Message to "do attacks now" forced UK to move against plotters -described as 'well educated and middle class'
August 21, 2006
Alarm as plotters told 'attack now'
"GO now!" The message came from Pakistan and it rattled the British intelligence agents who intercepted it.
The urgent direction was sent early this week to a group of young British Muslims who had been plotting one of the world's biggest-ever terrorist attacks.
Intelligence officials who had been monitoring the group thought they had plenty of time to keep watching them and gathering evidence before safely rounding them up early enough to stop them carrying out their scheme.
But the message from radicals in Pakistan saying "do the attacks now" changed everything, and when it was passed to higher authorities in London on Wednesday night, it sent a jolt through the top levels of the British Government.
Prime Minister Tony Blair had jetted off on Monday for a holiday at pop star Cliff Richard's mansion in Barbados, believing that the long-running investigation of the terror plot was some time away from a climax.
As late as 8pm London time on Wednesday, when Blair called US President George W. Bush for an arranged discussion, he mentioned the investigation but still did not know that it had suddenly become urgent.
His Transport Minister, Douglas Alexander, who is responsible for British aviation, was on holiday in Scotland and even Andy Hayman, the assistant commissioner of police in charge of specialist operations, was enjoying the sun in Spain.
Hayman's deputy, Peter Clarke, was told late on Wednesday about the hurry-along message from Pakistan, which may have been prompted by the arrest of a co-conspirator in Pakistan, and decided the British suspects had to be arrested straight away.
By dawn on Thursday, all 24 known suspects had been grabbed in raids on houses in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, and a mosque in Birmingham.
They are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, the youngest 17 and the oldest 35. All are British citizens.
Many are well-educated and come from middle-class families who own businesses and property.One is a biochemistry student, another the son of an architect, another the son of an accountant. Many are married with small children.
Most are of Pakistani descent, like three of the four suicide bombers who killed 52 people on the London transport system 13 months ago, but two are white Muslim converts.
Abdul Waheed, 21, grew up as Don Stewart-Whyte, the hard-drinking, troublesome son of a full-time Conservative Party official. Six months ago, he changed his name, grew a beard, shaved his head, began wearing white robes and married an Arabic or south Asian Muslim wife.
A salesman at an electrical store, he was arrested on Wednesday night when he drove into the driveway of the home he shares with his mother and wife in High Wycombe, north of London. A policeman hiding in wait leaped out and smashed the driver's window before dragging him from the vehicle.
Another convert, 25-year-old east Londoner Oliver Savant, recently changed his first name to Ibrahim. His mother is of English descent and his father Iranian but neighbours said his father was "thoroughly Anglicised".
"He's just a normal Londoner," his brother Adam said yesterday. "His missus is six months pregnant. He loves football. He supports England and Arsenal."
Like Waheed, Savant has recently grown a beard, shaved his head, taken to wearing robes and married a Muslim woman.
Several of the other men arrested were described by their neighbours yesterday as devout family men with a strong interest in Islam, although several were described as being insular and withdrawn from their local communities.
There are various accounts of how the plot first came to the attention of British authorities.
The Washington Post quoted US officials as saying "the first whiff" had come after last year's July 7 suicide bombings in London, when a Muslim tipped off British authorities to the suspicious activities of an acquaintance.
That first tip was vague but it led investigators to a well co-ordinated plot to bomb transatlantic flights, the paper said.
The Times, on the other hand, claimed that MI5 first noticed some of the men last year because of their suspicious behaviour during frequent trips to Pakistan, while the Daily Mirror quoted an intelligence source as saying that the agency had been alerted while monitoring visitors to extremist websites which displayed information on making bombs.
Phillip Knightley, the London-based Australian journalist and author, who specialises in security issues, said the initial information about the plot had probably come from an informer, with intelligence officials intentionally clouding the issue to protect their source.
MI5, which has enjoyed a big funding boost since 2001, has devoted most of its new resources to monitoring British Muslims suspected of having al-Qa'ida sympathies.
Like the July 7 bombers, many of those radicals have been motivated by anger at British foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, and MI5 has worked hard to monitor formal and informal groups opposed to British military activities, and young British Muslims who travel to Pakistan.
The intelligence service called in anti-terrorism police and put 50 people under surveillance before focusing on two dozen suspects.
