in the past invited leaders with radical views. One pointed out that its website still records a visit by a man who went on to lead an extremist group called the World Muslim League. The US government suspects the organisation has financed radical groups in the Middle East.
The MI5 Blackburn report is believed to summarise raw intelligence indicating that some Islamic charitable groups may be channelling funds to Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. It is also understood to refer to Junade Feroze, who is serving 22 years in prison after pleading guilty to a plot to bomb the Ministry of Sound nightclub, in London, and Bluewater shopping centre, in Kent, as part of the so-called fertiliser bomb plot in 2004. At the time of the arrest, Straw said he knew Feroze’s father, Mohammed, had expressed concerns about his son.
The report was circulated in Whitehall as ministers, including Straw, were drawing up the government’s new counterterrorism policy. One insider said there had been heated disputes between Straw and Blears over how far the new policy should go in asking Muslim groups to sign up to western values by condemning suicide attacks in Gaza.
Although there is no suggestion that Straw supports suicide bombings, colleagues said they believed his line showed he might have aligned himself a little too closely with the MCB on the issue. That stance is said to have angered other ministers, who were keen to challenge those who defend terrorism and violent extremism abroad as well as in Britain.
A spokesman for Straw said: “Jack’s view is that suicide bombings are indefensible in Gaza, just as they are indefensible anywhere, and should be condemned by all. He has good relations with the MCB and is unapologetic about that. He fights against Islamophobia and always will. ”
A friend of Straw also said there was no suggestion that Straw had ever supported terrorism. “Jack’s a veteran politician who can decide who is and who is not a problem.”
An earlier JTAC report on Islamic radicals in Luton led security officials to warn Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton South, to be wary when dealing with some individuals in the town. A senior official said it was likely that Straw would have been warned in the same way. “I’m not certain that Jack was warned. But if someone didn’t warn him, they should do,” he said.