London Evening Standard : Wedding emails sparked terror swoop

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wedding emails sparked terror swoop

Martin Bentham, Home Affairs Editor | August 14, 2009

Seven Pakistani terror suspects were arrested after MI5 decided that their emails contained codewords for a deadly bomb plot.

One email suggested that a girl called "Nadia" would be involved in a "nikah", a wedding, between 15 and 20 April this year - part of an exchange which defence lawyers claim was entirely innocent.

The message, and others sent between the alleged plotters, triggered a major anti-terrorist operation after MI5, which had been monitoring the men for some time, decided that the girls' names were code for explosive ingredients and the "wedding" was the intended attack.

The details were disclosed today following a hearing at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission last month at which five of the men, who are all facing deportation on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security, applied to be released on bail.

The judge in the case, Mr Justice Mitting, refused their application, saying there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that MI5's view was "plainly wrong", in a decision which means that the men will stay in custody until next year.

Giving the reasons for his decision today, Mr Justice Mitting said a series of emails exchanged between an address attributed to one of the men and another attributed to an al Qaeda associate were "central to the open case against the appellants".

The emails from the man, identified only as XC, to "Sohaib" appear to refer to a "nikah".

Mr Justice Mitting added: "They appear to refer to XC's interest in named girls and to a nikah (wedding) after 15th and before 20th April 2009 with one of them, Nadia.

The assessment of the security service is that references to named girls could be to ingredients from which an explosive device could be made and that the reference to the nikah is 'most likely' reference to an intended attack."

He continued: "The first, and ultimately determinative issue is, therefore: is the assessment of the security service plainly wrong?"

Richard Hermer QC, for XC, told last month's hearing the security service's account of the emails was far-fetched and the emails were no more than innocent social discussions.

Mr Justice Mitting said, however, that he could approve the men's release only if it was clear that MI5's judgment was "plainly wrong" and because this was not currently the case, the detainees would have to remain in custody.

He said the final interpretation of the emails would have to wait until a full Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearing takes place next year and added: "On the information, open and closed, which we have now, we are not satisfied that the assessment by the security service of their likely meaning is clearly wrong."

The men's bail application was opposed by the Home Office, which submitted evidence that the five attended one or both of two meetings on 23 March and 1 April in which the "nikah" was also discussed.

Of the five men, students Abdul Khan, 26, and Shoaib Khan, 27, from Liverpool, have waived their right to anonymity.

They were among 12 terror suspects arrested in April in a high-profile police operation across the North-West.

Three of the other men originally arrested were later released. A further two have also since been freed but have been electronically tagged and are due to be removed from the country for alleged visa irregularities.

The raids had been rushed forward after the Met's then anti-terror chief, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, was photographed carrying details of the planned operation into Downing Street.

He resigned the following day because of the blunder.

The failure of the raids to result in any prosecutions led to concern from some critics that police and MI5 had overreacted and unfairly targeted the men detained.

But security sources insist that the raids successfully disrupted a potentially major plot.