Times : Scramble to find the Easter bomb factory

Friday, April 10, 2009

Scramble to find the Easter bomb factory

Sean O’Neill, Andrew Norfolk, Russell Jenkins and Michael Evans | April 10, 2009

A desperate search was under way last night for the terrorist bomb factory from which a suspected al-Qaeda cell planned to launch a devastating attack in Manchester.

Hours after Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer resigned in disgrace, police operations were concentrating on a rundown block of flats east of Liverpool city centre.

The block was cordoned off and large quantities of material were seized for examination. People were evacuated from the area around the flats, which had been rented out by a private landlord to foreign students.

A dozen men are being questioned after raids that had to be rushed forward after Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, the country’s most senior anti-terrorism officer, inadvertently disclosed details of the police plans.

Mr Quick resigned as head of Special Operations at Scotland Yard yesterday morning, admitting that his bungle “could have compromised a major counter-terrorism operation”.

His resignation created a sense of crisis in Scotland Yard, where commanders are battling to contain the fallout from the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests last week.

Ten of the 12 men arrested on Wednesday were Pakistani nationals who entered Britain on student visas.

All were from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, the heartland of al-Qaeda and mujahidin activity. They appear to have exploited a visa regime described by a minister last week as “the major loophole in Britain’s border controls”.

Security sources are alarmed that terrorists may have exploited weaknesses in the vetting of student visa applicants to plant sleeper cells here.

Gordon Brown said that the police and intelligence services had thwarted “a very big plot”. He added that he would be raising his concerns with President Zardari of Pakistan.

The alleged Manchester plot represents a significant shift in tactics by terror groups based in Pakistan who view Britain as a prime target.

Between 2002 and 2006 their emphasis was on training young Britons. But if these plot allegations are proven, they suggest that planners are now exporting operatives here.

This week’s suspects had been under covert surveillance for a month and preparations for the swoop were already advanced before Mr Quick allowed crucial documents to be photographed as he went to brief the Prime Minister.

The suspects were allegedly seen filming in central Manchester and intelligence services had intercepted “chatter” suggesting that an attack could occur as early as this weekend.