LONDON, AP – Prominent British Muslims, including three in Parliament, said in an open letter Saturday that Britain’s foreign policy has made it a target for extremists. The country’s terror alert remained at the highest level, though flights at Heathrow Airport were expected to return to “nearly normal.”
The letter, printed in several British papers, said Britain’s intervention in Iraq and the failure to secure an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon were providing “ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.”
“We urge the prime minister … to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion,” said the letter, which was signed by three of four Muslim members of Parliament and 38 Muslim groups, including the influential Muslim Council of Britain. “Such a move would make us all safer.”
Stringent security measures remained in effect at British airports, and officials kept Britain’s terror alert at its highest level. The situation at Heathrow, Europe’s largest airport, was to return to “nearly normal” by the end of the day, said Damon Hunt, a spokesman for chief airport operator BAA.
Investigators on three continents worked to fill in the full, frightening picture of a suspected plot to blow U.S. jetliners out of the Atlantic skies, tracking the money trail and seizing more alleged conspirators in the teeming towns of eastern Pakistan.
One arrested there, a Briton named Rashid Rauf, appears to have been the operational planner and is believed to have connections to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials said.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have not yet approached Afghan authorities on a possible link with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, said Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmed Baheen.
“The source of terrorism is outside the country, and this means the international community and our neighbors, particularly Pakistan, should do more against terrorism,” Baheen said.
Suspects in the alleged plot “apparently” had some contacts with Germany, August Hanning, a deputy interior minister, was quoted as telling the Bild am Sonntag newspaper in an article to be printed Sunday. The report did not give details on the timing or nature of the suspected contacts.
British and Pakistani authorities have arrested as many as 41 people in the two countries in connection with the alleged suicide plan, broken up by British police this week, to detonate disguised liquid explosives aboard as many as 10 planes bound from Britain to the United States.
Police in Britain released one suspect without charge on Friday but won court permission to continue questioning 22 others until Wednesday. A hearing on the case of one other suspect is scheduled on Monday. British law permits terrorist suspects to be interrogated for up to 28 days without being charged.
New information underlined how close they were to mounting attacks.
After the first arrests in Pakistan some days ago, word went from Pakistan to the London plotters to move ahead quickly, according to a message intercepted by an intelligence agency, a U.S. official disclosed on condition of anonymity. That prompted British police to move in on the conspirators, long under watch.
“This telephone call intercept in Karachi and the arrest of Rashid Rauf helped a lot to foil the terror plan,” a senior Pakistani security official said on condition of anonymity.
The man who made the call was “inexperienced” and he “alerted his associates about the arrest of Rashid Rauf, and asked them to go ahead” with the attacks, said the intelligence official, without confirming who the caller was and whether he too had been caught.
The official said most men linked to the plot in Pakistan had been arrested, and only two or three suspects remained at large.
He said among them was Matiur Rahman, a senior figure in the al-Qaida-linked Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose name was mentioned by one of the detainees during interrogation.
Authorities in Pakistan have sought Rahman in connection with sectarian attacks on minority Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, in two failed attempts on the life of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, and attacks in Karachi against Westerners, the official said. Rahman is believed to have met with some al-Qaida operatives in recent years, he added.
British Home Secretary John Reid told reporters officials were confident the main suspects in the plot were in custody. But authorities “would go where any further evidence takes us,” he said.
“I think it’s pretty clear that in this case, we don’t have everybody,” Townsend told The Associated Press in Washington.
The British government released the names of 19 of the 24 arrested in Britain — many apparently British Muslims of Pakistani ancestry — and froze their assets.
American authorities were looking for any U.S. links in the conspiracy. Hundreds of FBI agents checked possible leads the past few weeks, including what two U.S. counterterrorism officials said, on condition of anonymity, were calls the British suspects placed to several U.S. cities.
But the U.S. homeland security secretary said Friday nothing significant had emerged.
“Currently, we do not have evidence that there was, as part of this plot, any plan to initiate activity inside the United States or that the plotting was done in the United States,” Michael Chertoff said.
London’s Evening Standard reported the plotters apparently chose next Wednesday as a target date, since they had tickets for a United Airlines flight that day, as well as ones for this Friday, apparently a test-run to see whether they could smuggle chemicals aboard in soft-drink containers.
The British say their inquiry began months ago — prompted by a tip from within the British Muslim community after the bloody July 7, 2005, terror bombings of the London transit system, The Washington Post reported.
There were signs preparations stepped up recently. One of the houses raided by British police this week had been bought last month by two men in an all-cash deal, in a neighborhood of $300,000 houses, neighbors reported.
On an unspecified date, Pakistani authorities also arrested five Pakistanis as alleged `facilitators” for the Britons in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi. An intelligence official in Islamabad said 10 other Pakistanis had been arrested Friday in the district of Bhawalpur, about 300 miles south of Islamabad near the Indian border.
Pakistan is both a key U.S.-British ally in the antiterror campaign, and a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and likely hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.