| British police officers stand guard outside a west London warehouse where half-a-tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser was found. (Reuters)
London, March 30 (Reuters): Police arrested eight men and seized a cache of explosives during raids at dawn today in Britain’s biggest anti-terror operation since the September 11 attacks of 2001.
With Europe already on a high state of alert after the Madrid bombings, British police pounced in 24 separate raids, seizing more than half-a-tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, which is prime bomb-making material.
The eight suspects were believed to be Muslims of Pakistani origin, police sources said.
There was enough explosive material to launch an attack as big as the devastating IRA bomb that hit London’s financial district in 1996 and killed two people. The fertiliser was similar to that used in the 2002 Bali bombings — but there was no clue about possible targets.
Britain, Washington’s closest ally in the “war on terror” and in toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, has long feared it could be a prime target for Islamic extremists. London’s police chief has repeatedly said he believes an attack is inevitable. Britain has been on high alert since the September 11 suicide plane attacks on New York and Washington.
Peter Clarke, head of Britain’s anti-terror branch, said the fertiliser was discovered in a two-metre high plastic bag in a west London warehouse.
“Part of the investigation will focus on the purchase, storage and intended use of that material,” Clarke said. But he did stress the operation was not linked to investigations into the co-ordinated train bombings in Madrid on March 11, which killed nearly 200 people, or to Irish extremists.
Clarke said the eight men, all British and aged between 17 and 32, were arrested on suspicion of preparing to carry out acts of terrorism. The coordinated dawn raids were carried out by 700 officers from five police forces and the security services.
“It was the biggest counter-terrorism raid in recent years,” one police source said.
Some were arrested near London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports but there was no evidence to suggest either was a target. Local residents were not entirely surprised.
“I could see how a terrorist would choose a place like this,” said Sam Cocking, 31, who rents a unit in the large self-storage warehouse in Hanwell, just a few miles from Heathrow, where the ammonium nitrate was found.
“People can just come and go as they please.”
Ammonium nitrate would normally be used in large-scale bomb attacks on buildings rather than by suicide bombers, according to Alex Standish, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest.
“You may have had a series of truck bombings on the agenda, but certainly that is not suicide bomber material,” he said.
Around 500 people have been held in Britain under its sweeping anti-terror laws since September 11, 2001, with about 90 charged with terrorism-related offences.
Manila attack foiled
The Philippines said today it had foiled a “Madrid-level” terror attack on shops and trains in the capital Manila by arresting four suspected Islamic militants and seizing a large amount of explosives.
The suspected plot by members of the Abu Sayyaf group comes as campaigning heats up ahead of May 10 national elections in which President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a firm ally in the US-led war on terror, is seeking a new term. “We have pre-empted a Madrid-level attack on the metropolis by capturing an explosive cache of 36 kg of TNT which was intended to be used for bombing malls and trains in Metro Manila,” Arroyo said.
Officials said the four suspected militants, including several involved in high-profile kidnappings of foreigners by the Abu Sayyaf, had been arrested in raids in Manila last weekend and yesterday.