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U.K.: Raids Net 23 Terror Suspects As Citizens Endure Life Under High Alert

  • Jan Jun

British police have arrested 23 terrorist suspects over the past week. One of them is a British man suspected of links to convicted "shoe bomber" Richard Reid who appeared in court in London today to face explosives and conspiracy charges. Meanwhile, Britain remains on the second-highest alert against possible terrorist attacks.

London, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A British man suspected of conspiring with Richard Reid, the Al-Qaeda follower who tried to detonate shoe bombs aboard a U.S. airliner two years ago, appeared in a London court today on explosives and conspiracy offenses.

Twenty-four-year-old Sajid Badat is one of 23 terrorist suspects arrested across the country within the past week. On 2 December alone, four British nationals of Pakistani origin were arrested at six homes and three businesses in London. In addition, four men and two women -- reportedly of North African origin -- were arrested in separate police raids on two addresses in Cambridge. In yet another police operation, four men were arrested in three other British towns.

Most of the suspects are being held under the Terrorist Act 2000 -- on suspicion of "preparing, planning or instigating a terrorist attack." The remainder were arrested on suspicion of trying to raise cash for terrorist activities by fraud.

The arrests come as the British public endures life under the country's second-highest terrorist alert, as well as continuous warnings by police and politicians that a terrorist attack on London is inevitable.

Paul Wilkinson is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

"It is clear there is a very high level of threat at the moment, and I think it's realistic to recognize that. And I think the well-informed members of the public understand that. After all, al-Qaeda has specifically mentioned Britain in its list of countries that it's threatened on numerous occasions. We know that al-Qaeda was linked to the attacks in Turkey. They would clearly like to do an attack in U.K. homeland territory," Wilkinson said.

"The Independent" newspaper, quoting intelligence sources, says the possibility exists that so-called "sleeper cells" have been activated that could strike in suicide attacks against "high propaganda" targets in Britain, such as parliament.

The police sweep followed the arrests of nine other terrorist suspects over the past week in Britain. Those included a group of six arrested in the southern coastal town of Eastbourne. Algerian Noureddine Mouleff appeared in court yesterday, charged with "possession of items linked to the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism." The other five are still being questioned.

Wilkinson says he is not surprised that so many of the suspects arrested in the recent raids are British-born. "This home-grown phenomenon," he says, "seems to have been noticed in some other European countries with large Muslim minorities, too."

He adds that among any large and overwhelmingly peaceful population, there are always small, malicious groups "bent on hatred."

As for foiling any attacks planned for the U.K., he says there have already been some successes.

"The police and the intelligence service have actually thwarted attacks, and they said as much in a recent statement that attacks have been thwarted in the London area. So it would not really be surprising to find that there were still people at large. And that, I think, is an explanation why there is such a high level of activity. The police are taking it very seriously. The intelligence community, I am sure, are taking it very seriously," Wilkinson said.

But Britons are tiring of the constant state of alert, which observers say may be one reason Prime Minister Tony Blair chose to tone down his latest appeal for "permanent vigilance" at his regular press briefing this week. He stressed instead that "we should remain vigilant but calm in the face of terrorism."

London Mayor Ken Livingstone also seemed to try to minimize the threat in comments directed at Londoners this week. He said Britons have a "fairly realistic view of life's risks and make reasonable calculations."

"We know that in this city, you're much more likely to be killed crossing the road than you'll ever be by a terrorist," Livingstone said.

Meanwhile, as "The Guardian" newspaper notes today, "efforts to prevent terrorist atrocities in the run-up to Christmas" have intensified. Armed police with machine guns began patrolling the center of the city of Birmingham, having been authorized to conduct road checks and car searches.

This comes following a warning by the head of London's Metropolitan Police, John Stevens, that the arrests will go on. "We are arresting people continuously," he said. "It is part of this massive effort we have been having since 11 September -- and it will continue."