Tuesday, March 30th, 2004
George Wright, guardian.co.uk
Tuesday March 30, 2004
Police today seized half a tonne of potentially explosive material and arrested eight men in a major anti-terrorist operation.
Scotland Yard said that ammonium nitrate – a widely available fertiliser that can be used to create powerful explosive devices – had been found at a self-storage facility in Hanwell, west London, in one of 24 raids on addresses across London and the south-east.
The 6am raids, which were conducted by more than 700 officers from the Metropolitan police and four other forces under the Terrorism Act 2000, were described as “a first class police and security operation” by the home secretary, David Blunkett.
Some of the addresses searched today were close to major airports that could be key potential terrorist targets. Hanwell, Uxbridge and Slough, in west London, are within 12 miles of Heathrow. Crawley and Horley, in west Sussex, are less than five miles from Gatwick.
Raids were also carried out in Bedfordshire, the Thames Valley, and Redbridge, in east London.
The Scotland Yard deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke, the national coordinator for terrorism, said that eight men had been detained for questioning by anti-terrorist detectives. Two were arrested in Uxbridge, one in Ilford, east London, one in Slough, one in Horley, and three in Crawley.
The raids were understood to be targeting international terror suspects with links to Islamist groups.
Speaking at a press conference this morning, Mr Clarke said that the arrested men were British citizens, and were not linked to Irish republican terrorism or the recent bombings in Madrid. All were aged between 17 and 32, and were believed to be British Muslims of Pakistani descent.
In what appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt criticism from the Muslim community, which has complained of harassment in a wave of anti-terrorist crackdowns, Mr Clarke said: “We know that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community are law-abiding and completely reject all forms of violence.
“Today, at both local and national levels, we have been holding discussions with community leaders and other representatives to address any concerns they may have.”
Mr Clarke said that today’s operation was part of continuing investigations into international terrorism. “I must stress the threat from terrorism is very real, and the public must remain watchful and alert,” he added.
Ammonium nitrate has been used in several IRA attacks, the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing in New York, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and the Bali bombing in 2002.
The huge bomb found outside the US embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, earlier this month also contained the chemical, according to some reports.
Professor Paul Wilkinson, the chairman of St Andrews University’s centre for the study of terrorism and political violence, said that ammonium nitrate fertiliser was cheap, very easy for terrorists to acquire, and extremely destructive.
“It’s a very useful material for making bombs. The IRA used it extensively,” he said.
“It’s a fertiliser which can be very easily purchased as it’s not prohibited in any way. When combined with diesel oil, and perhaps boosted by semtex, it would make a very destructive bomb.”
Prof Wilkinson said that the fertiliser would be available at any agricultural merchants, but added that anyone buying it on a major scale would be noticed.
Arms expert Mike Yardley said that half a tonne would be enough to create an explosion on the scale of the Oklahoma bomb.
The latest anti-terror raids come after the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, warned that an attack on the UK by al-Qaida or an associated Islamist terror group was inevitable.
Mr Blunkett, who at the weekend rebuked Sir John for making people “jumpy”, today said: “While it is for the appropriate authorities to decide what action is taken against those individuals arrested today, the fact that such action was felt necessary is a timely reminder that the UK and its interests abroad remain a target.
“We have always been clear with the people in the UK that we face a real and serious threat, and have never disguised the fact that this threat could manifest itself in any number of ways.
“The protection and safety of the public is the first duty of government, and today we can be thankful for a first-class police and security operation.
“The government remains determined to provide the laws, money and resources needed to combat terrorism.”
Today’s operation was the latest in a series of raids carried out by anti-terror police since the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Hundreds of suspects, including many of North African or Middle Eastern origin, have been arrested, but most have been released without charge.
In one of the most controversial operations, seven people were detained after 150 police stormed the Finsbury Park mosque, in north London, in January 2003.
In December, hundreds of mosques launched a protest campaign against the treatment of British Muslims arrested as part of the “war on terror”.
The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a UK-based civil liberties campaign group, pointed out that, of 500 arrests between September 11 2001 and December 2003, only 77 resulted in charges, and only two in convictions.
“That leaves 400-odd British Muslims who, through no fault of their own, have had their lives ruined with loss of jobs and local harassment,” a spokesman said.