Telegraph : Terror plot: How Bob Quick's blunder forced MI5's hand

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Terror plot: How Bob Quick's blunder forced MI5's hand

The terror suspects at the centre of Operation Pathway had been under MI5 surveillance for weeks after the security services first received a tip-off suggesting a possible al-Qaeda plot in the north west of England.

By Gordon Rayner and Duncan Gardham | April 9, 2009

As agents looked into the backgrounds of the 11 Pakistani men who had arrived in the UK on student visas at different times over the last six months, they became increasingly concerned that they might have links to high-level al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After they enrolled on courses in Liverpool and Manchester, the Pakistani suspects, together with one British national, were put under round-the-clock surveillance, thought to include the use of listening devices secretly installed in at least one address.

MI5 is believed to have used agents fluent in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, which several of the men are understood to have used during their discussions.

Initially, there was nothing to suggest an attack was imminent or that targets had been selected, but as surveillance officers followed the suspects they saw them taking photographs of each other at Manchester's busiest shopping areas, including the Trafford Centre, the Arndale Centre and St Anne's Square in the city centre.

Then agents overheard the men allegedly discussing dates in mid-April, including the Easter weekend, and anti-terrorist police, headed by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick of the Metropolitan Police, became increasingly concerned that a terrorist "spectacular" in the form of a co-ordinated series of suicide attacks on shopping centres was just days from being carried out.

With the Easter bank holiday weekend approaching, one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year, Mr Quick and his MI5 counterparts decided the alleged plotters had to be rounded up before their theory could be put to the test.

They arranged to arrest the suspects in a series of simultaneous raids in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire, at 2am on Thursday, when the men would be asleep in bed, giving police the crucial element of surprise.

But those well-laid plans turned to dust thanks to Mr Quick's unforgivable blunder as he went to Downing Street on Wednesday morning to brief the Prime Minister and Home Secretary on the latest developments.

Mr Quick was photographed carrying a document marked SECRET and detailing the times and places of the intended arrests. Despite attempts to stop publication of the photographs, it became clear that there was a risk of the details of Operation Pathway being leaked, and hundreds of police officers across the north west had to be scrambled to round up the 12 men as soon as was humanly possible.

The fact that all 12 were tracked down and held in the space of an hour, starting at 5pm, was proof of just how closely they were being monitored, and how severe the suspected threat was considered to be.

As the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner discussed Mr Quick's future, police officers carried out a series of lightning raids at five locations in the north west.

One of the first came at 5.30pm at Liverpool John Moores University, where armed officers held a suspect outside a library as students filmed the drama on their mobile phones.

Craig Ahmed, a business student who was inside the building, said: "The library Tannoy came on telling everybody to stay away from the windows and not to go outside. They said it was for our own safety. There was talk that they had a bomb and it spread like wildfire around the building.

"I went to the window and saw about eight police officers. One of them was armed and was pointing his gun at two men who were ordered to lie face down on the ground."

One of the men, known as Adil, was arrested, the other was an innocent bystander who was later released.

Meanwhile another raid was under way in Cedar Grove in the Wavertree area of Liverpool, where three men were led away in handcuffs from a terraced house, and at the same time Abdul Khan, a 26-year-old English language student, was held as he entered his flat above the Saleh off-licence in Earle Road a short distance away.

Rebecca Mallon, 31, said: "Two black cars tore down the street and pulled up outside the shop. Then a lot of men wearing black - not police uniforms, it looked like combat gear - stormed the flat. The man inside must have been right behind the door because almost straight away he was out on the street and the police had him lying face down on the ground. They covered his head with a blanket and were shouting to him: 'Keep down, keep your head down.'"

In the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester, two suspects, named as Sultan Sher and a man called Tariq, were held at the Cyber Net Cafe on Cheetham Hill Road.

Mesu Raza, who lives above the café, said: "Two police vans arrived outside the shop and there were other police round the back. They arrested two people and put them in a police van."

A short walk away in Galsworthy Avenue two men dressed in white robes were arrested at a terraced house.

Bushra Majid, a 33-year-old housewife, said: "I opened the door and four or five policemen were on top of a man. They were dragging him along the street and he had no shoes on. They shouted at me 'get inside, get inside'. There was a policeman on each corner of the street, with machine guns."

One of the suspects taken from the address, was named as 22-year-old Abid Naseer.

An hour later his flatmate Hamza Shinwari was arrested after police stopped his white van on the M602 motorway between Manchester and Eccles.

More than 30 miles from Manchester, in the unlikely setting of a new Homebase store which was due to open for the first time the following day, more than 80 police officers swooped to arrest two men working as security guards.

Joel Livings, 16, who works at the store, said: "There were police everywhere. Vans, patrol cars and motorbikes with their sirens on and blue lights flashing came from everywhere. Officers with guns rushed into the store and about 10 minutes later brought two men out.

"It was quite frightening as they were not messing about. The two guys didn't put up any resistance. When the police arrived we were all taken upstairs to be kept out of the way. The bosses later told use what was happening."

As the 12 men were driven away for questioning at separate police stations around the country, further addresses thought to be linked to the alleged plot were raided, including a squalid flat in Highgate St in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool.

On Wednesday evening, the entire street was blocked off for more than six hours by around 50 officers. Forensic officers dressed in full length white suits and masks were seen entering the block and leaving with boxes and bags.

David Fagan, 28, said his mother Brenda had stepped outside to empty the rubbish when the police swooped at 5pm.

"She had just gone out to the bins when she was screamed at by the police and told to go back inside and not to come out," he said.

"They didn't say what was happening, just that it was for our safety."

Officers also raided the Brooklyn Guest House in Pimlico Road, Clitheroe, where the two Homebase security guards lived, and addresses in Abercarn Close and Esmond Road, both in Cheetham Hill.