Last week governors at North Finchley Mosque said they were battling with extremist' Muslims for control of the mosque. BEENA NADEEM examines the development of radical Islam in the UK

Whenever people talk about Muslim extremists exerting influence in British mosques, the spectre of Abu Hamza is always in the background.

At Finsbury Park Mosque in 2001, the radical cleric Abu Hamza and his followers took control after a concerted campaign against its leaders.

The two main groups accused of challenging governors at North Finchley Mosque are Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) which opposes Western values and calls for Muslims to adhere to strict Sharia law in Islamic states, and the followers of the Salafi or Wahhabi movement, a strict Islamic code dominant in Saudi Arabia. HT vehemently denies the allegations.

Hamza spoke in praise of Osama bin Laden, claiming that the September 11 attacks were justified, and has been linked to the shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the September 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui. Both attended the mosque where they heard him preach anti-Western views. In February, Hamza was jailed for seven years for soliciting murder and incitement to racial hatred. A figure who has been influential in the rise of radical Islam in Britain is Omar Bakri. Nicknamed the Tottenham Ayatollah, he set up al-Muhajiroun in 1983 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before seeking political asylum in the UK in 1985. After September 11, Bakri praised the attackers as magnificent' and leaned towards fundamentalism.

"There's been a big change since the days when Omar Bakri was around," explained Dr Tahir Abbas, a senior lecturer in sociology at Birmingham University. "He's now been extradited and the likes of Abu Hamza have been incarcerated. We don't have the same nutty radicals anymore, but there maybe others involved in hyping things up. These days there's a genuine debate highlighting the positive and the negative. In Britain there's a healthy space for that debate."

Experts agree that there are three main active' radical groups that operate in the UK: HT and two splinter groups from Bakri's Al-Muhajiroun which disbanded in October 2004 al-ghurabaa (the strangers') and the Savior Sect. Al-ghurabaa is considered to be on the extreme side of radicalism.

"We aim to give direction to the ummah Muslim community amidst all the confusion and to speak the truth without compromise regardless of the consequences," claims a statement on its web site. It claims to have no link with Bakri, but its intolerant viewpoint is evident through a poster on its site which reads: "Islamic Values: Worshiping Allah, honesty, charity, family values, morality. British Values: State terrorism, exploitation, homosexuality, alcohol, gambling."

The group is dedicated to the re-establishment' of the world Islamic state which it says was destroyed by imperialist Europe' and is perhaps best known for its recent and vociferous public protests against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a suicide bomber. It is unknown how large the organisation is, although it claims to have around 30 offices in the UK.

Dr Abbas said: "They have a narrow blueprint to life in general they see other Islamic organisations that don't conform as problematic and apostolic and claim that theirs is the required approach to achieve salvation."

The second group, Saviour Sect, has a smaller presence in the UK, although membership numbers are unclear. "They have been involved in stopping people voting in the last general election," said Dr Abbas. "This is a form of radicalism as it's controlling people taking part in democratic process, which they view as unIslamic."

The third major group, according to Dr Abbas, is HT, a group banned in many European countries shortly after September 11, 2001, including Germany, which named it as a radical Islamist movement seeking the destruction of Israel. Since 2004, its presence has also been banned at National Union of Students events throughout university campuses, but they have members in colleges and universities.

HT strongly refute that they are violent group or a conveyor belt' towards terrorism and Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, agreed. "They are not extremists; they are a more intellectual movement," he said. "They are not violent, they have radical views, but are not extremists and don't include violence on the agenda they're mainly intellectual, which isn't their portrayal in the media."

The Hendon MP Andrew Dismore said: "They may be non-violent but they court violence. They help violence to thrive; they have anti-Semitic views and they call for an Islamic state."

The group, according to Dr Abbas, also calls itself 1924' the date the Muslim Ottoman empire fell. "Some people think that allowing them onto campuses is dangerous. They aim to represent those young Muslims who feel beleaguered by injustice in foreign policy; they provide a way out for young Muslims; they address their concerns and capture their imagination."

Dr Abbas said that it is not party to more extreme acts such as the bomb attacks on London's transport network on July 7 last year. "For that people have to be into that philosophy; one alternative to their own community," he said. "HT has an acceptable face but it does have a hard line edge." HT states on its web site that: "Many Muslims may have disagreements with the organisation, but they unanimously assert that this does not render it extremist; and they defend its right to free speech."

Mufti Barkatullah, a judge on the national Sharia Council, which provides practical and theological guidance to British mosques, said: "Bakri was thrown out from HT for his lunatic views. HT wanted to banish this image, but they are still quite radical. After July 7, they softened up. They are intellectual terrorists in my view. They attract young people from the ages of 16 to around 20, but in my experiences of talking to former members and parents, it's largely a phase teenagers go through."

The Muslim Council of Britain, considered the unofficial voice of many Muslim organisations in the country, said it would consider legal action if non-violent organisations for supporting legitimate causes around the world' were banned.

Dr Peter Hough, senior lecturer in politics at Middlesex University, said he did not think the groups pose a threat.

"Clearly there's a threat. July 7 proved that but it is more a number of small groups of disaffected individuals in the same way that one night a far-right nutter tried to blow up a gay nightclub in Soho there is a threat but it's an underlying sporadic threat."

Jeremy Binnie, analyst with Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said: "Security contacts have given us the impression that they are not so worried about mosques as it is easy to spot and monitor a radical takeover. They are more concerned that violent jihadists are recruiting clandestinely on the fringes of mosques, religious study groups and gyms.

"For example, a violent jihadist recruiter will want to speak to people that express support for Osama bin Laden, but he will tell them to keep their opinions to themselves in order to avoid attracting further attention."