Guardian : Terror bomb plot intelligence came from MI6's Pakistan operation

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terror bomb plot intelligence came from MI6's Pakistan operation

• Officers believed it was too risky not to act
• Searches fail to find evidence of conspiracy

Vikram Dodd, Nick Watt and Martin Wainwright | April 11, 2009

Key intelligence that led to security officials fearing a terrorist cell was to launch a large-scale bomb attack on British soil came from MI6 operations targeting Pakistan, the Guardian has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation say the intelligence gathered first from abroad and then in Britain before Wednesday's raids, left counterterrorism officials believing there was too high a risk of an "imminent" attempt to bomb targets in Britain and cause mass casualties.

However, subsequent, intensive searches of at least 10 addresses linked to the suspected al-Qaida plot in northern Britain have so far failed to turn up any clear evidence of a terrorist conspiracy, despite the huge resources devoted.

Forty-eight hours after the arrests, sources close to the inquiry say no evidence has been found of bombs, bomb-making parts, precursor chemicals to make explosives, a bomb factory, weapons or ammunition.

The jigsaw of intelligence studied before the Wednesday raids left all agencies - from the police, to security services to Whitehall officials - convinced they had to arrest the 12 people detained. Yesterday they were still in custody. Investigators say the operation is at an early stage.

Examination of computers recovered from raids in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe and their hard drives has only just begun. In past cases, data recovered from computers has been a source of incriminating evidence. Other forensic tests are also at an early stage.

One senior source said "nothing of huge significance" had been found, and accepted it was possible that no evidence could emerge before the 28-day limit to hold terrorism suspect expires.

But the source added: "There is lots of material that when put together may take us somewhere. It will be a long and drawn out investigation.

"If we don't charge it will look bad, but we had to take action. Was there any alternative; no there wasn't."

A central mystery remains how counterterrorism officials could believe such a serious plot existed when they were unsure of seemingly basic elements of the alleged conspiracy, such as the targets.

The Guardian has spoken to several informed sources with knowledge of the case, who paint a picture of fragments of intelligence coming in and fuelling a mounting concern that Britain was facing one of it's worst terrorist atrocities. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

Two to three weeks ago, intelligence from operations carried out in Pakistan by MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence agency, provided names of suspected members of an al-Qaida trained network in Britain.

That intelligence as well as the interception of calls and emails led UK security officials and police to fear a large terrorist attack was being planned in Britain.

The monitoring of calls and emails also led officials to believe a link existed between suspected al-Qaida commanders in Pakistan and the people in the UK.

An informed source said the plot was "al-Qaida driven". "There was concern [al-Qaida] was directing operations ... recruiting people to travel to this country, direct their operations and tell them what to do."

A large surveillance operation was put into place.

Some of those arrested were seen taking photographs near a Manchester nightclub, the Birdcage, and the Trafford shopping centre. The suspects were also seen taking photographs near other places in and around Manchester which are usually crowded.

The source said the suspect's behaviour was consistent with the way terrorists carry out reconnaissance ahead of an attack. But it was also consistent with a group of students in a new area taking photographs of themselves to show friends and family.

"There is no way we would use these [counterterrorism] powers for a bunch of people going around Manchester taking photographs," said the source.

Photographs of the nightclub and shopping centre have been recovered in the raids, but three separate sources continue to insist this can not be taken as evidence of targets.

A Whitehall source said: "They were not observed doing much suspicious."

Compared to other counter-surveillance operations carried out before arrest, the suspects were not seen buying materials that could be used to make explosives or other equipment known to have uses in making improvised explosive devices.

Then, several days ago, the surveillance operation targeting the 11 Pakistani nationals and one Briton heard a discussion about dates, including the Easter bank holiday weekend, taken as a reference to a possible date to stage the attack.

The decision was reached that the intelligence pointed to an imminent attack.

All agencies involved believed the men being watched had to be arrested.

One driving factor was the scale of feared casualties. "Is this territory where you can take a risk; no it's not," said the source.

Police activity was scaled down yesterday at the addresses being searched.

The procession of forensic officers with crates and bags from the houses, flats and internet cafes in Manchester and Liverpool came to halt early in the day.

In Liverpool, neighbours expressed their fears. Mother-of-five Marie Lee, 37, said: "People are reading stories about bomb factories but we've had nothing official to put our fears at rest."