British arrest 9 in alleged plot

Suspects planned to kidnap, kill British Muslim soldier, officials say

February 01, 2007|By Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella | Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- British police arrested nine suspects yesterday in a possible Iraq-style plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier and broadcast his death on the Internet.

Authorities launched a series of raids at an Islamic bookshop, a small market and at least 10 other sites in several neighborhoods of the central English city of Birmingham, cordoning off streets and launching a huge search that was expected to last for several days.

The soldier believed to be the target of the plot has been identified and is in a safe location, authorities said.

"It was an attempt to kidnap a British Muslim soldier and behead him, film it and post it on some ghastly Internet site," a British security official said.

The Home Office, in a statement, confirmed the arrests but declined to give any other detail. "This operation is a reminder of the real and serious nature of the terrorist threat we face," the statement said.

Anti-terror services learned of the plan months ago, placed the suspects under surveillance and took steps to protect the intended victim, the security official said.

"It was very much something the authorities were aware of, and they informed the soldier," the official said.

The security operation caused chaos in parts of Birmingham. Blocked-off roads caused traffic jams, and onlookers gathered outside search locations in the Asian district of Alum Rock and several other quarters in the city.

If details of the case unfold as police believe they will, they would suggest that militants in Britain have moved from difficult-to-execute bombing plots to the low-tech option of kidnapping. Terrorism analysts said the plot as described by police sources appeared to be mirrored on the videotaped executions of kidnap victims in Iraq.

"It seems that this is importing some of the tactics used in Iraq to Britain, which has been predicted by some people, just because terrorists are always looking at new and innovative ways to get their message across," said Matthew Hunt, an analyst with Janusian Security Risk Management in London. "It's an intimidatory tactic that is a signal to the rest of the Muslim community - that if you actively support your country over your perceived Islamic identity, this won't be tolerated by certain radical elements of the community."

Britain has 1.5 million Muslims, but one police source said only about 300 Muslims are in the military. Britain is home to the largest population of Pakistani immigrants and large populations of immigrants from India and Africa, many of whom complain of anti-Muslim bias.

Extremist sentiment has been growing among younger, second-generation Muslims, with many expressing anger over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with Britain's failure to seek a halt to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon over the summer.

In a poll published by The Daily Telegraph last week, 40 percent of young Muslims said they would prefer to live under Islamic law in Britain. One in eight said they admired groups such as al-Qaida that are "prepared to fight the West."

"I don't doubt that there really is a risk of terrorism," said Moazzem Begg, a Birmingham resident who, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., was the founder and former owner of the Islamic bookshop that was raided yesterday. "I don't doubt that at all. But in the way people are being accused lock, stock and barrel, there is so much skepticism about that in the country."

Begg was arrested on suspicion of terrorism in 2000 and held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before being released without charge. He said many Muslims in Britain have been subjected to groundless arrests.

"They've been interviewing people all day long, and there isn't anybody who knows any of the people arrested who thinks they could have done this or thinks it's even feasible that eight people could have been planning six months to kidnap one person," he said. "For myself, I remain extremely skeptical until I see evidence."

That could take months, he said.

In August, at least two arrests were made in Birmingham in an alleged plot to bomb airliners using liquid explosives.

Police said the arrests were the work of beefed-up anti-terrorism forces put into place after the July 2005 London transport bombings. Realizing that law enforcement had been heavily centered on London, they moved to install MI5 operations in the Midlands area near Birmingham and other urban centers.

Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella write for the Los Angeles Times.

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