British police arrest al-Qaida suspect

Agents foiled terrorist plot, home secretary suggests

November 28, 2003|By Sebastian Rotella and Janet Stobart | Sebastian Rotella and Janet Stobart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - British police arrested a suspected al-Qaida operative and searched his home and a mosque for explosives yesterday in raids that were carried out as counterterrorism forces in much of Europe were on heightened alert.

Britain's top law enforcement official described the arrest of the 24-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent in the western city of Gloucester as "significant." Home Secretary David Blunkett indicated that intelligence agents might have broken up a terrorist plot in Britain a week after suicide bombings of British targets in Turkey.

"It is the belief of the security [services] that this man has connections with the network of al-Qaida groups," Blunkett said. "We would not have taken these steps if we did not believe that this individual posed a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country. ... There has been an evacuation of a nearby mosque. There is a concern that this individual had in his possession explosives."

Deploying at dawn, police cordoned off three streets and evacuated 119 homes in a mostly Asian immigrant area of central Gloucester, authorities said. Investigators also searched a mosque and an Islamic college connected to the suspect in nearby Blackburn during the operation by local police, Scotland Yard and the MI5 domestic intelligence agency.

Police will conduct forensic tests on items confiscated during the raids, officials said, and are examining possible links between the suspect and Richard C. Reid, the British al-Qaida terrorist convicted in the United States of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosive-packed gym shoes.

Police were investigating whether the suspect arrested yesterday tried to rig a similar explosive device into shoes, a British official said.

The Gloucester suspect and another man arrested in Manchester yesterday were held "on suspicion of involvement in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism," according to Scotland Yard.

British police did not identify the suspect arrested in Gloucester, who according to a British Broadcasting Corp. television report was a longtime resident of the city.

Britain has been on high alert since last week's bombings of the British Consulate and HSBC bank office in Istanbul, which came five days after double suicide bombings of synagogues in that city.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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