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Britain survives triple terror, still terrified

Britain has never before experienced such a nationwide, all-encompassing fear of terrorist attacks, not even after 7/7, writes Vijay Dutt.

world Updated: Jul 07, 2007 05:01 IST
Vijay Dutt

Britain has never before experienced such a nationwide, all-encompassing fear of terrorist attacks, not even after 7/7. The alert level going up in the last few days to ‘critical’ — meaning terror could strike any time, any place — symbolised the apprehension of Baghdad-style car bombings. An unprecedented security net was thrown across the United Kingdom, as for the first time, terror crossed the northern border and struck Glasgow airport.

The nightmarish journey began when Dr Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed — it is not yet known if he is a medical doctor — took two Mercedes laden with petrol cans, propane cylinders and six-inch nails and left one outside the Tiger, Tiger nightclub in London’s upmarket Haymarket and the other on Cockspur Street. It is suspected the cars were kept “somewhere” in Scotland, driven to Birmingham and then on to London.

Their murderous intent failed. Ironically, a man at the nightclub had a drink too many and hurt his head, and the the paramedics were called. A policeman accompanying the ambulance spotted smoke coming out of the car and on inspection noticed a detonator. He fearlessly immobilised it and is up for a bravery award. The other car was towed away to a car pound, where attendants found the explosive device and called in the bomb squad.

But it has now emerged that the two explosives would could never have exploded, thanks to a £5 safety valve on the propane gas cylinders. Experts said that in Britain, all such cylinders are fitted with safety valves, of which most people are unaware. Calor Gas UK bosses said the valves, fitted to every canister in the UK but not standard worldwide, had prevented a major disaster.

However, to Bilal and Kaleef’s misfortune, the two cars proved a treasure trove of clues — from forensics and DNA to mobile phone records — for investigators. In fact, never before had officials got such an abundance of clues.

Meanwhile, the two men went back to Glasgow to unleash terror at the airport, to make up for their failures. With the police hot on their heels, they decided to turn suicide bombers. They drove a Cherokee jeep, half ablaze and laden with the petrol-propane cocktail, and tried to ram it into the main lounge of Terminal One. When that attempt too was thwarted, Bilal — the driver — got down, doused himself with petrol and lunged forward holding what looked like a petrol bomb. He was overpowered by an off-duty police officer. Kafeel too was subdued but by then had suffered 90 per cent burn injuries.

With the jeep and Bilal’s home in Houston providing more clues, the probe gathered momentum. The call records led investigators to Liverpool, where Dr Sabeel Ahmed, Kafeel’s brother, was arrested. Two more associates of Bilal, Dr Mohammed Asha and his wife, were arrested in Cheshire. Two un-named doctors were picked up from the hospital where Bilal worked.

The inquiry then moved to Brisbane, Australia, where Dr Mohammad Haneef, Kafeel and Sabeel’s cousin, was detained. Haneef was trying to flee to India. It is learnt that MI5 and Scotland Yard are in touch with the Indian police and the Prime Minister's Office is monitoring the case. The Australian police are analysing 18,000 files on Haneef's laptop and have seized more material.

Back in the UK, the focus is on Cambridge where Bilal, Asha, Sabeel and Kaleef met and reportedly became close. It has emerged that Bilal was the radical one and presumably induced the other three to join his mission. Several Muslim groups have launched a campaign to declare that terrorism is “not in our name”, an echo of the slogan used by protesters against the invasion of Iraq. The alert level has now been lowered to ‘severe’ but with the MI5 tracking 1,600 “shady characters”, there is still fear that one of them might get lucky a fourth time.