Hatred In London

It was the start of the long may Day weekend in London, and Soho's streets were jammed with tourists, shoppers, diners and drinkers reveling in the balmy weather and the prospect of a three-day break. Jean-Pierre Trevor, a London-born filmmaker, had just stopped by to see a friend at a film-editing studio, when a deafening explosion suddenly propelled them three feet across the room. At first they thought a plane had crashed into a nearby building. But when they ran outside and saw shattered glass blanketing the sidewalks and streets, says Trevor, "I thought, 'That's got to be a bomb'."

He was right. Planted inside the Admiral Duncan, a cozy gay pub on Old Compton Street, the nail bomb abruptly turned a scene of routine weekend merrymaking into a chilling wasteland of smoke, rubble and blood. Outside the gutted pub, people rushed around in panic and confusion. Scores of the injured lay on the ground, their skin red and peeling. Some were bleeding profusely, riddled with nails and shattered glass. Others suffered severe burns or had parts of their limbs blown off. Acrid smoke and the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the air. "All their clothes were like charcoal," says Don Crown, a sign painter with first-aid training who stopped to help. Passersby ran to get buckets of ice from nearby bars to soothe the burns of the wounded. An armada of ambulances, sirens braying, struggled through the thick rush-hour traffic.

Police cordoned off the area and assessed the damage. Two people had died in the blast and more than 70 were injured, 23 seriously. A medevac helicopter landed in Trafalgar Square to evacuate the wounded. Surgeons at four area hospitals worked through the night, removing "handfuls of nails and bits of metal" from people's wounds, said D. A. McGrouther, a University College Hospital plastic surgeon. On Saturday, a third bombing victim died from his injuries. At least three others had to have their legs amputated. "There will be scarring and great mutilation for life," said McGrouther.

The bomb was clearly meant to cause maximum damage. It went off at 6:37--at the height of the cocktail hour but before security guards typically come on duty at bars. And it struck in the bustling neighborhood of Soho, the heart of London's gay community. That bolstered police suspicions that the Admiral Duncan blast was merely the latest in a series of attacks against minority groups in Britain. A similar bomb went off on April 17 in the largely Afro-Caribbean area of Brixton, injuring 39 people. The following Saturday, a nail bomb in a black Reebok bag exploded on Brick Lane, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in London's East End. That bomb injured six, lodged six-inch nails in metal shutters and shattered the storefronts of two South Asian restaurants and a Jewish-owned cloth shop. After the Soho explosion, Home Secretary Jack Straw described the bombers as having "no humanity whatsoever."

Police are not sure exactly whom to blame. Two hours after the Soho blast, a caller to a BBC radio station claimed that the White Wolves, a tiny neo-Nazi group, was responsible. The group had said it was behind the Brixton and Brick Lane bombings as well. But so did several other neo-Nazi organizations, including Combat 18, which attracts extremist tradesmen and petty criminals. The group takes its name from Adolf Hitler's initials --the first and eighth letters of the alphabet--and reportedly markets skinhead bands internationally. "We're trying not to glorify any of them with too much credence," says Scotland Yard spokesman Nick Jordan. "The difficulty is that anybody could put a name on something." The explosive device was the size of a shoebox, and packed with hundreds of nails and other metal pieces, said David Veness, assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. It also contained a small plastic detonator. "It was crude, it was unsophisticated," he said.

So far police attention has focused on the White Wolves. Gerry Gable, chairman of the research and intelligence wing of Searchlight, an antiracism organization, rules out Combat 18 on the ground that it has been too well infiltrated to have perpetrated the attacks without his group's knowledge. But the much smaller and more secretive White Wolves is fond of such difficult-to-monitor tactics as leaderless resistance and dividing into small cells. It shares its name with a Serb terrorist group targeting Kosovars in Serbia. Before the bombings, the White Wolves sent a series of hate mailings to minority leaders, antifascist groups and provincial newspapers. "Notice is hereby given that all non-whites and Jews must permanently leave the British Isles before the year is out," read one stenciled note. "Jews and non-whites who remain after 1999 has ended will be exterminated... You have been warned. Hail Britannia." Last week police arrested five men in connection with the bombings, including one in Hampshire, whose house was found to contain explosives. Four have been released; one remains in custody in a central London police station.

