An al-Qaeda cell was days away from carrying out an “Easter spectacular” of co-ordinated suicide bomb attacks on shopping centres in Manchester, police believe.
Sources told The Daily Telegraph that the arrests of 12 men in the north west of England on Wednesday were linked to a suspected plan to launch a devastating attack this weekend.
Some of the suspects were watched by MI5 agents as they filmed themselves outside the Trafford Centre on the edge of Manchester, the Arndale Centre in the city centre, and the nearby St Ann’s Square.
Police were forced to round up the alleged plotters after they were overheard discussing dates, understood to include the Easter bank holiday, one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year.
“It could have been the next few days and they were talking about 10 days at the outside,” one source said. “We had to act.” Police are now engaged in a search for an alleged bomb factory, where explosives might have been assembled.
If such a plot was carried out, it would almost certainly have been Britain’s worst terrorist attack, with the potential to cause more deaths than the suicide attacks of July 7, 2005, when 52 people were murdered.
A plan to arrest the suspects in a series of co-ordinated raids yesterday morning had to be hastily brought forward to Wednesday afternoon after the country’s most senior anti-terrorism officer, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, of the Metropolitan Police, was photographed going into Downing Street carrying a briefing paper with top secret details of Operation Pathway in full view.
Yesterday morning, Mr Quick resigned after he was told by the Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, that he had lost her confidence and that of MI5.
As a result of his blunder, hundreds of police officers had to be scrambled to arrest the suspects, who were being monitored round the clock.
Former police chiefs pointed out that rounding up suspected suicide bombers in public places in Liverpool, Manchester and Clitheroe, Lancs, had put other people at risk and could also have compromised the operation.
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, described the alleged plot as “very big” and said investigators were looking at links with Pakistan.
Mr Brown said: “We know that there are links between terrorists in Britain and terrorists in Pakistan. That is an important issue for us to follow through and that’s why I will be talking to President Zardari about what Pakistan can do to help us in the future.”
All but one of the men arrested were Pakistani nationals who came to Britain on student visas. This suggested a possible new tactic by al-Qaeda, which had previously used British-based extremists who travelled to Pakistan for training.
The issue of student visas represents a potential security nightmare for the police and MI5. There are 330,000 foreign students in Britain and around 10,000 such visas are issued every year to Pakistanis alone.