BIRMINGHAM, England – Police on Thursday questioned nine terror suspects who were arrested for reportedly planning to torture and behead a British Muslim soldier and broadcast the killing on the Internet.
The alleged plot, said by British media to mirror the brutal killings of foreign hostages in Iraq, was in its final stages and uncovered during a six-month surveillance operation by anti-terror officers in this city of more than 1 million in the heart of England, police said.
The soldier believed to be targeted in the kidnapping was a lance corporal in his 20s who was on home leave after serving in Afghanistan, The Guardian newspaper reported. Police and Britain's MI5 intelligence service believe militants planned to bundle him into a van as he walked along the street, the newspaper said, adding that he was in police protective custody along with members of his family.
The Defense Ministry said 330 Muslims are serving in the British armed forces. It would not comment on reports that the intended victim was a soldier.
The nine suspects, believed to be British men of Pakistani descent, were arrested in a pre-dawn raid Wednesday on homes and businesses in several Birmingham neighborhoods, which were mostly Pakistani. On Thursday, police continued to search the buildings.
The suspects are believed to have drawn up a list of Muslim soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, The London Times reported, citing unidentified security officials. The suspects had narrowed their targets to a shortlist of three men, the paper said.
Police would not confirm reports from the British Broadcasting Corp. and other media that the intended victim was an British army soldier to be killed in an "Iraqi-style" execution and broadcast on the Internet.
West Midlands Police Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw described it as a "very, very major investigation" which would take "days if not weeks."
"The threat from terrorism remains very real," he said on Wednesday.
The suspects were arrested under the Terrorism Act, which gives police a maximum of 28 days to hold them in custody. They were being held at police stations in the West Midlands.
Britain has been at the heart of several thwarted terror plots. One involved a British Muslim who pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up landmarks including the New York Stock Exchange. Last August, police foiled an alleged plan by Muslim extremists to use liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 flights between the United States and Britain.
But the Birmingham kidnapping plot raised fears that a new type of terrorism had reached Britain — one that threatens to spread the type of terror seen in Iraq with kidnappings and publicized beheadings, and one that suggests Britain's young Muslims are becoming angrier over their country's continued involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers — Muslims raised in England who expressed anger over Britain's role in the wars — killed 52 people on London's transit system during rush-hour attacks. The killings were western Europe's first suicide bombings. In the past year, that anger has spilled over to Muslims who serve in the British armed forces.
Britain's first Muslim soldier to be killed in Afghanistan last year was from Birmingham, where his death prompted militant Islamist Web sites to denounce Cpl. Jabron Hashmi, 24, as a traitor. One site — that of extremist British sect al-Ghurabaa — posted an image of Hashmi surrounded by flames.
On Thursday, the Daily Mail newspaper quoted Hashmi's brother, former British soldier Zeeshan Hashmi, 27, as saying that if the terror plot is confirmed, it would be a crime "with no justification" that would have repercussions on Muslims worldwide.
"What I would say to the extremists is that extremism does not help change anything. If you really want to make a change and be effective, I would say it's best to be part of the system and work peacefully within, not be outside it," Zeeshan told the newspaper.
During the raids in Birmingham on Wednesday, 12 houses and four businesses — including two Muslim bookstores and an Internet cafe — were cordoned off.
The raids opened fresh divides in the city's predominantly Pakistani neighborhoods, with some residents complaining that British media reports about the alleged plot were subjecting them to unfair criticism and suspicions.
Counterterrorism experts say Islamic extremists are looking for new ways to rattle the West with their use of the Web to broadcast propaganda and unsettling images such as the beheadings of Western hostages in Iraq.
London's counterterrorism officers had never before dealt with a terrorist plot to abduct and murder, a police spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
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