Times : Ghost in the terror machine

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ghost in the terror machine

Last week's raids were the result of a long investigation into a wider campaign plotted by an Al-Qaeda chief before his apparent death

David Leppard | From The Sunday Times | April 12, 2009

Early last Wednesday evening, Phil Harrow, a blood service courier from Toxteth, Liverpool, was sitting in front of his computer in his living room, his attention occasionally distracted by the sounds of the local children playing football on the street outside his front window on Cedar Grove.

At about 5.30pm, the peace was shattered and the children scattered in terror. “Eight armed officers, dressed in black from head to toe and wearing body armour and ski masks, jumped from an unmarked white van, screamed at the children to get out of the street and battered their way into the house two doors down from mine,” recalled Harrow.

Within minutes three unmarked police cars and four large yellow police vans had cordoned off the street and about 30 more officers were shouting at residents to stay indoors with their doors and windows shut.

Three Asian men were arrested and quickly driven off. The officers also took away a blue Nissan Micra and a black Vauxhall Corsa after neighbours told them the vehicles belonged to the men.

It was a pattern repeated across the city and the northwest of England as police swooped simultaneously as part of Operation Pathway, which was targeting an alleged Al-Qaeda-driven terror plot aimed at unspecified targets in Britain.

Elsewhere in Liverpool, a man was hauled out of a flat above an off-licence on Earle Road, Wavertree, about half a mile from Cedar Grove. At Liverpool John Moores University across the city, a student was dragged from the library and arrested.

In Manchester two men were picked up in a flat in the Cheetham Hill area, another couple were seized in a cybercafe and a fifth man was arrested on the M602 motorway. Two other men were held in Clitheroe, Lancashire, where they had been staying at a local B&B.

The arrest of the 12 men — 11 Pakistanis and one Briton — had been rushed forward because of a career-ending blunder earlier that day by Bob Quick, the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner who was Britain’s chief anti-terror officer.

Quick had been running late for a morning meeting with Gordon Brown at No 10, at which he was to tell the prime minister about the raids which had been planned for 6am the next day. In the taxi on the way, he was reading a document headed Secret: Briefing Note Operation Pathway. Quick was in such a rush that he forgot to put the document back in its buff folder before he got out of the cab.

A photographer snatched a picture of the document which was then transmitted to media outlets around the world. The operation had to be hastily brought forward by 12 hours.

Thankfully, Quick’s error had serious consequences only for himself — he resigned on Thursday morning — but it added unnecessary drama and danger to an operation that had already been a close-run thing — and which security sources fear is part of a much bigger threat.

THE trail to the Manchester raids is thought to have begun last December with the arrest of 14 suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists by Belgian police.

Officials believed a suicide bombing aimed at a two-day summit of European leaders, including Brown, was imminent after learning that one of the suspects had received a green light from his paymasters abroad.

During their detention, few of the men were prepared to co-operate with the Belgian authorities but one — whose identity remains a closely guarded secret — was willing to talk. In a series of interviews he described how he had been personally “tasked” to carry out a suicide attack in Belgium. His instructor was Rashid Rauf, a fugitive on the run from British police in Pakistan.

The would-be suicide bomber said that the Belgian plot was just one of a number of large-scale attacks that Rauf had planned across Europe. The targets were unidentified cities in Belgium, France, Holland and the UK.

Interviewed later by a member of MI5, the supergrass said that all he knew was that Rauf had dispatched a mastermind — whose pseudonym he gave — to a British city to make preparations for an attack. His tip-off was vague but it sparked one of the largest manhunts in MI5’s recent history.

Rauf, who was born in Pakistan but was brought up in the Midlands, has already been linked to a series of alleged high-profile Islamist terror plots, including the failed July 21 suicide bomb plot that targeted London in 2005.

Despite this known track record, Rauf’s real importance had been underestimated. About four years ago he became Al-Qaeda’s director of European operations.

Last November Rauf was reportedly killed when three American Hellfire missiles from a CIA predator drone destroyed a mud-built bungalow in a village in North Waziristan, in the lawless tribal lands that span the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Aerial photographs taken by the Americans after the missile strike show a body, originally thought to be Rauf’s, covered in a shroud being carried from the rubble. But original assessments that he is dead have been revised. “There is nothing definitely to say he’s actually dead,” said a senior western intelligence official last week.

“It may take a long time to find out. We honestly don’t know.”

Pakistani intelligence officials remain convinced that he was killed in the strike.

A few months earlier Rauf had sent several cells to Europe to carry out a series of linked attacks which were driven by Al-Qaeda’s hatred for Barack Obama — “a house negro” as Osama Bin Laden’s deputy has called him. Informed sources said it is now believed that the alleged northwest cell was part of this Europe-wide network.

The suspected members of the northwest cell had first came to the attention of MI5 about two months after the thwarted Brussels attack in December.

At any given time MI5 monitors about 2,000 people in Britain who form an estimated 230 networks suspected of links to violent extremism. Each individual is subject to a sliding scale of monitoring depending on the agency’s assessment of the threat they pose and how close they are thought to be to “attack planning”.

Each week a committee of senior MI5 officials meet at the agency’s headquarters in Westminster to review the status of each operation, upgrading and downgrading different investigations as appropriate.

Well placed officials say the alleged northwest cell had been the subject of investigation for several weeks since January. About a month ago that was suddenly stepped up after fresh information indicated that the members of the cell might be serious about attack planning. Operation Pathway was moved to the top of MI5’s priority list. Hundreds of police and MI5 officers were assigned to the investigation.

A number of suspects, many of them Pakistanis on student visas, were put under full-time surveillance. Their homes were bugged, their telephone calls were intercepted and they were followed night and day by officers from MI5’s A4 surveillance division.

