Sweeping up terror.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Aug. 5 2004 12:50 PM

Sweeping Up Terror

No color-coded alerts, but Britain raids top terrorism suspects.

British newspapers are filled with details of this week's dramatic raids on suspected al-Qaida agents and collaborators across England. Scotland Yard scooped up 13 men on Tuesday and continued to hold 12 of them, most of South Asian origin, through Wednesday night. Reports from Pakistan now indicate that among those captured is a top al-Qaida figure who goes by various aliases, including Abu Moussa al-Hindi, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, and his codename, Bilal. The Evening Standard tagged Bilal as the "Al Qaeda UK linchpin" and said he was undergoing interrogation by MI5, the U.K. security service.

While the details remain murky, a picture is starting to emerge of a network of al-Qaida operatives, with a nexus in Pakistan, preparing to strike U.S. and British targets. Police sources told the Standard that the arrests in England foiled what appear to be multiple plots to bomb Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, or Birmingham airports. "We're certain there was a conspiracy to carry out a mass attack on airports and made a calculated decision to stop the plot going further," said an unnamed anti-terrorist squad source. (On Thursday, official sources still would not go on the record confirming Bilal was among those arrested.)

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While the Standard writes of a planned attack later this month, and several broadcasters and papers described a plan in its "advanced stages" to attack Heathrow, other papers suggest there was no immediate threat. "UK security sources played down any claims that they had foiled an imminent bomb plot, which suggested the operation may have been aimed at disrupting a terrorist network rather than thwarting a specific attack," said the Guardian.

Regardless of how far the scheme had advanced, all indicators now point to Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old computer expert arrested in Pakistan last month, as a trove of intelligence about planned terror attacks in the United States and Britain. As the link between Bilal and higher-ranking al-Qaida figures, Khan allegedly used the Internet to pass on encrypted messages from the top—perhaps from Bin Laden himself—to al-Qaida agents around the globe. An anonymous source in Pakistani intelligence told Agence France-Presse that the tip-off leading to Bilal's arrest in Britain came from Pakistani investigators. It is unclear if Khan simply revealed Bilal's whereabouts to the Pakistanis, who then passed on the information to Britain, but such a scenario would fit in with the emerging portrait of Khan as a man who rats out his co-conspirators. Khan is said to have divulged information that led the Pakistanis to one of al-Qaida's most wanted men: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, also known as "Foopie" and "Ahmed the Tanzanian," was arrested on July 25 in eastern Gujarat—the day of John Kerry's speech before the Democratic convention in Boston.

Among the files on Khan's seized laptop were the diagrams of American financial institutions that recently stirred U.S. officials to declare an "Orange Alert" for New York, Washington, D.C., and part of New Jersey. It has now emerged that Khan's laptop also contained pictures of Heathrow and underpasses beneath unnamed buildings in London.

The papers offer conflicting accounts of Khan's importance within the al-Qaida hierarchy. The Independent describes Khan as a "relatively low-level al-Qa'ida operative," while the Evening Standard called him "the head of Osama bin Laden's secret communications network." According tothe Daily Telegraph, Khan is a "highly-educated" man whose "respectable credentials and fluent English enabled him to move in and out of Britain with ease."

Indeed, reports from Britain describe well-to-do neighborhoods disrupted by the raids, with residents shocked at the arrests of their neighbors. The Guardian published a detailed piece on the circumstances of the arrests. "They are a lovely family, I see them to say hello to. They have always been very pleasant," a neighbor of the Rehman family on Hertfordshire's Little Bushey Lane told the paper. (Omar Rehman, 21, the son of a wholesale fishmonger, is among those now in custody.) The paper called the area a "stockbroker belt." Two other homes raided in Lancashire apparently belonged to two businessmen who bought and sold Ferraris and Lamborghinis. "They are Asian businessmen, that's all. I chill with them, I socialise with them. They would not have anything to do with terrorism or anything like that," said a neighbor.

This raid was unlike other anti-terror sweeps, writes the Telegraph, in that it took place in broad daylight. "Two seized in Blackburn were arrested at the end of a car chase through busy suburban streets. Planned operations normally take place in the early hours at the suspect's home to avoid any risk to the public, suggesting that police had to move earlier than intended." The Telegraph piece runs along side a photo of a whitewashed suburban house in Hertfordshire—the Rehman family home.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.