Anti-kidnap security stepped up for Britain's leading Muslims

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The Independent Online

Prominent Muslims are to undergo special risk-assessments amid fears they could become targets for Islamic extremists. The dramatic move by officials to step up security around Muslim politicians, police officers and religious leaders follows the revelation of an alleged plot to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier.

Anti-terror police are still questioning nine men after dawn raids on Wednesday on several addresses near Birmingham. Two other suspects are still being hunted in London and Manchester. It is understood that a terror gang was close to enacting plans to seize their victim, a lance corporal who fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then post footage of his "Kenneth Bigley-style" execution on the internet.

This newspaper has also learned that police and security services had already planned for a hostage-taking by terrorists on British soil before the Birmingham plot was known about. Whitehall sources said two counter-terrorism operations took place last year and in both cases the scenario involved civilians being taken hostage by extremists.

One told The Independent on Sunday: "It had already been thought this scenario could happen in Britain following incidents in Iraq, as well as the school siege in Beslan. In the last two exercises, the scenario involved hostages being taken by extremists."

Police and security services believe the alleged kidnap plot was designed to create divisions in the Muslim community by turning moderates against extremists.

High-profile Muslims who have been warned their safety is at risk include Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury. The Labour politician revealed Home Office officials have urged him to be risk-assessed. "I always thought the risk would be from far-right groups such as the BNP, as I have been surrounded by right-wing extremists," Mr Malik said. "But the security people are more worried about the risk from extreme Islam and the last few days have made me re-think their suggestion."

Suspected terror plots are graded according to their potential impact. The Birmingham plot was "low-grade", according to police and intelligence services. Whitehall sources said they expect "bigger and better plots" in the future, which will be more sophisticated. There is concern that one may occur this summer.

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller revealed in November that MI5 had identified 30 terrorist plots being planned in Britain and that 1,600 people were actively involved in promoting attacks here and abroad.

There has been anger from Muslims that the police are targeting them. Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, from the Muslim Council of Britain, said Muslims in Birmingham were feeling "very uneasy". "There are people in our community who have radical views but just having radical views should not be a problem in a democratic society."

Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, from the National Black Police Association, said he believed that the "relentless attack" on Islam had caused "enormous anger" among Muslims. But he backs plans for all prominent Muslims to be assessed to determine whether they are at risk of being targeted.

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg told people in Birmingham's Central Mosque yesterday that he knew some of those arrested. "I am convinced that there is no plot. I hope that when the truth manifests itself... that heads roll among the people who put out these stories."

The ongoing threat will strengthen ministers' arguments that new powers are needed, extending the time police are allowed to question suspects.