NZ Herald : Police lack 'hardware' from plot

Monday, April 13, 2009

Police lack 'hardware' from plot

April 13, 2009

LONDON - The full extent of the damage caused by Metropolitan anti-terrorism chief Bob Quick's blunder has been revealed, with details that intelligence services were possibly several weeks away from breaking a suspected plot to bomb British targets.

Eleven men arrested in raids in the northwest of England remained in detention yesterday after magistrates gave police a further seven days to question them.

But there are extreme concerns within the security services that there may not be enough evidence amassed to build a case against them, because the raids were rushed forward as a result of Quick's mistake.

The Independent was told by security sources that a number of those being held were identified as possible terrorist plotters by intelligence agencies before they left Pakistan, and were "allowed to run" to Britain through the student visa system, where they were tracked for several months.

Quick, Scotland Yard's head of counter-terrorism, had been snapped clutching a dossier headlined "secret" and bearing details of a police operation as he arrived at the Prime Minister's office at No 10 Downing St. Although the Government was quick to issue a "D notice", preventing the UK media from publishing the photograph, there was a threat it would appear on the internet.

"It was a disaster," said a Government source. "This guy's sitting at this desk and every day he's studying surveillance photos brought in by his officers. He knows the power of the camera. After the microphone, it's the most powerful tool they've got; he must have been aware he would be photographed going into Downing St."

As Quick realised his career had been finished in the click of a camera lens, he faced a brutal dilemma. Originally the plan had been to make the arrests in the dead of night.

Security sources told the Independent that the raid was only one option and in fact the planned raid was possibly several weeks away.

The operation would have involved a minimum amount of fuss and was unlikely to have inflamed tensions among the local Muslim communities in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Instead, with the alleged plot in danger of becoming public knowledge, Quick was forced to bring the arrests forward, sending in armed teams to pick up the 12 suspects - 10 of whom were from Pakistan and had entered the country on student visas - in public places.

The Government source said: "The difficulty was that they weren't at home in their beds where they wanted them to be. It was a huge risk - to go to a public place such as a shopping centre and detain them."

It was also highly embarrassing. Following a slew of stories in which officials had left top secret documents in public places, the country's counter-terrorism high command was an international laughing stock.

"We lecture the Pakistanis on taking a tough line against al Qaeda then we go and do this."

But questions are now being asked about whether the decision to bring the arrests forward after Quick's bungling compromised the intelligence gathering process. Counter-terrorism squad officers have dismissed claims that an attack was about to be launched when the suspects were arrested.

A source close to Scotland Yard said the evidence indicated any plot was still at the discussion stage, and none of the hardware necessary to carry out an attack had been acquired.

"This could turn out to be similar to cases in the past, where we have stalked groups who have made serious claims picked up in recorded conversations or in email traffic, but when we get down to it they did not have the necessary hardware to actually do it," the source said.

Some are concerned that the decision to launch a raid on Thursday after Quick's security gaffe has reduced the possibility of successful convictions. A counter-terrorism source said: "Intelligence officers will always tell you the longer you leave these things the better. There's always a balance between maximising evidence and public safety."

There have been unsubstantiated claims that the alleged plot focused on several sites including a nightclub and a shopping centre in Manchester. But no bomb-making equipment has been found so far and one man has been released into the custody of the Borders Agency.

The security services are believed to have been monitoring the situation for more than a month after their US counterparts intercepted suspicious emails and calls between Pakistan and the UK.

"For the last two or three months, we have been getting reports of Pakistani groups planning something in the UK, so some kind of operation was widely expected," said Mohammad Rana Amir, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a think-tank in Islamabad.

British intelligence sources describe the tribal areas along Pakistan's western frontier with Afghanistan as "the Grand Central Station" of modern international militancy. A growing threat has been some of the groups that reside there such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed. Though once focused on Kashmir, they are increasingly turning to international targets.

LeT is suspected of being behind November's attack in Mumbai, India and that on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last month.

Another potential new player in international terrorism is the Pakistani Taleban. Though their Afghan counterparts have refrained from making any threats outside their homeland, Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the Pakistani Taleban, has repeatedly threatened Western interests. While intelligence services believe such threats are largely bluster, there is a possibility of some kind of alliance with another more capable group.

In recent months, Western security services have become more positive about the battle against al Qaeda in Pakistan. Drone strikes - though they have deeply angered many ordinary Pakistanis - have killed senior militants and upset their operations.