Tickets to a Manchester United game found during anti-terrorist raids sparked fears of a suicide attack on Old Trafford. But they were for an old match and had been kept as souvenirs by the suspects, who were fans of the club.
The revelation will lead to further criticism of the operation which led to the arrest of 10 people by armed Greater Manchester police in dawn raids last month. All have since been released without charge.
Claims that the group – mostly Iraqi Kurds – was plotting to hit a major target such as a shopping centre or a football stadium were widely reported, but turned out to have no substance.
The Observer has learnt that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, was aware that the Sun was planning to run a story claiming that Old Trafford was a target, but decided against issuing an injunction against the paper.
A spokeswoman from the office of the Attorney General confirmed that an injunction was discussed: “The Attorney General was made aware that there might be an issue over some press reporting.” But the decision was made that action “would not be appropriate”.
Goldsmith acted to stop the publication of photographs of terrorist suspects arrested across the south-east last month because it was believed it might invalidate identification parades involving the men.
One Whitehall source told The Observer that there was serious concerns within government about the press coverage of the Old Trafford story. It was thought likely at an early stage in the investigation that the suspects were unlikely to be charged.
From The Sun, April 20, 2004
EXCLUSIVE: MAN UTD SUICIDE BLASTS FOILED
BOMB GANG HAD TICKETS ALL AROUND THE GROUND
By Philip Cardy and Andy Russell
SUICIDE bombers who plotted a massacre at Old Trafford planned to sit all around the ground to cause maximum carnage.
They had already bought the tickets for various positions in the 67,000 capacity stadium, cops revealed last night.
Thousands of people watching Manchester United’s home game against Liverpool on Saturday would have been killed as the Islamic fanatics blew themselves up.
But armed cops foiled the horrific plot in a series of dawn raids yesterday.
Ten people were arrested after a massive surveillance operation involving British anti-terror units and American authorities.
A police source said: “The plot involved several individual bombers in separate parts of the stadium. “If successful, any such attack would have caused absolute carnage. Thousands of people could have been killed.”
The planned attack would have had an instant global impact as the game is being televised worldwide.
More than 400 police swooped yesterday after a “major terrorist figure” under surveillance moved to Manchester. Police and intelligence organisations believe he came to direct the massacre, which would have been the first al-Qaeda-style
Nine men and one woman were arrested – all Iraqi Kurds or from North Africa.
Special Branch and the security services had been monitoring their movements and eavesdropping on mobile phone calls for months.
The operation also involved the US National Security Agency and GCHQ, the Government’s intelligence listening post.
Seven of the suspects were held in Manchester and one each in South Yorkshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands.
It is believed all have links to extremist Islamic organisations. They were being quizzed at separate police stations around North West England last night.
But it was unclear whether any explosives or weapons had been recovered.
Bombers planning the Old Trafford massacre would have run the risk of being searched going into the ground before the 3pm kick-off.
Manchester United said away fans and those sitting in the higher tiers were frisked.
The identities and details of the suspects remained top secret last night – even to many of those involved in the operation.
One of the raids was at a flat above Dolphins takeaway in Upper Brook Street, near Manchester University. The area has a large ethnic community with many properties converted into bedsits.
Irfaan Arif, who lives in a nearby flat, said: “I was woken at 4am, looked out of the window and saw a lot of armed police. There was loads of banging and shouting.”
The three-storey Dolphins building was cordoned off along with next-door properties housing AK Computers and Funky Fones.
Forensic experts in protective clothing moved in after the initial search teams.
A police spokesman confirmed: “A number of search warrants were executed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Ten people have been arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism.
“We appreciate the public interest in this but are unable to provide more specific details at this stage.”
Greater Manchester’s Assistant Chief Constable Dave Whatton said: “It was an anti-terrorism operation that has been going on for some time and it will continue in the future.
“This is the first action that the public have become aware of as it is overt. It is set against the background of an increased threat level across the country.
“The addresses raided will continue to be searched for some time. It is a complex inquiry.”
And he appealed: “Because of the national heightened threat levels we would still ask people to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity to police.”
Sheikh Mohammed bal Qadri, deputy director of a mosque in Upper Brook Street, said he did not believe any of his members were among those being held.
He added: “Since September 11 we have been very vigilant, as mosques should be.
“If I see a person who is new, I ask him why he is here and what he is doing and ask these kind of questions.
“We are against these evil acts. In the religion of Islam we have tolerance.” The raids follow revelations last week that police in Manchester had raised their terror alert level.
More than 50 officers were moved from regular duties to work on a task force committed to combating terrorism.
Police have also conducted detailed surveys of land around Manchester
Airport to identify sites which could be used to launch missiles attacks on aircraft.
Manchester Central MP Tony Lloyd said yesterday: “Clearly this is one of the most difficult levels of policing. But when police get the information to act successfully the whole of the British public will applaud their actions.”
EXCLUSIVE: MAN UTD SUICIDE BLASTS FOILED
FANATICAL ‘MARTYRS’ ARE RAISING THE STAKES
By John Kay
The willingness of fanatics to sacrifice themselves is a shocking development in their drive to stage a “spectacular” in Britain, security experts said last night.
In the days of IRA attacks, the nation became accustomed to bombers who normally gave warnings before fleeing the scene.
But the Manchester United plot makes it chillingly clear there are some crazed Muslims who are prepared to blow themselves up along with their unsuspecting victims.
Last night the big question was: How many more are out there?
Chris Dobson, author of 20 books on terrorism and security, said:
“This time it appears the terrorists were planning to use suicide bombers. This is a deadly move in the game of chess between the security services and an al-Qaeda network determined to bring bloody slaughter to Britain. Until recently it was not thought possible that the cult of the ‘martyr’ could spread to Britain. But the evidence is mounting.”
Mr Dobson said the original suicide bombs used by Shia fundamentalists in the Lebanon were “crude affairs with a package of explosives slung round a belt”.
He added: “Now they are much more sophisticated, using custom-built harnesses specially made for the ‘martyrs’. Each contains a number of pockets containing a sausage of explosive linked together with a detonating wire fired by a switch on a battery.”
Mr Dobson said the explosive would probably be studded with ball bearings to give it more killing power.
He added: “The effect is similar to that of a Claymore mine, spewing the shrapnel-laced explosive in an arc round the suicide bomber’s body. In confined, crowded places the effect is devastating.”
The expert pointed out that following the dramatic round of arrests in Crawley and Uxbridge last month, security sources said they were looking for a suicide bombers’ “school” – possibly located in the Midlands.
He added: “The possibility is that likely candidates for ‘martyrdom’ will have been spotted by radical preachers and then handed on to al-Qaeda agents.”
Mr Dobson said many wondered what role would be adopted by MI6, MI5 and Special Branch after the collapse of the Soviet Union and outbreak of peace over Ulster. He added: “The answer has become obvious. It is to save Britain from a new threat – the suicide bomber.”
THE SUN SAYS; LEADING ARTICLE
WE have good reason to thank our vigilant security services this weekend.
None more so than the 67,000 soccer fans who will flock to Old Trafford on Saturday for one of the highlights of the season.
It was our tireless police and security service who foiled a terrorist plot to blow up the packed stadium just before kick-off.
As they raise the roof for Manchester United and Liverpool, the fans should also offer a quiet cheer for the unsung heroes who made the event possible.