Police and security officials believe they have smashed a plot by home-grown terrorists to kill hundreds in an Al Qaeda-inspired attack on Britain.
One of 14 homes raided by officers yesterday belongs to a convicted terrorist involved in a conspiracy to capture and behead a British soldier.
Acting on intelligence from MI5, counter-terrorism police in Birmingham arrested six men and a woman, who were all born in Britain and hold UK passports.
They are suspected of being in the latter stages of planning an atrocity, though a precise target had yet to be chosen. Police say they swooped to protect public safety.
Whitehall sources say it is the biggest plot to have been disrupted by the security services this year. It comes only three months after officials downgraded the threat to the UK from severe to substantial.
Fourteen Birmingham addresses, including one business, were being searched yesterday.
They included a terraced property owned by Mohammed Irfan, 34, and Mohammed Rizwan, who preach at a mosque. Forensics officers were also seen yesterday searching a neighbouring home in the city’s deprived Ward End district.
Irfan was jailed for four years in February 2008 after admitting being part of plot to behead a Muslim soldier as warning to other Muslims about joining the British Army. He was released on licence in October 2009.
Those under arrest were said by neighbours to include a nursery nurse and two brothers. One of the addresses was an imposing five-bedroom detached home occupied by a taxi driver and his five sons. A neighbour said two of the sons had been seen firing an air rifle at a target in the garden on Sunday.
The arrests were carried out across the largely Asian inner-city neighbourhoods of Alum Rock, Sparkbrook, Ward End and Moseley, a suburb popular with students and young professionals.
Although the terror suspects were home-grown, sources said the plot had an ‘international dimension’.
West Midlands Police said six men–aged between 25 and 32–were arrested overnight on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism in the UK following a joint investigation by both police and MI5.
A 22-year-old-woman, named by neighbours as nursery nurse Salma Kabal, from Alum Rock, was said to have been arrested at 7am on suspicion of failing to disclose information contrary to the Terrorism Act 2000.
Neighbours in the terraced street yesterday said Kabal comes from a ‘moderate’ Pakistani family and is the eldest of five children.
Her mother is said to work as a school dinner lady, while her father is a former council worker.
She married two years ago but was said to have divorced her husband six months ago. One neighbour said: ‘He moved in with her and wore a long Islamic beard.
‘He didn’t seem to work, but was more extremist than his wife. I understand they split up because he wanted to take her to live in a madrassa in Karachi in Pakistan.’ The husband was believed to be Ashiq Ali, who was arrested with his brother Bahader, 28, who runs a gym.
The brothers are understood to have an English stepmother, who converted to Islam before marrying their father, a taxi driver.
Neighbours said Kabal adopted the full Islamic niqab after marrying in a Islamic service carried out at her home. She is said to have cast off the full veil in recent weeks.
One witness reported seeing three men being arrested as they climbed into an old Volkswagen Passat in Sparkbrook. The car was later taken away for examination.
Police say the arrests were made by unarmed officers, indicating there was no expectation of finding explosives or weapons during the raids.
David Rose, 50, a marketing executive who lives next to the address raided in Moseley, said: ‘They took away the father’s black cab and three or four other cars owned by the sons. The police also found a lot of religious paraphernalia–a loud hailer, Islamic leaflets and other stuff.’
The arrests were not related to the Liberal Democrat conference, which is taking place at the city’s International Convention Centre.
Why the terrorism threat to the UK remains high
The alleged Birmingham plot is considered ‘the biggest in numbers and scale’ since the end of 2010, according to officials in the security services.
Back then, nine suspects were charged with plotting a Christmas bomb blitz on London landmarks. All nine are still awaiting trial.
There have been other arrests since, but nothing to rival dawn raids in Birmingham, leading to six men and one woman being taken in custody on suspicion of plotting a mass casualty attack.
The case is a reminder that–while Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism has not been making headlines this year–the threat to the UK remains grave.
There are a number of reasons why people may have felt less at risk in recent months.
Chief among them is the killing of Osama bin Laden and the deaths of other senior Al Qaeda figures in the lawless borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This has led officials in Washington to speak of the much reduced threat posed by the organisation.
However, long before the killing of its leader, Al Qaeda was acting as an inspiration for would-be fanatics in Britain, rather than playing an operational or planning role in attacks.
Terrorists are no longer necessarily imported from overseas, but radicalised in the UK over the internet. All those arrested yesterday hold British passports.
There was also a reduction in the published UK terror threat level in July, moving it down from severe to substantial .
Severe means the risk of a terrorist attack is considered to be a strong possibility and ‘might well occur without further warning’.
The substantial level–which officials do not intend to change after yesterday’s arrests–means an attack is a strong possibility.
Security sources say the lower threat does not mean there has been a reduction in terrorist activity, but rather that plots are being detected and disrupted earlier.
The workload–the number of potential terrorists who are being monitored–is as great as at any time in the past five or six years, officials say.
With the Olympics on the horizon–considered the biggest peace-time security challenge this country has faced–it is likely to get worse before it gets better.