Investigators eventually fitted 12 vehicles with GPS tracking devices, monitored calls from mobiles and pay telephones and tapped into emails sent to Pakistan, Europe and Iran.
They followed their targets, recorded their meetings and conversations, secretly scrutinised their bank accounts, and took note of what they read on the internet, where they shopped and how they spent their money.
"We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel spending and the aspirations of a large group of people," said Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism branch.
By March, they realised a major attack was being planned and by April, the Prime Minister had been informed.
CNN has quoted "several US government officials" as saying that an undercover British agent had infiltrated the group.
In any case, the plot became the biggest anti-terror surveillance operation in British history, with more than 1500 people working on it.
When the suspects inquired about the prices of flights to the US and a dozen of them went to the American embassy in London to apply for tourist visas, the FBI was informed.
Pakistan's military intelligence service also provided valuable information, and MI6, which deals with foreign security threats, consulted counter-intelligence agencies in Europe and northern Africa. US officials claimed yesterday that large sums of money were sent to leaders of the group from Pakistan to allow them to buy airline tickets.
British officials said several of the men had large sums of money in their bank accounts that could not be explained by their normal incomes.
Intelligence agents were adamant that the plotters had been within two days of conducting a test run to see if they could carry liquid explosives and detonating devices on to commercial fights to the US, and if they had succeeded, they would have quickly gone ahead with the mission itself.
There were conflicting reports on whether the plan was to destroy five, 10 or 12 jets, and whether they were to be brought down over US cities to maximise casualties or over the sea so that the method of explosion could not be detected.
What is agreed by British and US officials is that the suspects had already studied timetables of three US airlines, Continental, United and American, and if their plot had succeeded, its death toll could easily have exceeded the 2976 who died on September 11, 2001.
The scale of their plans led to inevitable comparisons with the World Trade Centre attacks in the US but the plotters were actually drawing more on a 1995 terrorist scheme in which al-Qa'ida members planned to use liquid chemical explosives to destroy a dozen planes flying to the US across the Pacific.
According to a British terrorism expert, Michael Clarke, of Kings College, the radicals may have opted to blow up the planes rather than hijack them because of one of the unintended consequences of the 9/11 bombings.
Hijacking had become much more difficult because 9/11 had taught passengers that they were probably doomed if they co-operated with hijackers, he said.
Passengers and crew members had previously been advised to go along with hijackers to maximise their chances of survival but those ground rules had changed as soon as the al-Qa'ida killers used the planes they captured to plough into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Professor Clarke says passengers are now more likely to behave like those aboard the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001, United Airlines flight 93, who fought with their captors and forced them to crash the plane before it hit its target.
The decision of the latest British plotters to refine the 1995 idea of attacking a large number of planes cements the role of Ramzi Yousef as a pioneer of al-Qa'ida terror schemes.
In February, 1993, Yousef planted a truckload of explosives in the garage of the World Trade Centre's north tower, killing six people but leaving the Twin Towers standing until his associates finished off the job eight years later.
While on the run the following year, he came up with the idea of using digital watches to detonate liquid chemical explosives carried as hand luggage on to a dozen flights to the US. In December, 1994, he carried out a test run by planting a bomb which killed a Japanese businessman aboard a Boeing 747 from Manila to Tokyo but his plot was thwarted when a fire led police to his chemical laboratory.
Yousef was arrested in February, 1995, and sentenced to 240 years in a US prison.
His plans were not suicide missions. He walked out of the World Trade Centre before the truckload of bombs exploded, and got off the Manila-Tokyo flight in Cebu, leaving his bomb tucked into the life vest under his seat. His intention for the mass air attack was that those bombers would also get off their flights and leave the bombs behind.
Just as his al-Qa'ida colleagues outdid his failed attempt on the World Trade Centre by using suicide tactics on September 11, so the London bombers intended to "perfect" his plan for bringing down a dozen airliners by staying on board to see the job through.
Their plan was for teams of two or three radicals to board each plane, carrying components which were harmless on their own but would be deadly when combined in mid-flight.
Liquid explosives disguised as drinks, suntan lotion or contact lens fluid would be set off using iPods, mobile phones or cameras converted to serve as detonators.
Police now have up to 28 days to detain the men for questioning but after such an extensive surveillance operation, they are likely to lay charges relatively quickly.