When Islamic militants massacred 58 tourists in Egypt in 1997, the government issued a list of 14 most-wanted militants it accused of inspiring...

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Islamic militants massacred 58 tourists in Egypt in 1997, the government issued a list of 14 most-wanted militants it accused of inspiring the attacks. Half were living in London, and none were arrested.

A year later, when suicide bombers attacked two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing 224 people, three men with ties to Egyptian militant groups were arrested in London for circulating claims of responsibility. They are still fighting extradition to the United States.

For two decades, London has been a haven for Islamic militants fleeing crackdowns by their home governments in the Middle East. For the first time, the city appeared to fall victim yesterday to Islamist violence, when four explosions targeted subways and a bus during morning rush hour.

“Britain could become a new front line in the conflict between Islamic militants and the West,” said Mohammad Salah, an expert on militancy at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. “It has become harder for militants to reach the United States. That makes Britain a more tempting target, especially because the militants have had a long time to establish networks there.”

For years, the British government monitored Islamic extremists but did not clamp down on them. Officials feared that arrests would drive the groups underground, making them more difficult to control. That strategy changed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government tightened asylum and extradition laws and made incitement to religious hatred a criminal offense. Blair also gave police the power to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge.

Despite those moves, London is still home to dozens of militants from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They were attracted to the city because it is a global financial center, an international travel hub and home to a vast immigrant population, including 2 million Muslims. Britain also has a tradition of taking in refugees and asylum-seekers.

The presence of Islamic extremists in London — and their pronouncements criticizing Middle East regimes and at times supporting Osama bin Laden — generated a debate in the 1990s about asylum policies and the limits of free speech. The asylum issue has long strained relations between Egypt and Britain, which has been the favored destination of militants targeted by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Since the early 1990s, Egypt has tried unsuccessfully to extradite nearly 20 militants from Britain. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the British had also rebuffed extradition requests from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. British courts have repeatedly ruled that militants should not be sent back to countries where there is a death penalty or where they cannot be assured fair trials.

Abu Hamza al-Masri is an Egyptian militant who won asylum in Britain. He was arrested last year at the request of U.S. officials, and he is fighting extradition. The Finsbury Park mosque where al-Masri usually delivered the Friday sermon was shut down in January 2003, after being raided by anti-terrorism police. The mosque had been frequented by Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid.

Even after the shutdown, al-Masri continued to preach in a nearby park. “Seek the way of death; try to do actions that subject you to death,” he told an audience of mostly young men in April 2004. “If you die to defend your religion, you are a martyr.”

James Ujaama, a Seattle Muslim who was a confidant of Abu Hamza, cooperated with the U.S. government, leading to several of the charges listed in a U.S. indictment against Abu Hamza. Ujaama was arrested by federal agents in Denver in 2002 after they learned he had attempted to set up a jihad training camp on a small ranch near Bly, Ore., in 1999.

Police have broken up several plots in Britain. Last April, British security forces derailed a plot to flood sections of the subway with poison gas, or a so-called radioactive “dirty bomb.” Police discovered a plan to release osmium tetroxide within the confines of the subway system, which officials said could have resulted in many deaths. Information on the alleged planned attack seemed to indicate a possible al-Qaida link.

Last August, British authorities also uncovered an alleged plot to set off a radioactive dirty bomb in London; they charged eight men with terrorism-related crimes.

One of them was Dhiren Barot, al-Qaida’s reputed leader in Britain, who was alleged to have surveillance plans of buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington that were the subject of a U.S. terror alert nearly a year ago.

Stephen Gale, a counterterrorism expert at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said London has “probably the largest concentration of al-Qaida sympathizers and cells in Western Europe.”

But as to the attackers, Gale said, “Right now, we have no idea. And that’s part of the problem. It’s all ambiguous.”

Additional background from Knight Ridder Newspapers and Seattle Times archives.