Police hunt 'mercenary' terror gang recruited by al-Qa'ida

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The Independent Online

Police and intelligence agents areinvestigating the theory that a gang of white "mercenary terrorists" was hired by al-Qa'ida to carry out last week's devastating attacks on London.

The Independent on Sunday can reveal today that investigations into the bombings of three Tube trains and a bus, which left at least 49 people dead, are focusing on the possibility that criminal gangs were paid to mount the worst atrocities in British history.

Last night, amid fears of further attacks, police evacuated the centre of Birmingham after receiving intelligence of a threat. A spokesman estimated up to 30,000 people were being cleared from the Broad Street area, packed with clubs, bars and restaurants.

Among new revelations about the highly sophisticated nature of Thursday's attacks, intelligence officials disclosed that they were examining the prospect that so-called "clean skins" - who could have been Muslims from the Balkans with no previous links to terror groups - were recruited to evade heightened security in the capital.

The theory was given credence by the fact that the security services had no advance warnings, suggesting that the bombers were not known extremists. Police and intelligence agencies admitted yesterday they were caught off guard.

The Metropolitan Police's investigation team is analysing hours of CCTV footage from around the targeted train stations and from the bus wreck, as well as checking lock-ups and garages for any clues that may lead them to the bombers. There is growing fear that the cells involved could be about to carry out further attacks. There was also alarm at the sophisticated nature of the explosives.

Alarm about the terrorists' expertise sharply increased after it emerged yesterday that all three of the Underground bombings took place within seconds of each other.

Detectives ruled out the possibility that suicide bombers were involved, but police sources indicated there was the risk that attackers had further supplies of explosives amid reports that up to four cells could be active in the UK.

A global search is under way for a number of known Islamist radicals and terrorist suspects, such as Mohammed al-Garbuzi, a Moroccan accused of involvement in the bombing of Casablanca killing 33 people in 2004.

The claims by the so-called Secret Organisation of the al-Qa'ida Jihad in Europe, posted on the internet on Thursday, are being taken seriously. Two other groups have also claimed responsibility. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade posted the claim on an Islamist website where similar claims for responsibility have appeared in the past. Its authenticity could not be verified, but the statement promised more attacks on London.

The little-known Organisation of al-Qa'ida - Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula also claimed responsibility, and threatened to attack Rome.

The Met said they now had new evidence which clearly indicated that the blasts on the Tube trains had happened "almost simultaneously".

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick said this indicated that the terrorists would have used timing devices to trigger the bombs. Mr Paddick said, "We are not looking for any specific individuals at this stage. We are pursuing a whole series of investigative lines."

Senior officers have said they received no warning from the intelligence services. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said that intelligence gathering was "an imperfect science".

His comments were echoed by Tony Blair who cleared the police and intelligence services of any blame. In an interview with the BBC's Today programme yesterday, he said: "If people are actually prepared to go on to a Tube or a bus and blow up wholly innocent people ... you can have all the surveillance in the world and you couldn't stop that happening. That is why ultimately the underlying issues have to be dealt with too."

He also denied that he had made London a terrorist target by sending British troops into Afghanistan and Iraq.

Forty-nine people have been confirmed dead, but it is expected to be several days before an exact death toll can be provided because there are still bodiesat least 500 feet underground at King's Cross.

The IoS has learnt that Britain's leading Muslim scholars are to issue a "fatwa" condemning the terrorists behind Thursday's bombings.