Monday, May 02, 2005

UK Police step up security against al-Qa'eda election day attack

By David Bamber and Andrew Alderson
Police are to launch the biggest security operation ever for a British election in an attempt to prevent Islamic extremists from undertaking a terrorist attack this week.

Senior officers are convinced that Osama bin Laden and groups linked to al-Qa'eda are still trying to launch a "spectacular" terrorist attack to destabilise the country in the run-up to the poll on Thursday, despite 100 arrests over the past year.

MI5, the security service, and Scotland Yard believe that the Houses of Parliament, polling stations and senior politicians casting their votes in their constituencies are the biggest targets for terrorists.

Security analysts also believe that Islamic terrorists have been scouting railway lines in an attempt to conduct bombing attacks similar to those in Spain last year, atrocities that are widely believed to have influenced the election result. Terrorists left 190 dead and 1,800 injured when they detonated 10 bombs in Madrid during the morning rush hour.

The leaders of the three main parties and senior Labour politicians, including John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will receive armed guards this week and protection officers' leave has been postponed.

Hundreds of extra security measures are being brought in up and down the country in an attempt to prevent terrorism. For example, a London taxi company which has the contract to drive pundits and guests to and from BBC Television Centre in West London has agreed a signal with the corporation's security staff which they will give if they are being held at gunpoint or if anything else is wrong.

There will be sweeps for explosives and extra closed circuit television at schools, church halls and other buildings which are being used as temporary polling stations. Advice on minimising the threat has been drawn up by the National Security Advice Centre, an MI5 unit set up last April to examine ways to protect key buildings from attack.

Terrorists suspects arrested by Scotland Yard and other police forces during the past year have claimed that al-Qa'eda is planning a terror campaign. Detectives are convinced that they have disrupted the threat, but they fear that operatives are still at large. A senior detective in the Metropolitan Police said: "We hope and pray that we have disrupted the plot and that nothing will occur.

"There is no doubt that al-Qa'eda were planning a major atrocity to link in with the general election, but we have, hopefully, arrested so many of them that it will now not take place.

"However, we must warn everyone to stay on a heightened sense of awareness over the next week, as it would be a great coup for al-Qa'eda to strike now. There are undoubtedly still dangerous men at large in Britain."

Scotland Yard suspects that al-Qa'eda has long intended to carry out an outrage shortly before election day, possibly a poisoning campaign which would make the public fearful to venture out to vote.

The Telegraph revealed two weeks ago that al-Qa'eda-trained operatives planned a poison attack on the busy Heathrow Express rail link between the airport and Paddington in West London that would have been "our September 11".

A plot to bring death and terror to the country was disclosed after Kamel Bourgass, 32, an Islamic extremist from Algeria, was convicted at the Old Bailey and jailed for 17 years.

Senior Whitehall officials said that Bourgass and his associates intended to put ricin, a poison, on hand rails and in lavatories on the trains.

Operatives linked to the convicted terrorist are still thought to be at large in Britain. Many are - like Bourgass - thought to be failed asylum seekers who have been allowed to disappear into the community.

One senior security official said: "We know that they are out there and it is just a matter of time before something occurs. The eyes of the world will be on Britain next week so it is a frightening time."
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