Not much is known about the White Wolves. The group splintered off from Combat 18 in 1994, and it is not clear how many members belong. "It might be four people and it might be 20," says Gable. The group has published a 15-page booklet claiming that the best way to hasten "race war" is to attack immigrants. It starts with the Rudyard Kipling poem "The Beginnings," which includes the line "Time shall count from the date, That the English begin to hate." It urges "nationalists" to form tiny cells, and teaches them how to make a bomb timer out of a clock, a battery and a light bulb.

The resurgence of neo-Nazi activity has caught many Britons off guard. Though white-supremacist groups were active in the 1970s, police and monitoring organizations believed that their popularity had been dropping steadily ever since. At its peak in the mid-1990s, Combat 18 had about 250 members, says Gable; now it is down to 40 or 50. The handful of race-related murders that have occurred over the past few years were committed not by white supremacists, but by "ordinary people influenced by racism," says Chris Myant of the Commission on Racial Equality. "It seemed so unbelievable that in Britain somebody might be waging a systematic campaign of racial violence. Now we've learned our lesson."

Britain's white supremacists have most likely had a little outside help. Antifascist monitoring groups believe that the White Wolves learned their tactics from American neo-Nazi leaders. And police pointed out similarities between the latest London bombings and nail bombs that exploded in Paris markets two years ago. "The Nazi movement has better international connections than most other political organizations," says Steve Silver of Searchlight. "What seems like a very nationalistic organization is, in reality, a very international struggle to save the white race."

Meanwhile Britain is less tolerant than ever of such attitudes. London has come to appreciate its multiculturalism. Over the past half-century, immigration has transformed the capital from an overwhelmingly white city to a place where more than 200 languages are spoken and one out of every five people is a minority. There are few all-white or all-black areas. Britain's gay community, too, has felt increasingly accepted, making the attack at Admiral Duncan that much harder to bear. "All the evidence is that Britain has become a far more tolerant society towards gays over the last 20 years," says Roger Goode of Stonewall, the London-based gay-rights activist group.

Overt racism is being confronted even in some of the country's most staid institutions. Earlier this year, a government-appointed commission accused the British police force of institutional racism in its report on the 1993 investigation of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was stabbed to death by a group of whites. "We were expecting a backlash [to the report]," says black M.P. Bernie Grant. "But we didn't expect nail bombs."

But in some ways, the bombings seemed only to heighten London's growing pride in its diversity. "It will only encourage people to see themselves as part of a community that must assert itself," says Goode. Gay bars in Soho stepped up their security, and the gay press issued warnings. Fearful that they might be next, Jewish and Asian groups offered to help each other patrol synagogues, mosques and markets. Hundreds of antifascist protesters marched in Brixton and Soho. In Southall, a west London suburb, the police worked with black and Asian community leaders to form patrols to protect Saturday shoppers. "There's an air of defiance," says Austin Debrou of Empee Silk Wholesale Fabrics, a Brick Lane shop wrecked by the bomb. "If anything, it's driven us closer together."

Yet as the holiday weekend wore on, the jitters on London's streets were palpable. Parents kept their children inside. When a police car with flashing blue lights stopped in front of an Oxford Street department store, shoppers glanced nervously at one another. Southall shoppers were wary as well. "I've started to feel very nervous about the tension created by the bombs," says Jaspreet Singh, 39, who works in a mini-market. "I guess you think it will never really happen to you." Police are warning everyone to be vigilant. "It's become obvious through intelligence that's come in that almost any minority group could be at risk," says Scotland Yard spokesman Jordan. "I don't know how much more could be done, really. You have to tread a fairly narrow tightrope between warning communities and scaring people." It is a fine line that the country is becoming all too practiced at walking.