British officers planned to infiltrate
extremists using Internet:report

report 56 minutes ago

British intelligence officers planned to infiltrate Islamic extremist groups through the Internet in a bid to turn them away from violence, but the plan met with criticism, a newspaper reported.

The plan was detailed in a letter from the Foreign Office's top intelligence official, William Ehrman, to the government's security and intelligence co-ordinator, Sir David Omand, dated 23 April, 2004.

The document, leaked to The Observer newspaper, proposed that agents should infiltrate extremist websites, posing as radicals themselves, and spread anti-Western propaganda as a way of getting the extremists' trust.

Ehrman proposed developing "messages aimed at more radicalized constituencies who are potential recruits to terrorism," according to the newspaper.

Such radicals would not listen, he said, to the customary calls for the Middle East to become a zone of peace and prosperity.

"They might, however, listen to religious arguments about the nature of jihad, that, while anti-Western, eschew terrorism. The latter may be a more appropriate sphere for information operations," he was quoted as saying.

The idea was criticised, the paper added.

One unidentified former minister, a critic of engagement with Islamist extremism, was quoted as saying "the strategic error is to think you can fight hot fire with cooler fire.

"These people still want to see (Islamic) sharia law extended and find it difficult to handle secularism or gay rights. You need more, genuine political engagement rather than searching for the acceptable face of Islam," the minister said.

A second document from Mockbul Ali, the foreign office's Islamic issues adviser, recommended allowing the radical Qatari-based cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi into Britain, the Observer said.

The 14 July memo revealed that the director general of the Foreign Office, John Sawers, agreed to the line to support a visa application from al-Qaradawi, it said.

He is quoted by Ali as saying: "Having individuals like Qaradawi on our side should be our aim. Excluding them won't help."

A Foreign Office spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying only: "We do not comment on intelligence matters."

Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse.