Eleven suicide hijackers who passed through Gatwick and Heathrow airports on their way to attack the United States were named by Scotland Yard yesterday, as the true scale of the "British connections" began to emerge.
Ten of the hijackers arrived at British airports on flights from Dubai between April and June and stayed for two or three hours before catching onward connections. Three of them were travelling together while the rest are thought to have flown separately. The police and security services have yet to establish whether the 11th bomber, named as Nawaq Alhamzi, stayed at the airport for only a couple of hours or spent longer in Britain. He flew to England in January and was on the plane which crashed into the Pentagon.
Of the terrorists who came through Britain, three were members of the team which hijacked United Airlines flight 175 to attack the south tower of the World Trade Centre; three more flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower; two were aboard American Airlines flight 77 that hit the Pentagon; and three others took over United Airlines flight 93 that crashed outside Pittsburgh. None of the hijackers is thought to have held meetings to plot the attacks while at the UK airports.
The FBI asked Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch to investigate the 11 hijackers flying from Britain. British security officers are also examining any possible links with the remaining eight terrorists. Scotland Yard said yesterday that the hijacker named as Salem Alhamzi, 21, is known to have taken a flight directly from Zurich to New York without stopping in the UK on 29 June.
Part of the difficulty in tracking the movements of the terrorists arises because they were using stolen identities and may have travelled under false names and used faked passports. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alan Fry, the head of the anti-terrorist branch, said: "Allowing for mis-identities, which we are continuing to look into, 10 of these people actually transited through Gatwick and Heathrow. They all arrived on flights at various periods earlier this year and left on connecting flights within two or three hours.
"We are still following up these inquiries and seeking to ensure and satisfy ourselves that these people have not been resident in this country at any stage. We are seeking to provide whatever information we can to the FBI. We have at this time no substantial evidence of a conspiracy in this country but we keep an open mind on that."
The FBI are still trying to establish where the 11 hijackers who stopped off in Britain came from before they caught their planes from Dubai, which is a stop-over for flights from the Middle East.
The Gulf state was at the centre of the inquiry into a plot to bomb the US Embassy in Paris. Plans for the attack were uncovered after a former British resident, Djamel Begal, was arrested with a false passport in Dubai in July.
Mr Begal, 35, a French citizen of Algerian origin, was said to be on his way back to Europe from Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had completed a year of religious and military training. Information from Mr Begal has led European intelligence agencies to Osama bin Laden cells which were plotting co-ordinated attacks on the US Embassy in Paris and the American consulate in Marseilles.
Police in the Midlands were continuing to interview three men arrested in Leicester on Tuesday over possible links to the planned attacks on US targets in Europe. One of the men, French national Kamel Daoudi, 23, was believed to have fled Paris when seven suspected Islamic terrorists were rounded up there last week. He and the other two men were arrested in Leicester following intelligence from MI5.
Intelligence operations, mostly involving the anti-terrorist branch, MI5, and the Metropolitan Police's special branch have been working at full tilt in the UK since the 11 September atrocities. Five anti-terrorist officers are in New York at the moment.
Threat assessments carried out by the security services have concluded that there is no evidence of a plot to commit a major attack on a British target. They have also told ministers that most of the key British-based supporters of Mr bin Laden have either been extradited or arrested. Five men suspected of being in his network are being held in the top-security Belmarsh jail in south-east London. They are fighting extradition from Britain to face charges abroad.
One of the strong British links to the US attacks is the man believed to have been a 20th hijacker, Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, who lived and studied in Brixton, south London, until less than a year ago. British police are still trying to trace the French-Algerian's girlfriend after raiding their Brixton flat and finding she had moved. Mr Moussaoui, 34, who is being held in New York, was arrested in the US on 17 August for a passport violation.
Meanwhile, the anti-terrorist branch is expecting a flood of requests from the FBI in the coming weeks to trace suspects and witnesses. They will also be asked to inquire at flying schools to find out if any people with links to Islamic extremist groups had enrolled.
The police are also re-examining incidents that took place before the attacks, including the arrest of two Algerians under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in March. They were caught scaling a bridge on the M4 in Brentford, west London, with climbing equipment late at night and were held for several days but later released.Reuse content