Scotland Yard chief reveals London link to Madrid bombings

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has revealed there is a "definite link" between the terrorists who carried out the Madrid bombings and al-Qa'ida supporters based in Britain.

Anti-terrorist and MI5 officers are investigating whether Islamic extremists based in this country provided money and support to one of the chief suspects for the atrocity in Spain.

Confirmation that British based al-Qa'ida followers are thought to be involved in the train bombings, in which 202 people were killed and about 1,500 injured, will heighten fears about an attack on the UK.

Sir John, Britain's senior police chief, said: "We believe there is a London link with what happened in Madrid."

Asked whether any of the suspects arrested for last Thursday's bombing were connected to Islamic extremists based in the UK, he replied: "There is a definite link in what has happened."

The disclosure comes days after Sir John warned that it was "inevitable" that al-Qa'ida terrorists would try to mount an attack in London. He said detectives had reviewed security at possible targets including nightclubs and pubs.

While he declined to give details of British links with the bombings in Spain, a senior anti-terrorist source revealed that one of the chief suspects in the bombings, a Moroccan man, had visited Britain. Jamal Zougam, 30, is thought to have travelled to London in search of funding and logistical help, including assistance in planning and supplying equipment and false identification papers for the bombers. He is known to have contacted a number of north Africans living in the UK.

Al-Qa'ida supporters use Britain as a base for raising funds, often through fraud, and for forging documents for use in operations.

Spanish police arrested Mr Zougam, and four other men, at the weekend after a mobile phone found in an unexploded bomb in a rucksack on one of the Madrid trains was linked to his shop. He had been under police surveillance and was arrested by the Spanish authorities three years ago. When police searched his Madrid apartment in 2001, they found videos, including one that contained an interview with Osama bin Laden, and phone numbers for suspected al-Qa'ida members.

One line of inquiry is his connection with the London-based Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada - described by a Spanish judge as Bin Laden's "European ambassador" - and his supporters. The 43-year-old Islamic preacher is being held at the top-security Belmarsh prison in London under anti-terrorism laws. He was granted asylum in Britain 10 years ago.

Another potential British link being investigated is Mr Zougam's involvement with the Syrian cleric Abu Dahdah, who has repeatedly visited this country and has met Mr Qatada. He is in custody in Spain where he is accused of being head of the country's al-Qa'ida network.

MI5 and Scotland Yard have not interviewed Mr Qatada about the Spanish atrocity, but Sir John has said his officers were prepared to question any of the 12 foreigners held under anti-terrorism legislation if they believed it would be useful. Five new suspects for the Madrid bombings, four Moroccans and a Spaniard, were arrested in Spain yesterday, bringing to 10 the number of people held. Three of the arrests were made in Alcala de Henares, about 20 miles from Madrid. Three of the four trains bombed originated in Alcala de Henares, and police found a stolen van there with seven detonators and an Arabic tape containing words from the Koran. Police believe the suspects may have played a direct role in the bombings and may also have been involved in suicide attacks that killed 33 people and 12 bombers in Casablanca in May 2003.

A statement received on Wednesday night claiming to come from al-Qa'ida's Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades has warned of imminent terrorist attacks in Britain and other countries. The statement e-mailed to Arab news organisations was signed by the group which said it carried out attacks in Madrid and Istanbul. It warned the UK, Australia and Saudi Arabia that a "brigade of death" was targeting them and other countries.

Despite the attacks in Spain, Tony Blair insisted yesterday that the threat to Britain was no greater than before 11 September 2001. He said: "The danger this week is the same as the danger last week, the same as the danger a year ago."