Al-Qa'ida: UK is now the prime target

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Al-Qa'ida chiefs have ordered a wave of attacks in Europe with Britain the prime target, Western intelligence sources believe. Police raids across Europe have found terror cells from the Algerian Salafist group on the point of launching a series of attacks. Explosives, ricin and weapons were retrieved, as well as forged passports, stolen credit cards and caches of money.

Al-Qa'ida chiefs have ordered a wave of attacks in Europe with Britain the prime target, Western intelligence sources believe. Police raids across Europe have found terror cells from the Algerian Salafist group on the point of launching a series of attacks. Explosives, ricin and weapons were retrieved, as well as forged passports, stolen credit cards and caches of money.

The theory that al-Qa'ida is organising an all-out effort to pull off a successful attack was reinforced yesterday when Germany's Bild newspaper reported that German intelligence has warned that 20 Afghan extremists travelling on false Pakistani passports are on their way to Europe. The newspaper cited intelligence sources as saying that the "terror commandos" were travelling to Germany, Britain, France and the Czech Republic via Bahrain.

Raids across Spain and Italy in the past 72 hours, which led to the arrest of 21 North African suspects, were triggered by French intelligence and MI5. It is believed that key information was discovered in the flat in Wood Green, north London, used to manufacture the poison ricin that was raided by anti-terrorist police two weeks ago. One senior police source said: "The past few weeks have seen us unpick a network of very dangerous men across Europe who we believe were very close to staging an attack."

French security forces have arrested a number of North African suspects. In Barcelona and north-eastern Spain 150 police with dogs raided 12 houses, including a flat used as a mosque. Jose Maria Aznar, the Prime Minister, said police seized a large haul of explosives, chemicals and documents. "Those arrested were preparing to commit attacks with explosives and chemical materials," he said.

Italian police have continued to question five suspected terrorists from North Africa who were arrested near Venice on Wednesday, and have produced more evidence of a possible plot to attack the UK. On Thursday, 2lb of explosive, believed to be the plastic explosive C4, was found in a sock hidden in laundry when police swooped on a disused farmhouse in Badia Polesine, near Rovigo. More raids by police on Friday unearthed photocopied versions of British passports, which are thought to have been in the names of Muslims living in the UK.

Explosives and a map of the London Underground were found when the five men were arrested. Only two of them speak Italian and their lawyer, Sofia Tiengo, said they denied knowledge of the explosives.

Algerian terror groups are known to be among the best organised and most ruthless of those supporting al-Qa'ida. Algerian extremists are expert at providing money and logistical support for terror operations. These gangs inhabit a criminal immigrant underworld and have expertise in credit-card fraud and obtaining forged documents.

It also emerged yesterday that four Algerians had been arrested on 9 January outside a London bureau de change carrying more than £16,000 in US dollars. The men have not been charged, but police are checking for any potential terrorist links. Police sources in Spain were briefing yesterday that the raids there had smashed a major fraud ring supporting the Salafists. The Algerians were running a sophisticated credit-card cloning operation.

The recent raids have reinforced the belief by Europe's security agencies that al-Qa'ida-linked terror cells are planning an assassination campaign. Security sources say they are "extremely concerned" that North African terror groups are planning a wave of random attacks with exotic poisons and explosives. Since 11 September, cooperation between Europe's security services has coalesced from an erratic rivalry into a highly organised system of information-sharing.

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