Telegraph : Cars and girls: email 'codewords’ that put MI5 on terrorist alert

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cars and girls: email 'codewords’ that put MI5 on terrorist alert

By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent | July 30, 2009

A Muslim terrorist suspect sent coded emails to an al-Qaeda commander in which references to his impending marriage were in fact details of a planned bomb attack in Britain, MI5 has claimed.

The messages, intercepted by the security service, allegedly showed that an extremist cell in Manchester was communicating with a commander in Pakistan to execute an Easter bombing campaign.

The emails, written by a 23-year-old Pakistani student, appeared to refer to several girlfriends and plans to buy a car. But the Home Office claimed that the text was code for a car-bomb attack intended to take place within days.

It led to the largest terrorist alert in Britain for two years and a series of arrests, which were brought forward after Bob Quick, the then head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, was pictured walking into Downing Street holding a piece of paper disclosing details of the operation, code-named Pathway.

Police across the North West moved in to arrest 11 students on April 8. During subsequent raids, officers found an A-to-Z with streets marked, photographs of shopping centres and a video of the men on a trip to the Welsh countryside. However, they found no evidence of bomb-making and none of the men was charged with terrorism offences.

On Monday, the eight emails were presented in evidence to a special hearing before a high court judge to decide whether the men should be deported.

MI5 believed that girls’ names were used to refer to chemicals and that talk of a “wedding” was actually a reference to the bombing itself. In one of the messages, allegedly sent to an al-Qaeda commander in Pakistan, the student, alleged to have been the leader of the cell, wrote that he planned to get married in 12 to 17 days. That caused alarm among the security services who feared an attack was imminent.

The Government is now attempting to have 10 men, who entered the country on student visas, deported to Pakistan, claiming they are a threat to national security.

In legal documents submitted by Robin Tam QC, for the Home Secretary, the Government maintained that the men were members of a “UK-based network involved in terrorist operational activity in the UK, most likely attack planning” and that the network was “directed by al-Qaeda based overseas”.

MI5 believes that the 23-year-old student, who cannot be named but is referred to as XC, was the “linchpin” of the group.

Eight men are appealing against deportation at the tribunal, including XC, Abdul Wahab Khan, Shoaib Khan, Mohammed Ramzan, Ahmed Faraz Khan and Tariq ur-Rehman, who has returned to Pakistan voluntarily.

Two others, Janas Khan and Sultan Sher, have been bailed pending deportation for visa irregularities, although the Government still maintains that they were “involved in an extreme Islamist network”. A British man, Hamza Shinwari, was released without further action being taken.

The men claim they were just friends and the trip to Wales was for sightseeing and playing cricket. Pictures in which they posed as “commandos” were just for fun, they said.

Richard Hermer QC, for XC, said that the Government’s evidence was of a “pitiful quality” and that the investigation by MI5 had been “at best incompetent”. “Despite what we assume was the most rigorous of counter-terrorism investigations, not one jot of evidence was found of bomb-making,” he said.

The Government’s case would “dissolve” if a thorough examination was made of XC’s internet use, which comprised hundreds of emails and visits to Muslim chat rooms in connection with a relationship, Mr Hermer said.

He added that, through text messages on XC’s mobile phone, police had traced a young woman who confirmed they were in a relationship and considering marriage.

The men were all denied bail yesterday pending a full hearing in March or April next year.