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2004 British Raid Sounded Alert on Pakistani Militants

2004 British Raid Sounded Alert on Pakistani Militants

Author: Elaine Sciolino and Don Van Natta Jr.
Publication: The New York Times
Date: July 14, 2005

Scotland Yard called it Operation Crevice. In late March 2004, a force of 700 police officers arrested eight British-born ethnic Pakistanis in two dozen raids in southern Britain. They also seized 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which can be used in making bombs.

The operation - one of the largest British counterterrorism raids in years - was a terrifying alert for the British police: longtime ethnic Pakistani residents of Britain, most in their teens or early 20's, were accused of forming a sleeper cell that intended to stage an attack here.

For years, senior counterterrorism officials feared an attack by a home-grown terror cell on British soil. Just as worrying was the fact that the threat had come from a new source, British citizens with Pakistani roots. Until then, most of the terrorist plots on European soil had involved cells involving ethnic North Africans and other Arabs.

Now, the police say last Thursday's bombings, which killed 52 people, were carried out by a sleeper cell that included young British-born residents of Pakistani origin. And investigators are trying to determine if there is a connection between the four bombers and the men who were arrested in Operation Crevice, British and European investigators said.

That part of the investigation is at the earliest stages, and investigators caution that no link may be found. But they say they have found some clues that require further inquiry. One investigator said it was believed that at least one of the suicide bombers on Thursday had telephone contact with one of the men arrested in the 2004 plot.

In addition, the British police are focusing on a 25-year-old Briton named Zeeshan Siddique, who was arrested in Peshawar, Pakistan, in May on suspicion of links to terrorism. Two investigators said they were trying to determine if he had any connection to the men responsible for the London attacks or their associates.

Investigators say exploring these potential links is important as they try to understand the shape of the plot in Thursday's attacks and whether the terrorists had support from abroad.

"We have just begun to look at this, but it's possible some of these men knew the men arrested last year," a senior counterterrorism official said.

Operation Crevice and the London bombing inquiry underscore the challenges that investigators face in trying to uproot cells involving ethnic Pakistanis that have used Britain and other parts of Europe as a base.

At an emergency European Union meeting of interior and justice ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy of France told reporters that it seemed that "part of this team" involved in the London attacks had been "subject to partial arrest" in the spring of last year, apparently in Operation Crevice.

Charles Clarke, the British home secretary, angrily denied the claim, telling the British Sky Television: "It's completely and utterly untrue. I am absolutely staggered he should make that assertion."

A senior French law enforcement and intelligence official said Mohamed Sidique Khan, one of the dead suspects in the London bombings, was not arrested in the 2004 operation but appeared to have had contact with those who were.

"I can't tell you if he was part of the group, or close to the group, but he had contacts with it," the official said, adding that the contacts were "very likely by telephone."

Many of the suspects arrested in the 2004 operation have been freed, according to senior French and Belgian law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In Milan on Tuesday, the police visited the home of a man of Pakistani origin as the Italians searched for evidence to assist the London investigation. The man's phone was monitored last year after he was found to be in contact with a relative of one of those accused in Operation Crevice, but the Italian police judged the relationship to be innocent.

Operation Crevice shows only one example of how ethnic Pakistani cells have begun to work in Europe.

Last July, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old Pakistani computer technician and communications chief for Al Qaeda with ties to ethnic Pakistanis in Britain, was arrested secretly in Pakistan in a joint operation with Britain.

The Pakistani authorities said they had found a computerized archive of surveillance information on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, the Citigroup tower in Manhattan, the New York Stock Exchange and the Prudential Building in Newark.

That was followed last August by the arrest in Britain of several other ethnic Pakistanis allied with Mr. Khan who had been under surveillance. The police charged them and Mr. Khan with conspiracy to murder and violations of the Terrorism Act, as well as conspiring to use "radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals and explosives" to cause fear, panic and disruption against unspecified targets.

Spain has also begun to confront Pakistani-born radicals operating there since the terrorist train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.

One plot uncovered in September involved a cell of Pakistanis in Barcelona whom police and intelligence officials suspect of planning to destroy one or more landmark buildings in the city.

After 10 Pakistanis were arrested on suspicion of belonging to an Islamic radical support network, the Spanish police discovered a video showing details of a number of buildings in Barcelona, including the 40-story Mapfre Tower and the 44-story Hotel Arts, which are known as Spain's "twin towers," a senior Spanish intelligence official said.

The police also seized documents and videos calling for an Islamic holy war, several pounds of cocaine and more than $20,000 in cash.

In November, two more Pakistanis were arrested, and in April, 11 were indicted on charges of raising money and recruiting for terrorist cells in Pakistan loyal to Al Qaeda and of conspiring to commit terrorist acts in Spain.

According to the indictment, the suspected leader of the Barcelona cell, Muhammad Afzaal, a Pakistani, was assigned in early 2004 by top Qaeda leaders to create a cell in Spain as well as Norway or Denmark.

No direct link has been established between the Barcelona plot and the London bombings, a senior Spanish official said. But he added that there was every possibility some members of cell were still at large and that Spain and British were pooling their information on the London bombing investigation.

Stephen Grey contributed reporting from London for this article, Douglas Jehl from Washington and Renwick McLean from Madrid.

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