Times : All suspects in 'student terror plot' released

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

All suspects in 'student terror plot' released

Nico Hines and Russell Jenkins | April 22, 2009

All 12 suspects arrested in a security operation to thwart what the Prime Minister called “a very big terrorist plot” have been released without charge.

Eleven of the men - all Pakistani nationals - face being deported after they were transferred into the custody of the UK Borders Agency.

The failure to bring charges against any of the men came after police released the final two suspects they had in custody this morning.

Last night they freed nine men, aged between 22 and 38, after 13 days detention. An 18-year-old student was transferred to the custody of the UK Border Agency after three days in detention.

Mohammed Ayub, a lawyer for three of the men, called for an independent inquiry into Operation Pathway and said their deportation orders would be challenged.

“Our clients have no criminal history, they were here lawfully on student visas and all were pursuing their studies and working part-time,” he said.

“They are neither extremists nor terrorists. Their arrest and detention has been a serious breach of their human rights. As a minimum they are entitled to an unreserved apology.”

Responding to criticism of the police operation, Gordon Brown’s spokesman said: “Both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister believe they are doing an excellent job in continuing to protect the public from terrorist threats.

"The Government’s highest priority is to protect public safety. Where a foreign national poses a threat to the country, we will seek to exclude or deport them where appropriate.”

The investigation into alleged al-Qaeda activity in the North West involved 14 properties in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe, Lancashire, being searched by specialist teams.

Four uniformed police officers stood guard outside 36, Galsworthy Avenue, in Cheetham Hill where two of the terror suspects were arrested in an armed swoop two weeks ago.

The sunlit street was deserted apart from a few pressmen and one passer-by who shouted aggressively: "Go home - [it's] all over now."

There is, however, deep disquiet about the arrests in the neighbourhood among residents who say that the police has a record of making dramatic terror swoops, disrupting and upsetting the local community but subsequently releasing the suspects for lack of evidence.

Locals cited the the behaviour of Lancashire Police in February when nine men from Burnley and Blackburn on a humanitarian convoy were arrested on the M65 near Preston and later released without charge.

GMP distributed a letter to local residents in an attempt to explain their position.

Afzal Khan, the Labour councillor for Cheetham Hill, said: "I am deeply concerned. On the same day of the arrests people on the streets were saying straight away that they will find nothing and that is is all political. This has only reinforced that view".

The arrests were brought forward by 12 hours after Bob Quick, Scotland Yard’s head of counter-terrorism, accidentally disclosed details of the raids to Downing Street photographers while on his way to brief Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.

Mr Quick, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations, resigned, admitting that he had compromised a high-level security operation. Ms Smith told the House of Commons this week that the error had not damaged the operation and that the only impact had been that the raids had been brought forward “by a matter of hours”.

However, The Times understands that even before Mr Quick quit there were furious disagreements between Scotland Yard, which is supposed to have national responsibility for counter-terrorism, the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit, led by Greater Manchester Police, and MI5.

Security sources said that the arrests were premature and complained that police had panicked after picking up intelligence “chatter” that appeared to discuss timings and targets. Some of the suspects were allegedly under surveillance while photographing and filming at Manchester shopping centres and a nightclub.

It was hoped that the arrests and searches would produce evidence of bomb-making activity or components.

At one point a block of flats in Liverpool was evacuated but no explosive material was found. Attention later turned to the forensic examination of the suspects’ computers, but sources say that nothing has been found which can incriminate the men.

The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, said this morning:

“I do not feel embarrassed or humiliated by what we have done because we have carried out our duty. There’s been no disagreement between us and the security services.

“This has been an extremely complex investigation that has involved officers working closely with other agencies to gather and examine large amounts of evidence.

“We had a duty to act on 9 April to protect the public and a subsequent duty to investigate what lay before us."