Britain is home to 'substantially more' than 100 terrorism suspects, says Scotland Yard

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The Independent Online

More than 100 terrorism suspects and activists belonging to organisations connected with Osama bin Laden are based in Britain, Scotland Yard disclosed yesterday.

Details of the potential terrorists were revealed when the Metropolitan Police outlined plans for an international task force to track down and prosecute terrorists worldwide.

A national unit staffed by officers from the intelligence agencies MI5 and M16, Special Branch, and the Met's anti-terrorist branch has already been set up to find suspected supporters of Mr bin Laden.

Assistant Commissioner David Veness, the head of Scotland Yard's specialist operations, said that "substantially more than 100" activists who belonged to seven different terrorist groups had been identified in the United Kingdom. The police intended to make "robust use of counter-terrorism laws" to bring to justice suspected members of illegal organisations in Britain, he said.

Among the groups under scrutiny by anti-terrorist officers are al-Qa'ida, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group based in Algeria, and groups seeking independence from India in Kashmir.

Mr Veness also disclosed that the police had drawn up plans to arrest and question any citizens returning to Britain who had fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban.

The anti-terrorist branch and MI6 and MI5 are compiling information on Islamic extremists recruited in Britain by members of the al-Qa'ida network. There are about a dozen British prisoners being held in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but other supporters of the Taliban and Mr bin Laden are expected to try to return to the UK in the next few weeks.

There has been concern that the authorities were unaware of suspected extremists and supporters of al-Qa'ida living Britain, including Richard Reid, from London, who is accused of trying to blow up an airliner with a bomb hidden in his shoe.

Mr Veness disclosed details of plans for a new "international counter-terrorism task force" which would include specialist officers from the 15 countries that make up Europol, the European police organisation, and the FBI. Under the proposals suspected terrorists could be prosecuted and investigations made by officers from several different countries.

Several global investigations into suspected members of al-Qa'ida have been hampered because by the lack of co-ordination between countries.

A 12-member "police international counter-terrorism unit" has been set up in the past few weeks. Staffed by veteran anti-terrorist officers, it will mount a number of operations against suspects and advise police forces on how to deal with terrorism threats.

In the United States yesterday, lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, argued for his trial relating to 11 September to be televised. A cable television firm is also backing the move. The District Judge Leonie Brinkema said at the court in Virginia that she would not issue a ruling before Tuesday.

Mr Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is accused of conspiring to murder thousands of people. He was arrested in August after arousing suspicion at a flying school. Investigators believe he would otherwise have been part of the hijacking team that seized the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. His trial is due to start in October.