- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

LONDON Three North African men were to appear in a magistrate's court today on charges of possessing materials for the "preparation, instigation or commission" of terrorism after a police sweep on the homes of suspected al Qaeda-linked operatives.
The chairman of the London police authority, Lord Toby Harris, told television viewers last night that police had received warnings that "London may be a target" for an attack, but he refused to say whether the information was more specific.
"There is an extremely serious level of threat this week," he said.
The Sunday Times quoted sources close to Prime Minister Tony Blair saying the three men had planned to release cyanide or another poison gas into a crowded car on the London Underground, the world's first subway system.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott categorically denied that yesterday, telling the British Broadcasting Corp. that there was not "any evidence whatsoever there was going to be a gas attack or indeed use of bombs" regarding the three men, identified as Rabah Chekat-Bais, 21, Rabah Kadris, in his mid 30s, and Karim Kadouri.
But Lord Harris, interviewed on Channel 4, acknowledged that the Underground is an "obvious terrorist target. Yes, there is enormous concern about it."
Mr. Prescott did not identify the terrorist materials that the men are accused under a newly strengthened Terrorism Act of possessing.
The men were arrested with three others nine days ago in an unpublicized police swoop on several drop-in centers and homes in London frequented by Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans.
Several anti-terrorism and political experts speculate that the government's reticence about the sweep by the anti-terrorist police, part of MI5, may be part of a government effort to avoid causing panic among the 3 million daily subway commuters.
"If commuters stop using the metro, besides causing transport chaos, it is a victory for the terrorists," Lord Harris said.
The degree of perceived threat felt by Britons has more than doubled in recent weeks, according to a new survey.
Another newspaper, the Independent on Sunday, reported that British security agencies are urgently trying to detect coded orders calling for a major attack on Britain. It said the agencies are using every available resource, including electronic intercepts and re-interrogating detained al Qaeda suspects.
There have been two attacks on underground metro-rail systems, in Paris and in Tokyo. The Japanese attack involved sarin gas, killing eight, but the French incident is more relevant to British police.
A French court last month sentenced two Algerians to life imprisonment for placing bombs on the Paris Metro in 1995 that killed eight persons and wounded 200. The men were members of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, or the GIA.
A third suspect in those bombings is still being held in Britain after unsuccessful extradition attempts. MI5 is understood to be investigating whether the three facing court appearances today are linked to the group, the Sunday Times reported.
Al Qaeda has a history of experimenting with cyanide. Books and documents recovered last year from an al Qaeda house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, included chemistry texts showing how to make hydrogen cyanide gas.
Videotapes recovered from a training camp in Afghanistan showed dogs being poisoned with a white vapor thought to be cyanide. In February, Italian police arrested four Moroccans with 9 pounds of potassium ferro-cyanide, which they reportedly planned to use in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
Germany's international counterterrorism chief warned last week that an al Qaeda leader trained in the use of toxins could be planning an attack in Europe. They are searching for Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who is believed to be an expert in the mixing of poisons and has already carried a toxic substance disguised as an ointment into Turkey.
French workers on two rail tunnels under the English Channel meanwhile have threatened to strike unless security is stepped up. They say it is simple for terrorists to get on board and wreak havoc, just as would-be illegal immigrants have managed on occasions to run through into the tunnel and jump on freight trains.
The Eurostar, riding in a separate tunnel, carries passengers between London, Paris and Brussels twice an hour for most of the day.
The heightened state of concern was reflected last week in an apparent blunder by the well-oiled government public relations machine.
An official warning was issued Nov. 7, two days before the latest arrests, warning the public against a poison gas or dirty bomb attack. The wording appeared to be from an internal memo and was hastily withdrawn in favor of less worrying advice.
The government blamed the confusion on a clerical error. But that and a formal speech by Mr. Blair warning of an increased terror risk may indicate a split over counterterrorism tactics.
Criticism after a bomb attack killed almost 200 people in Bali, Indonesia, appears to have stung Foreign Secretary Jack Straw into insisting on immediate action.
But Home Secretary David Blunkett, who is responsible for MI5, is inclined to favor a "longer game" of surveillance and infiltration into terror groups rather than spectacular arrests and swoops.


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