Independent : 'It was like something out of an action movie'

Friday, April 10, 2009

'It was like something out of an action movie'

Shock of neighbours who witnessed Operation Pathway

By Cahal Milmo, Chief reporter | April 10, 2009

The first that Fazal Hussain knew of Operation Pathway was the sound of splintering wood and the heavy footfall of armed police as he settled down to watch the Champions League on Wednesday evening.

For weeks, probably months, the residents of Cheetham Hill in Manchester had gone about their business oblivious to the surveillance and eavesdropping being carried out by undercover police and MI5 officers in midst of their multicultural neighbourhood's ceaseless bustle.

Elsewhere in Liverpool and the sleepy Lancashire market town of Clitheroe, plain-clothed teams had been watching 12 "subjects" – a collection of men and a teenage boy, all but one of them recent arrivals from Pakistan who told their neighbours and landlords they were accountancy students and taxi drivers.

But the clandestine watchers who had hitherto led Pathway – the codename for one of the biggest counter-terrorism operations seen in Britain since the 7/7 bombings – were replaced with an altogether more muscular form of policing shortly after 5pm on Wednesday when phalanxes of specialist firearms officers, some hidden behind bullet-proof shields, began storming five addresses in the Manchester suburb.

Over the next five hours, a further six locations across the north-west, ranging from a university campus to a Homebase store a day away from its grand opening, were also raided by what one witness likened to Swat teams in a Hollywood movie.

Mr Hussain, 54, a travel agent and the owner of one of the raided properties, a flat above a barbers shop just off Cheetham Hill's busy main road, said: "I was watching the football when I heard a big noise. Lots of banging and breaking wood.

"I really didn't know what was going on until I saw lots of police cars and vans on the road. They took one of my tenants away.

"Eventually I was allowed up to switch off the alarm. I have never seen anything like it, a broken door, lots of people in plastic suits. A police lady told me it was all about terrorism. I still cannot believe it. I suppose they must have been watching us and these places for a long, long time. I hope they replace my door."

Shock and incredulity at finding themselves in the teeth of a mammoth attempt to thwart suspected terrorism were common themes on the streets of Cheetham Hill as well as the Toxteth and Wavertree areas of Liverpool, where a further four of the suspects were arrested.

The combination of a photographer's telephoto lens and the folly of Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer in Downing Street had forced police to act more swiftly than anticipated.

The daylight raids were conducted with unmatchable and frightening force as students were told to stay away from the plate glass windows of their library for fear of an explosion and mothers were shouted at to bring their children inside.

Residents in Cheetham Hill's Galsworthy Avenue, an unglamorous street of terraced houses, were unceremoniously ordered into their homes as an arrest team of helmeted police carrying Heckler and Koch submachine guns smashed down a front door of a lodging house while colleagues sheltering behind a bullet-proof shield aimed their weapons at upstairs windows.

Bushra Majid, 33, a mother of four who lives next door, said: "I looked out of my door and they had one of the men who lives there down on the floor with several police holding him down. They then dragged him off down the street. He didn't even have any shoes on. It was terrifying."

For some, the action verged on the cinematic. Leonard Mottram, 39, had watched as officers smashed through the bay windows of two houses in Cedar Grove, Toxteth, to arrest three suspects.

He said: "It was like something out of an action movie. Everything was deadly silent for a few seconds.

"I honestly thought they were filming. I looked out of the front window and was expecting to see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Russell Crowe come bursting out of one of the police vans."

As sirens echoed around streets and forensic teams yesterday pored over the raided premises – which included a basement internet cafe in Cheetham Hill and a flat above an off-licence in Wavertree – glimpses began to emerge of the identities of the men who police had been so closely watching.

Aged from mid-teens to 41, all but one of the suspects were Pakistani passport holders who had come to Britain as students. Most were described as model tenants who had paid their rent on time – in one case, six months in advance.

One of the men, who was held to the floor by officers outside the Aldham Robarts Library at the Liverpool John Moores University was a business studies undergraduate.

Ali Shalash, the owner of the flat above an off-licence in Earle Road, Wavertree, where one man was arrested, said it was being rented by three young men who had been in residence for just three weeks. They had told him that they were accountancy students.

Mr Shalash said: "They paid the deposit in cash and took a six-month lease. There was nothing about them that was suspicious in any way. They are very nice people, gentle and polite. Let's see what happens. Maybe it's a mistake."

Outside a small house in Abercarn Close raided by police was a grey MG Rover car which had been liberally dusted with a powder by forensic officers.

On the dashboard inside, a cut-out newspaper photograph of a Jihadi-style fighter could be seen, as well as a copy of a Pakistani newspaper featuring the headline: "Taliban blamed for sectarian suicide attack on mosque."