Terror arrest sparks Heathrow attack fears

Last updated at 10:45 05 August 2004

A senior Al Qaeda agent planning an attack on Heathrow Airport was reportedly among twelve men arrested in anti-terror raids across England.

The man was detained as a result of intelligence gathered after a recent raid in Pakistan, according to media reports.

The Al Qaeda figure was said to be in the advanced planning stages for an attack on Heathrow.

Last month's raid in Pakistan led to the arrest of 25-year-old computer expert Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan and the seizure of his computer files. The files included what appeared to be plans to attack targets in Britain and the United States.

Pakistani intelligence officials told CNN that Khan revealed to them the existence of a terror network in Britain.

He told them he often relayed messages from Pakistan to the leader of the British cell, who was a top Al Qaeda agent who went by the codename Bilal.

The officials reportedly said the intelligence led to the arrests across England on Tuesday, and that the alleged senior British Al Qaeda figure was among those detained.

Car bomb fears

The plans to attack Heathrow were drawn up within the last year and have been updated during that time, it was reported.

The precise details of the attack plans were were not divulged, neither was any time frame given.

Among the fears were that a terminal could be attacked with a car or truck bomb, or that terrorists could use a shoulder-launched missile to shoot down an aircraft.

Commenting on the Heathrow terror alert today, Virgin Atlantic Airways chairman Sir Richard Branson said: "British airports have had to contend with the IRA and the threat of terrorism for 30 years and therefore British airports have been well ahead of every other airport in the

world save, perhaps, Tel Aviv.

"Security has been even tighter since September 11 and I think passengers should feel comfortable in UK airports."

Evaluated targets

The same Pakistani sources told CNN that Khan's father worked for Pakistan's state run airline and had obtained five tickets in his son's name for travel between Pakistan and London over the past four to five years.

Khan was said to have used some trips abroad to evaluate targets, including some of the most famous buildings in New York and Washington.

Key financial centres in those two cities are currently on high "orange alert" following the discovery of the information on Khan's computer.

Rocket attack

In November 2002 Al Qaeda launched a rocket at an Israeli passenger airliner as it took off from Kenya.

The missile missed, but 10 Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in a simultaneous Al Qaeda car bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa.

Heathrow has been at the centre of numerous security scares in past years.

It was always considered a prime target for the IRA, which launched mortars over the perimeter fence in March 1994. They did not explode.

More dramatically, tanks and troops were sent in to protect the airport in March last year amid fears that it was being targeted by Al Qaeda.

Time limit on questioning

Police are continuing to question the 12 men, who are all thought to be of Asian origin, at Paddington Green Police Station in London.

The men, aged between 19 and 32, were seized when armed officers swooped in north-west London, Bushey in Hertfordshire, Luton, Bedfordshire, and Blackburn, Lancashire.

The men were held on suspicion of being concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.

Police have until tonight to question the men before they have to apply to magistrates for an extension to the detention period of up to two weeks.

The men were being questioned by officers from the Metropolitan Police's Anti-Terrorist Branch.

A 13th man, also detained on Tuesday in Willesden, north London, has since been de-arrested and released with no further action.

Officers are continuing to search premises in London, Luton, Blackburn and Bushey.


Islamic community leaders warned that the Muslim community felt increasingly persecuted.

Inayet Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Great Britain, said: "This is the latest in a series of high-profile raids since 9/11 where a large group of mainly young Muslim men are arrested amongst massive nationwide publicity.

"More than 500 people have been arrested and yet

less than 100 have been charged.

"There is now a growing bitterness in the Muslim community. It seems the vast majority of these people are arrested amid very high publicity and yet when they are released it does not attract the same publicity."

According to the Home Office yesterday, by the end of June this year 609 people had been arrested under the Terrorism Act since September 11, 2001, but just 99 had been charged with offences and 15 convicted.

In April this year 10 people were arrested in a series of anti-terror raids in an operation led by Greater Manchester Police.

They were all subsequently released without charge.