This department specialises in covert surveillance. At terror camps in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, Al-Qaeda terrorist recruits are routinely trained in counter-surveillance tactics. This can include switching back on their route, stopping suddenly in the street and generally being aware of everybody around them.

To circumvent this, MI5 employs people who look the opposite of the stereotypical spy. The agency has at its disposal an army of elderly women — many in their sixties and seventies — and young mothers with babies in prams.

There is also a range of James Bond-style devices which are the agency’s most closely guarded secrets. It is rumoured, for example, that MI5 has developed a colourless chemical which is “painted” on a suspect’s clothing or shoes during a covert entry of the suspect’s home while he or she is out. The suspect will then leave a trace of the chemical wherever he goes, allowing a trained MI5 dog to follow his trail.

It is not known whether any of these tactics were used in Operation Pathway. But about a fortnight ago surveillance officers reported that the suspects had been taking photographs of four locations in Manchester. These included the Arndale shopping centre, the smart shopping area of St Ann’s Square, the Trafford shopping centre and the Birdcage nightclub.

Critically, their e-mails were monitored — a highly sensitive task usually assigned in such operations to technical experts at GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping agency at Cheltenham.

The turning point came about a week ago when a series of e-mails thought to have been received by at least one of the suspects indicated a specific timeframe for the alleged plot. The e-mails suggested that the cell had moved into the stage of attack planning. They showed a “window” for a possible attack of about five or six days from Good Friday. “Dates around the Easter holiday were mentioned,” one senior police source said this weekend.

Yet there remained serious gaps in the Pathway investigation. Despite the photographs, police say they had no definite evidence of the planned target. Neither had Pathway uncovered any evidence that the suspects had acquired explosives, arms or ammunition.

There was no indication, either, as to whether the planned operation was a suicide attack, or how many of those arrested would be directly involved and which of them were simply supplying logistical support such as purchasing materials or acting as drivers and reconnaissance scouts.

For MI5 officers running Pathway from the agency’s Northern Operations Centre (opened amid great secrecy last year in a northern city), these were good reasons to watch and wait. But the risks of letting the suspects run overrode that.

“There is always a challenge to balance the need to gather more intelligence with the need to protect the public. There was clear intent and signs of organisation, very clearly something was going on, so we acted to protect the public,” said a security source.

Early last week senior police and MI5 officers met at Scotland Yard and agreed that the suspected members of the cell should be arrested. The date for “executive action” was set for 6am last Thursday when the suspects would almost certainly be at home and asleep. But then came Quick’s unwitting intervention.

AS the police questioning of the arrested men continues at three separate locations, few details have emerged of their lives in Britain. Neighbours in Liverpool spoke last week of cars coming and going from addresses late at night and the playing of loud Islamic music from a flat occupied by one of the men, but the suspects appear to have had little interaction with people other than at work.

Two of the men worked as security guards at the Homebase DIY store in Clitheroe, but had been there for only two weeks. Two more were believed to have worked as contractors for Cargo2go, a delivery firm based at Manchester airport, because one of the men was driving one of the company’s vans when he was arrested.

However, Ian Southworth, a director, said yesterday that he was mystified at the suggestion. “All our drivers are owner-drivers. It could be a driver that used to work for us that’s left and sold the vehicle and the logo’s still on it, or it could have been a lost or stolen vehicle,” he said.

A number of the 11 Pakistanis arrested were from the tribal areas and had been admitted to Britain on student visas.

This has stoked up a political row, with Islamabad and Downing Street trading blows over who was responsible for lax checks on immigrants, especially those entering Britain on student visas which are notoriously abused.

Gordon Brown said Pakistan “has to do more to root out terrorist elements in its country”. The prime minister had said previously that two out of three terror plots uncovered by MI5 and police were hatched in Pakistan. But Wajid Shamsul Hasan, the Pakistan high commissioner, retaliated by saying the problem was “at your end”.

This weekend a senior immigration judge dismissed as “bluster” claims by Phil Woolas, the Home Officer minister, that the system for checking student visas had been recently tightened up and was “one of the best in the world”.

The judge pointed to the six-month closure, on security grounds, of the main visa office at the British high commission in Islamabad, which meant that cases were being channelled through an outpost in Abu Dhabi, 1,300 miles away. He said that at 50% of the appeals, by those on student visas refused entry to Britain, there was no Home Office representation. In many cases the only documentation produced as evidence was that provided by the appellant, “which can often be forged or inadequate”, said the judge.

His comments were echoed by John Tincey, chairman of the Immigration Service Union which represents border staff, who said that the proposed introduction of the e-borders system involving automated checks on visitors was fraught with danger.

“Foreign nationals could be allowed into Britain without being interviewed by an immigration officer,” he said.

“There is real danger that our immigration controls will be able to catch only those who are already known to the authorities and will be helpless to detect first-time terrorists and illegal immigrants.”

Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said: “This is a completely shambolic system.”

THE arguments about the immigration system will continue for some time but this weekend the police priority was the continuing search of 10 properties in Manchester and Liverpool.

Yesterday police released an 18-year-old, the youngest of the suspects, into the custody of the UK Border Agency. They have 28 days to hold the 11 other men, who are aged between 22 and 41, before either charging them or releasing them.

The fate of Operation Pathway will hinge on whether they can gather enough evidence from the interviews and seized property for prosecutors to press charges.

Rauf’s plans for Europe-wide attacks leave intelligence agencies rushing to locate and defuse a group of ticking timebombs. Whether he is dead or alive, those ticking bombs are his real legacy.

Additional reporting: Kevin Dowling, Philip Cardy, Daud Khattak in Peshawar