UK police"Around 250 British determined to mount terrorist attacks" "So many people plotting prioritising is the only way"
July 2, 2007
Ian Cobain, Severin Carrell and Richard Norton-Taylor
Raids begin at dawn as evidence emerges
· Police say fast-moving inquiry reveals new information on plot by the hourThe day began with three unmarked police cars sealing off the M6 motorway in Cheshire and forcing a car carrying two terrorism suspects on to the hard shoulder. Minutes later, more than 40 miles away in Liverpool, another suspect, spotted at a railway station, was arrested.
Before dawn police were raiding two houses in a quiet commuter village outside Glasgow. More raids followed in north Staffordshire. And a few hours later the army carried out a controlled explosion on a car parked outside a hospital in Paisley, amid claims that at least one of the car bombing suspects was a doctor.
Despite the confusion of the fast-moving events, it was clear that a suspected al-Qaida-inspired terrorist cell with links to the Midlands, Liverpool, Scotland and the south-east of England was being rounded up in a bid to prevent any more attempted car bomb attacks.
Five suspects were under arrest by the end of the day and police were searching for several others, including at least one man in London. Detectives are thought to have gathered a wealth of evidence, including CCTV images in London's West End, DNA from two car bombs which failed to explode and documentation and forensic traces in Renfrewshire. They also used CCTV and traffic cameras, and automatic number plate recognition programmes, to track the would-be car bombers along their routes to central London and Glasgow airport.
"The investigation into these events, these attacks, is extremely fast moving," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's counterterrorism command. "New information is coming to light hour by hour."
The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, based at MI5's headquarters, raised the terrorism threat level to critical - the highest possible - indicating that further strikes may be imminent. And the government's crisis management committee, Cobra, sat again for the fourth time in three days yesterday, chaired by Jacqui Smith, who has undergone a baptism of fire since her appointment last Thursday as the UK's first female home secretary.
The nature of the attempted attacks in the capital in the early hours of Friday morning did not take senior Scotland Yard offi cers by surprise. One had spoken privately of his conviction that the next attacks in the UK would be "vehicle-borne bombs against iconic targets".
The two Mercedes loaded with gas cylinders, petrol cans and nails, parked yards from the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus and Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, appeared to be just that. One vehicle, parked outside a crowded nightclub, was made safe after a passing ambulanceman spotted fumes inside, while police were alerted to the second by a wheel-clamper who smelled gas while towing it away.
Two suspects were arrested after a Jeep Cherokee rammed into the front of the main terminal building at Glasgow airport on Saturday afternoon. It was the first day of the Scottish school holidays and the building was crowded. As the vehicle erupted in flames the driver clambered out, doused himself in petrol, and set himself alight, witnesses said.
"He had a big smirk on his face," said one, Jackie Kennedy. The man was last night in a critical condition in hospital.
After firefighters doused the flames, police discovered that the vehicle was loaded with propane gas cylinders, petrol and nails, like the London car bombs.
Within hours of the Glasgow attack, police wearing suits intended to offer protection against biological or chemical weapons were searching two houses in the largely prosperous commuter village of Houston, Renfrewshire, four miles west of the airport.
Neighbours described how one twobedroom semi in Neuk Crescent was raided at 4.30am yesterday. Police erected a tent and plastic awning at the rear of the building to shield offi cers as the searched the property, which backs on to a conifer forest. Residents were told to stay indoors, and those living in the adjoining property were evacuated.
The house had been rented last month by two Asian men in their late 20s or early 30s, who rarely spoke to neighbours.
The Guardian has learned that police were searching for one of the occupants of the house on Saturday morning - before the airport attack - investigating a possible connection with the previous day's attempted bombings in London. This individual had told some people in the town that he was a doctor.
Parts of the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley, where the burned man from the airport attack was being treated - were evacuated yesterday while the army carried out a controlled explosion inside a car parked in the grounds. The hospital was unable to admit emergency patients for a while, and ambulances were diverted to other hospitals in the region.
A few hours before the Renfrewshire raids, police had arrested a 26-year-old man and a woman aged 27 in a dramatic operation on the M6 in south Cheshire. A witness, Peter Whitehead, told how three unmarked police cars brought the traffic on the northbound carriageway to a halt.
"In front of them were a couple of other unmarked police cars and they forced a car on to the hard shoulder and got the occupants out and, as far as I can see, arrested them."
The Guardian understands that the couple had been followed from Birmingham and were thought to be en route to Scotland. Soon afterwards a second 26-year-old man was arrested at Liverpool's Lime Street railway station.
Police also searched two addresses in the city, one in Toxteth and one near Penny Lane in the Mossley Hill district.
Two witnesses, Declan Murphy and Melissa Heywood, described how officers took cover behind a jeep at the Mossley Hill address and others aimed guns at the house while colleagues got in. Mr Murphy said: "At first I thought it was something to do with drugs then the Glasgow thing came to mind and we thought it must have been terrorism."
Yesterday afternoon police raided a property in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Staffordshire. Residents said the occupant was a doctor at a local hospital.
A neighbour, Daniel Robinson, told the Press Association: "It's a rented property. The owners are away and the gentleman living there is a hospital doctor. They have been here for just over nine months. I have only occasionally met him. He seems a very pleasant man. He speaks good English."
Another resident, Richard Holland, told the news agency: "The man is a doctor at the local hospital. We have been told that a vehicle pulled over by police up north had something to do with the house.
"He kept to himself. He had a wife and a young child. He never really spoke. He said 'Hiya' and nothing else."
Explainer: essential targets
Senior Yard officers say they believe there are around 250 British citizens who are determined to mount terrorist attacks in this country. Many have undergone some weapons and explosives training at al-Qaida camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border, and have absorbed that organisation's doctrine that several attacks should be launched simultaneously and claim as many lives as possible.
As well as individuals known to the security services as "essential targets" there are 700 people categorised as "desirable targets", who pose a lesser risk, and some 1,000 people classed as "other targets", who have knowledge of terrorist attacks. It is possible that many of those involved in the weekend's attempted attacks are known to the police and MI5, but have not been arrested as there was insufficient evidence.
The police and MI5 are unable to keep all of these targets under surveillance, and there is always concern that some individuals assessed as desirable targets may be planning the next attack. Two of the July 7 bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, slipped though MI5's net in this way.
"There are so many people plotting, prioritising is the only way," said a senior counter-terrorist official.
Counter-terrorist sources said they hoped the individuals arrested would be identified on intelligence databases. This would mean the investigation could progress much faster, the sources said.
Security sources said it was too early to say what links