Police investigating an alleged network of terrorist recruiters promoting the aims of al-Qa'ida revealed yesterday that they were searching 18 properties in London and Sussex after raids this weekend.
Among the houses being combed by anti-terrorist officers was the south London home of Abu Abdullah, an associate of Abu Hamza, the Muslim cleric who was jailed in February for seven years for soliciting murder during his sermons at the Finsbury Park mosque.
The joint MI5 and Scotland Yard investigation into a suspected "home-grown" jihadi indoctrination network is understood to be focusing in part on former associates and acolytes of Hamza, described during his trial as a "recruiting sergeant for terrorism and murder".
The number of properties being searched, including an Islamic school set in 54 acres of land in East Sussex, exceeds that involved in Operation Overt last month, when an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic aircraft was foiled in one of the largest anti-terrorist operations of the last 30 years.
But as Scotland Yard warned that the search of the Jameah Islamiyah secondary school near Crowborough could last weeks, counterterrorism sources stressed that this weekend's raids were not linked to a specific plot. The operation to arrest 14 men, which followed several months of surveillance, was instead part of a wider strategy adopted by the security services and police since the 7 July 2005 attacks to prevent and disrupt the radicalisation of young British-based recruits by extreme Islamists.
While efforts after the 11 September attacks on America focused on the threat to the UK from outside the country, anti-terrorist police now believe the number of British Muslims suspected of supporting terrorism, either directly or indirectly, runs into "thousands of people".
Commander Peter Clarke, the head of the Yard's anti-terrorist branch, told a BBC documentary, Al-Qaeda: Time to Talk?, screened last night: "What we've learnt, and what we've seen all too graphically and all too murderously, is that we have a threat which is being generated here within the United Kingdom."
Questions remain about how effective new terror legislation has been. More than 1,000 people have been arrested since 9/11 but only 12 per cent of detainees have been charged. Police say they have nonetheless thwarted a number of alleged plots, including three since the 7/7 attacks.
The authorities are understood to have singled out the "grooming" process of potential terrorists, who could be deployed either abroad or in the UK, as a means of choking off the threat of attacks similar to the 7/7 bombings before any firm plot has been hatched
A counter-terrorism source with knowledge of this weekend's raids said: "We are not talking about an attack plan or even plotting to carry out a specific attack. It's upstream activity that is being investigated. Training and encouraging people to buy into the ideology and recruitment is what we are looking at."
The arrival of up to 60 armed police at a halal Chinese restaurant in Borough, south London, on Friday night signalled the start of the latest large-scale anti-terrorist operation.
Diners at the Bridge to China Town restaurant had their meals interrupted while officers approached a group of 15 men of mixed ethnic origin, some wearing traditional Muslim dress and others wearing casual clothes.
A total of 14 men, aged between 17 and 48, were arrested under anti-terrorism laws at the restaurant, in adjoining streets and other places in London. The suspects, who are being questioned at the high-security Paddington Green police station, are a mixture of British and foreign citizens from a variety of backgrounds thought to include North African and the Middle Eastern.
The Yard said yesterday that it was also searching 17 properties at undisclosed locations in the south, east and north of the capital.
The police investigation will continue to focus on the £1,000-a-year Jameah Islamiyah school in the village of Mark Cross, which remained the subject of a three-mile exclusion zone.
Police said the management of the school, contained in a former Catholic seminary bought by the charity for £800,000 in 2003, were not under suspicion. Instead, police are understood to be looking at the use of the school and its extensive grounds, including a large area of woodland, by visiting groups for suspected indoctrination and physical training.
Hamza had visited the school with a group in the past, the school confirmed.Reuse content