Terror plot suspects bugged by MI5 'sneak and peak' teams
Note: The same sneek and peak teams bugged the London Bombers, this was unkown to police. Why didn't they remove explosive compounds and replace them with inert material in that case? Was the latest plot supposed to be allowed to happen but aborted at the last minute?
MI5 agents secretly infiltrated a bomb factory and found liquid explosives and detonators weeks before they foiled the plot to blow up America-bound passenger jets flying from British airports.
The covert raids on homes of key terror suspects were also used to plant bugs and gather hours of crucial evidence against them.
The carefully planned 'sneak and peek' operation involved members of the SAS and other surveillance specialists. It allowed the Security Service to eavesdrop on the suspected terrorists in the weeks before they were arrested.
The high-risk strategy which allowed the terror plot to almost reach fruition - potentially putting civilian lives at risk - is understood to have been discussed with the Prime Minister and by the Government's crisis management Cobra committee.
A Whitehall source said this was just one of a dozen terror plots being investigated by M15. But the audacious surveillance exercise - approved by the Home Secretary - allowed MI5 surveillance teams to build up a detailed picture of the group's planning, contacts and, crucially, when they intended to strike.
Hours of tape recordings, photographs and video are now likely to be used as evidence against the men if they are charged for their part in the alleged plot.
Tiny eavesdropping devices picked up conversations involving various members of the suspected terrorist gang as they put the finishing touches to their plans to blow up a series of commercial flights over the Atlantic.
During months of careful work, the specialists are understood to have managed to get inside the gang's bomb-making factory - giving final confirmation that the plotters were indeed planning mass murder.
In earlier, unrelated, anti-terrorist operations, MI5 specialists had managed to remove explosive compounds from one terror cell and replace it with inert material.
But in this case MI5 chiefs decided this was not an option - making it even more critical that the plotters were watched 24 hours a day.
Intelligence sources last night indicated that some of the bomb-making chemicals and equipment being used by the gang had been seen 'in situ' but could not be removed or replaced without raising suspicion.
The operation is thought to have drawn on the expertise of a special unit providing specialist surveillance techniques which were first used against the IRA.
The unit was set up two years ago to operate against Islamic terrorists around the world as well as to counter the terrorism threat in Britain itself.
Much of the core of the unit is made up of undercover surveillance operators who honed their skills fighting terrorists in Northern Ireland.
There, among other covert operations, they were involved in the bugging of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, during the 1998 Good Friday peace negotiations.
Last night, Whitehall security sources confirmed MI5 had deployed 'every resource at its disposal' during the long investigation.
"Everything that could have been done was done to try to identify the precise nature of the threat we faced," said a source.
He added: "MI5 received large amounts of intelligence about the nature of this plot and it deployed resources to fill the gaps in its knowledge to develop a complete picture."
The Security Service has a licence to 'bug and burgle' but only with the approval of the Home Secretary in order that any evidence obtained can later be used in court.
Over several months, former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and, more recently, John Reid were given detailed updates on the progress of the investigation to enable them to sign warrants for sophisticated intrusive surveillance against the terrorists.
As MI5 reveals on its website: "The Services does use intrusive investigative methods, such as eavesdropping in a target's home or vehicle.
"However, our use of such methods is subject to a strict control and oversight regime.
"To install an eavesdropping device in a target's home we need to apply to the Secretary of State for a warrant under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to authorise the intrusion on the privacy of the target."
It adds: "In most cases we must also apply for a 'property warrant' under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 to authorise any interference with the target's property necessary to install the device covertly.
"As with interception, we must convince the Secretary of State that what we are proposing to do is both necessary and proportionate."
Strict application of the rules is crucial as evidence obtained using bugging devices planted in suspects homes can be used as evidence in court and is likely to be the key to the prosecution's case against these men.
A senior Whitehall security source warned last night that the public should not be complacent despite MI5's recent success.
He said: "Until six weeks ago this plot was one of a dozen being prioritised by MI5. Intelligence received pushed this plot to the top of the list but the other dozen plots remain and are still being investigated. These are very worrying times."
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