Norway claims al-Qa'ida cell had links to New York subway bomb plot

Alleged operatives were arrested earlier than planned for fear of the investigation being revealed in the media
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The Independent Online

Three suspected members of al-Qa'ida were arrested in Norway and Germany yesterday in connection with what Norwegian police said was a bomb plot organised by the same planners behind attempts to target the New York subway and a shopping centre in Manchester.

Police believe that the suspects were intending to use bombs made out of peroxide to produce a powerful explosive that could be easily carried to a target. Officials would not say what the suspected target was.

US prosecutors said the Norwegian case is linked to failed bomb plots last year in Manchester and against the New York underground transport system. Forces in both countries claim that the Norwegian plot was organised by Salah al-Somali, named as al-Qa'ida's late chief of foreign operations.

He was killed by a drone strike in north-west Pakistan last year, but was mentioned in US court documents as being behind the US subway plot. Two men have pleaded guilty of planning to detonate explosives during the rush hour. The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has called it one of the most serious plots since 9/11.

Two of the three men, whose names have not been released, were arrested near Oslo, and one was held in Duisburg, Germany, according to the head of the Norwegian security police, Janne Kristiansen. She said the suspects had been under surveillance for a year and were all Norwegian residents.

Even though it was not clear if Norway was the target, al-Qa'ida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has called for attacks on Norway, among other countries. It was unclear whether the trio had selected a specific target in Norway, but the alleged plot already had played a role in Norway's decision to raise its terror alert level last year.

"The threat of terrorism in Norway was generally low in 2009. However, certain groups are engaged in activities that could quickly change the threat level in 2010," Norway's Police Security Service wrote in February.

The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, acknowledged on Thursday that statement was referring, at least in part, to the al-Qa'ida plot. The alleged plan for an attack in Norway may be connected to the presence of 500 Norwegian troops in Afghanistan.

"We believe that this group has links to people abroad who can be linked to al-Qa'ida, and to people who are involved in investigations in other countries, among others the United States and Britain," said Ms Kristiansen.

The three men arrested yesterday were all in their 30s and include a Muslim Uighur from China, now a Norwegian citizen, who has lived in the country since 1999, an Iraqi citizen granted residency on humanitarian grounds, and an Uzbek granted permanent residency in Norway on the grounds of family reunification.

The arrests in Norway came a day after US federal prosecutors charged an American citizen, Adnan al-Shukrijumah, with plotting to attack the subway and the Manchester shopping centre. One of four others charged in New York was Abid Naseer, who was born in Pakistan and arrested in north-east England on Wednesday; the US now wants to extradite him.

The former building worker is suspected of leading a plot foiled in April 2009 to bomb targets in Manchester city centre. British police were unable to bring criminal charges against any of the 11 men they arrested owing to a lack of evidence.

The arrests in Norway were brought forward because details of the investigation were about to be disclosed.

Ms Kristiansen said: "We were afraid evidence would be destroyed, because we knew that an international media organisation was about to publish details of the case. That made it urgent to make the arrests."

Intelligence agencies are far from clear whether there is a centrally controlled conspiracy masterminded by al-Qa'ida and how far such alleged plots are devised by foreign nationals sympathetic to the ideas of Osama bin Laden. In north-west Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, al-Qa'ida affiliates have shown no difficulty in manufacturing bombs for use in local wars and conflicts, but the same expertise has not been transferred to alleged plotters in western Europe or the US.

As with several other plots unmasked in recent years, the exact degree of danger to the public is unclear. In the case of the peroxide bomb, officials in Norway and the US say that it is not known if the plotters ever learnt how to make such a device. "According to our evaluation, the public has never been at risk," Ms Kristiansen said.

Al-Qa'ida is not believed ever to have existed as a centralised organisation, although by 9/11 Osama bin Laden had been able to attract 100 or so militants who were committed to jihadist ideology. But it was never a tightly knit group with tentacles stretching all over the world. When the group made videos prior to 9/11 showing its training camps it had to hire local tribesmen by the day to give the impression that it was the size of a small army.

Al-Qa'ida is much more a body of regional franchises in which local groups described as al-Qa'ida may have largely local aims that have little to do with the original aims of Osama bin Laden.

In Iraq, for instance, al-Qa'ida was the name given to the organisation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was clearly more interested in killing the Iraqi Shia as heretics than he was in killing Americans. Less powerful than it was before Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and before the Sunni insurgency in Iraq split, it still has the ability to blow up government buildings and Shia civilians in mosques and market places.

When they are apprehended in the West or the Middle East, it is discovered that the motive of many would-be bombers – who are generally well-educated students who speak several languages – often has more to do with anger at the US and British role in Iraq and Afghanistan than with simple Islamic militancy.