Anti-terrorist police investigating suspected British suicide bombers discovered explosive material in the home of an Islamic student, police said last night.
In what could be one of the most important breakthroughs since the 11 September terrorist attacks, the British man of Pakistani origin was also facing questions about suspected links with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber jailed for trying to blow up an aircraft.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said Special Branch and MI5 believed Sajid Badat, a 24-year-old student, had connections with the al-Qa'ida terror network and posed a "very real threat" to the country. The operation stems from a long-running MI5 inquiry. Mr Badat, was arrested at his family home in Gloucester in an early morning raid by officers from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch. About 100 homes were evacuated while bomb squad officers, including Army specialists, searched the house in St James Street.
Scotland Yard said a "relatively small amount" of explosive materials had been found at the Gloucester premises and taken away for analysis. Bomb disposal experts were also searching an Islamic college and a house in Blackburn. Police refused to comment on reports that the raids had foiled a planned suicide attack on a football ground.
Anti-terrorist officers in London were questioning Mr Badat, who was detained under the Terrorism Act, about suspected links with Reid, the British Muslim who was sentenced to 110 years plus three life sentences in January for trying to bring down an American Airlines flight in December 2001. Reid, 30, a self-confessed al-Qa'ida terrorist, tried to ignite explosives hidden in the sole of his shoes but was overpowered by the crew of the aircraft, which was en route from Paris to Miami carrying 197 passengers.
Since Reid's arrest, MI5 and Scotland Yard have been investigating reports that at least two alleged al-Qa'ida suspects in Britain were planning suicide attacks. The head of MI5 and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police have warned that a terror attack in Britain is likely.
Mr Badat is being held under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act on suspicion of being involved in the "commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism". He is understood to have been under surveillance but hasnot been linked to any specific terrorist plots.
Dozens of residents in the largely Asian area of Gloucester where he lives were evacuated and were spending the night at a sports centre. Gloucestershire Police set up a cordon covering St James Street, Barton Street and Hopewell Street, which was being guarded by 30 officers. Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist officers were searching the College of Islamic Knowledge and Guidance in Blackburn where Mr Badat was a student. A second property in the Lancashire town, where Mr Badat had stayed, was being searched for bomb-making equipment.
Mr Blunkett said: "It is the belief of the security and Special Branch services that this man has connections with the network of al-Qa'ida groups. That is why he has been arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000.Obviously the forensic evidence will be absolutely crucial here and I do not want to in any way damage the future trial but we would not have taken these steps if we did not believe that this individual posed a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country." He added: "We believe he is part of a wider network."
Mr Badat's parents, Zubeida and Mahomed Badat, emigrated to the UK in the Sixties. Their son attended the Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester. A senior member of Gloucester's Muslim community, who asked not to identified, said: "He's good boy. He comes down to the mosque and teaches the basics of Islam."
Police chiefs and religious leaders in Blackburn were keen to quell public safety fears. A statement on behalf of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, the Islamic College and the Labour peer Lord Patel of Blackburn, said: "Although a man has been arrested in Gloucester, as far as we know, nothing has been found here in this Islamic college to link it with that arrest. Islam prohibits the loss of innocent lives and, as such, we condemn all acts of terrorism, whether it's here or anywhere else in the world."
Britain's state of terrorist alert was increased this month from "significant" to "severe general" after new intelligence about an al-Qa'ida plot. The threat level is the second highest under a system introduced after the Bali bombing last year.
In an unconnected anti-terrorist operation, a man aged 39 was arrested in Manchester on suspicion of providing support to Islamic extremists.Reuse content