Suspects led `fish
and chip' lives
London—A pizza delivery guy, a security guard, a university student, an odd-jobs construction worker and a part-time electronics salesman are among the young British men suspected of plotting to blow up passenger jets headed to the United States.
The profile emerging of the alleged homegrown terrorists arrested by police in raids late Wednesday night and Thursday morning is of ordinary working-class people, most with jobs and close family ties.
Neighbours in the three communities where a total of 22 men and two women were taken into custody talk about normal, soccer-loving young men, most the sons of Pakistani immigrants who grew up eating fish and chips and watching British sitcoms in typical suburban townhouses.
Meanwhile, as investigators on three continents worked to flesh out details of the plot, Pakistani officials reported they had arrested as many as 17 more suspected conspirators in recent days. One of those, a British national named Rashid Rauf, is believed to have been the operational planner and to have connections with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials told Associated Press.
At least three of those arrested in Britain are converts to Islam, one just within the last six or seven months, and another one is a security guard at Heathrow airport, the scene of passenger chaos on Thursday as hundreds of flights were cancelled as authorities came to grips with drastic new security measures aimed at keeping planes safe in the air.
No details have been released about the two women arrested, one of whom is reported to be pregnant while the other is the mother of an infant. Both are believed to be the wives of two of the accused men. Those arrested range in age from 17 to 35.
One of the arrested men, Waheed Zaman, 23, is a well-known Muslim representative on the student council at London's Metropolitan University, where he studies biochemistry.
His sister, who was with him in the family's east London house when police arrived to arrest her brother, told Britain's Sun newspaper he is a mainstream Muslim who is a proud Briton.
"He loves fish and chips and Liverpool football club," she said, adding that he is a "great believer in the importance of integration between our community and the Western world."
But for the better part of a year, police here have been shadowing the suspects as they went about their seemingly normal "fish and chip" lives, tracking their cellphone conversations, email and Internet access, bank accounts and even using GPS tracking devices on at least 12 cars belonging to suspects.
Details of how police managed to break up an alleged suicidal plan to detonate disguised liquid explosives aboard as many as 10 planes bound from Britain to the U.S. continued to emerge yesterday — although British authorities remain reluctant to disclose too much information, sensitive to the justice system still to be navigated once the terror suspects are formally charged.
Media reports in Britain suggested the investigation into the bomb plot goes back almost a year after a tip-off from an informant in east London's Muslim community that led police to begin monitoring Internet traffic among several men. At least three of those men were already on the police radar, suspected of extremist tendencies.
What has yet to emerge is how the various suspects might be connected to one another. While more than half of those arrested come from the same east London suburb, there is no obvious connection between them and the group of four arrested in the north London suburb of High Wycombe or the two arrested in Birmingham.
Yesterday, police seized hard drives from Internet cafes in Reading and east London as they continued to gather vast amounts of evidence. The record of financial transactions, along with phone and computer records, could help investigators trace more people involved.
In recent months, police here have confirmed they believe there are as many as 1,000 Muslims living in Britain who sympathize with suicide bombings against western targets and who could be persuaded to join jihadist groups. In December, the probe intensified as Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 called in the anti-terrorist branch of Scotland Yard to help.
The Guardian newspaper reported police decided to end their surveillance operation and launch the raids Wednesday night after a "go" message was forwarded to one of the alleged terrorists by an accomplice in Pakistan. The coded message, which the Guardian said was deciphered by the spy agency, followed the transfer of large amounts of money to the suspects — money investigators believe was to be used to buy airline tickets for would-be bombers.
Other media reports suggest police intercepted plans for a "dry run" to be carried out yesterday whereby the bombers would have carried the ingredients for liquid bombs through airport security to test whether their false-bottomed energy drink and pop bottles raised suspicion. The Times newspaper said police felt they could not risk letting the bombers take another step closer to endangering planes and launched their simultaneous raids.
London's Evening Standard reported the plotters apparently chose next Wednesday as a target date, since they had tickets for a United Airlines flight that day. There were signs preparations stepped up recently. One of the houses raided by British police this week had been bought last month by two men in an all-cash deal, in a neighbourhood of $300,000 houses, neighbours said.
Early yesterday, the Bank of England website posted the names of 19 of the men in custody and stated their assets had been frozen by order of the government. The move came as the police followed the routine practice of not formally naming the suspects until they are officially charged. One of the 24 detainees was freed later yesterday, but Scotland Yard didn't identify that person.
Pakistani officials, meanwhile, said British information led to the first arrests in Pakistan about a week ago, of two British nationals, including Rauf, called a "key person" by the Pakistani foreign ministry.
Elsewhere, police in Italy raided Internet cafes, money-transfer offices and long-distance phone call centres catering to Muslims and arrested 40 people in a crackdown linked to Britain's announcement it had foiled the plot, authorities said.
On the streets of the east London neighbourhood of Walthamstow yesterday, young Muslim men gathered to denounce the arrests and voice skepticism that their neighbours might be capable of what police describe as "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
"They've got the wrong guys. I know they have," said Amir Gull, who said he works nearby. "I know these people and I know that they are peaceful people. They would not do this."
Others rallied around to point out that just two months ago, police raided a nearby house and arrested two brothers as terrorist suspects, accidentally shooting one of them in the shoulder. A week later, both were released without charge and police confirmed they acted on false intelligence.
Almost all of the latest British suspects still lived with their immigrant parents in working-class communities and held various part- or full-time jobs while attending prayers at mosque regularly. Only one was attending university and almost all wore traditional Islamic dress.
Amin Asmin Tariq, 23, was the exception. The Heathrow Airport security guard dressed in western-style clothing and was not considered by friends or neighbours to be religious. He is married with a young child. Airport authorities said Tariq was not assigned to passenger screening.
Muslim convert Oliver Savant, 26, was recently married to a Muslim woman and runs a business with his brother, who told the Sun newspaper yesterday that Savant, who now goes by the first name Ibrahim, is a loyal Briton. It was believed Savant's pregnant wife is among the suspects being held by police.
In the upscale London suburb of High Wycombe, police evacuated homes and businesses around one raided business, where a string of garages in the back were cordoned off, leading to suspicion the property was being used as the bomb factory.
Police also arrested recent convert Don Stewart-Whyte, 21, as he arrived home with is wife. Stewart-Whyte, who changed his name to Abdul Waheed after his conversion early this year, is the half-brother of a former supermodel. His mother is a local high school teacher and his late father was a Conservative party worker.
At Britain's airports yesterday, flights were getting back to normal after a long day of confusion on Thursday that saw hundreds of flights cancelled. A spokesperson for BAA, which operates several major airports including London's Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, said about 70 per cent of domestic and short-haul flights would be taking off, but warned of continued delays.
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