The police are poised to intern up to 20 suspected Islamic terrorists without charge within days of new terror laws being introduced in Britain.
They will be given a target list, compiled by MI5, Special Branch and MI6, of men in Britain with alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network and other Islamic terrorist organisations.
The crackdown – potentially the most visible attempt to target the al-Qa'ida network by ministers since the 11 September attacks on the US – will be launched within days of David Blunkett's new fast-tracked anti-terrorism powers becoming law shortly before Christmas.
However, the series of detentions, using new powers to intern alleged terrorists without trial, will, in effect, be a "mopping up" operation of middle-ranking Islamic militants, their operational backers and of various unaligned radicals who support Osama bin Laden's cause.
MI5 still believes that dissident republican terrorists in the Real IRA, alleged to have been behind an aborted car bomb attack in Birmingham two weeks ago, pose a greater threat. Six Real IRA suspects were arrested in London and Liverpool last week, and a farmhouse near Leeds was raided and searched.
However, the number of Middle Eastern suspects involved will exceed the figure of 16 suspects leaked by Government ministers earlier this month. That figure was based on the number of high-risk suspects who were in Britain last year, several of whom have since been arrested and are now on remand.
The rest could be seized under Mr Blunkett's new internment powers. But MI5 and MI6 have been inundated with fresh intelligence leads from the FBI, CIA, Mossad, French intelligence and Middle Eastern regimes, leading to the earlier target list being extended. This potentially increases the number of alleged Islamic terrorists who will be in custody by early next year to more than 30.
Whitehall officials stressed there would be no repeat of the mass arrests of Arabs and Muslims without charge in the US since 11 September, thought to number 1,000 men.
"This is not seen as licence for a huge round-up and certainly nothing like the internment once seen in Northern Ireland," said one source.
MI5 believes the most dangerous al-Qa'ida suspects in Britain were already in custody before the suicide attacks in the US, including two men detained at FBI request after al-Qa'ida's 1998 bombings of US embassies in east Africa.
MI5 has divided suspects into three categories: known members of al-Qa'ida; members of affiliated groups such as the Egyptian-based Islamic Jihad group and the Algerian fundamentalist group Tafkir-wal-Hijra; and unaffiliated groups or individuals that could support al-Qa'ida's aims with ad hoc acts of terrorism.
The people thought most at risk include suspects listed on Treasury and US State Department lists, such as Abu Qatada, 40, a Palestinian living in London since 1993, and who now has political asylum.
A Muslim cleric, he has been described as "bin Laden's roving ambassador in Europe", and sentenced to life imprisonment in Jordan in absentia for alleged involvement with a series of explosions. He has denied the charges, but had £180,000 seized by the Treasury last month and his social security payments stopped after appearing on a US list of terror suspects.
Sheikh Abu Hamza, 43, an Egyptian cleric at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, has been linked to alleged terrorist incidents in Yemen. His son and stepson were among eight Britons arrested and convicted in Yemen in 1999.
Gareth Peirce, the defence lawyer who represents Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi fighting extradition to the US to face charges linked to the east African embassy bombings, argues some suspects are legitimate refugees.
"What is disturbing is the inability of the police and intelligence services to understand the distinction between resistance to oppression from support for terrorism," she said.Reuse content