Investigators hunting members of Osama bin Laden
's network have discovered that all the suspected terrorists arrested in Europe over the past 10 months follow an extreme Salafi
interpretation of Islam
, according to a source close to the investigation and a detailed intelligence assessment seen by the Guardian.
A document found by the FBI in the luggage of one of the September 11 hijackers also suggests Salafi influence. Salafis not only take the Koran
literally but seek to revert to an ancient and "pure" form of Islam. Although most are ultra-conservative, there is a militant wing to which Bin Laden and his followers belong.
The link between Salafis and Bin Laden's terrorist web will prove acutely embarrassing to Saudi Arabia, whose royal family has invested huge sums in spreading
Salafi thought abroad. The leading centre for the study and export of Salafi ideas is the Islamic University of Medina, in Saudi Arabia, which was founded by the king in 1961 "to convey the eternal message of Islam to the entire world".
Investigators in at least nine European countries working against the clock to track down suspected members of cells sponsored by al-Qaida have found a Salafi connection in every case.
Since December four interlinked groups have been identified and, at least partly, dismantled in addition to the Hamburg cell allegedly involved in the attacks on New York and Washington last month. Three of these groups, based in Germany, Italy and Spain, are believed by investigators to belong to an extremist Algerian movement, the Salafist Preaching and Combat Group. "In reality, it has been absorbed by al-Qaida," a source close to the investigation said.
The Salafist Preaching and Combat Group is an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has been responsible for many killings in Algeria. It is led by Hassan Hattab, formerly the "emir" (commander) of the GIA's second region. An intelligence document seen by the Guardian asserts that Hattab was a member of the leadership group that authorised the GIA's bloody terrorists attacks on Paris in 1995.
A document found by the FBI in the luggage of Mohamed Atta - thought to be the leader of the September 11 hijackers - includes the hallmarks of a radical Salafi tract, according to religious experts. Unlike the writing of most other extreme Islamist
groups, it contains no mention at all of modern politics. Instead, there are copious quotations from the Koran - 19 in the space of four pages.
There are also characteristic references to the "forefathers" - the first three generations of Muslims - whom Salafis seek to emulate. Advising the hijackers on how to dress for their attacks, it says: "Tie your clothes around you in the same way our good forefathers had done before you."
The Islamic University of Medina has long been known as a recruiting ground for fighters, despite periodic clampdowns. Formal teaching is of the ultra-conservative kind approved by the Saudi royals but the problem is what happens outside the classrooms, according to former students.
Ibrahim (not his real name) is a British Muslim who attended the university. "It has to be seen to be promoting orthodox Islam," he said. "But there's a lot of shoulder-rubbing and people go on to develop their own ideas. Students meet people who speak with passion and fire, and eat squatting on mud floors."
For some, this has a radicalising effect as they become aware of a huge contradiction between the simple lives of the early Muslims and those of the Saudi elite who sponsor the university. Another problem, a former diplomat in Saudi Arabia says, is that many of Medina's graduates are virtually unemployable except as religious teachers. "Some can't find jobs and drift into Bin Laden circles."
The Islamic University advertises its courses abroad, including in Britain. Almost 70% of its 5,000 students are non-Saudis, from 139 different countries.
With ample funds from the Saudi government, the university can offer selected students free tuition, accommodation and travel to the holy city of Medina. "For a hard-up lad from Birmingham that's a very attractive deal," one British Muslim said.
In Britain, attempts to introduce Salafi ideas have had a mixed reception. Two of the better-known radical groups in Britain - al-Muhajiroun and Supporters of Shariah (led by Abu Hamza al-Masri of Finsbury Park mosque in London) are widely regarded as Salafi.
But some British Muslims say resentment has built up over attempts by well-funded Salafi groups to "buy their way in".
Salafiyya is not a sect but a way of looking at Islam. It is found mainly in areas of the Muslim world that follow the Hanbali school of Islamic law (the most rigid of the four main legal traditions) - essentially the Arabian peninsula.
Salafis take the Koran literally, and hark back to the earliest days of Islam. Militant Salafis place great emphasis on jihad, which they interpret as armed struggle and regard as a religious duty. This is not a mainstream Muslim view, but one they share with other extremist groups.
Similarly, despite the general Muslim injunction against suicide, they approve of suicide attacks
in certain circumstances, where this would result in 'martyrdom'.
The name comes from the Arabic word 'salaf', meaning forefathers or pioneers. To Salafis, the 'forefathers' are the first three generations of Muslims, whose behaviour is to be studied and, if possible, emulated. Most Salafis adopt a highly orthodox, ultra-conservative view of Islam. Some opt for an austere, pious life devoid of politics. Others turn to jihad. At their most radical, Salafis are religious anarchists, rejecting nation states and manmade laws in favour of God's law.