LONDON — Police investigating last week’s failed bomb attacks said yesterday the devices were built and laid by a sleeper cell of East Africans and that they believe the men were acting on instructions from al Qaeda.
Authorities are combing through the records of thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees within the Somali, Kenyan, Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in the British capital. It would be the first time Islamic militants from East Africa have played a conspicuous role in terror cells in Europe.
Police on Monday said Muktar Said Ibrahim, 27, had tried to detonate a bomb on Thursday on a double-decker bus and that Yasin Hassan Omar, 24, had staged a failed attack on the Underground system’s Northern Line.
Yesterday, they identified the two as being from Eritrea and Somalia, respectively, and said both arrived in Britain with their parents in 1992.
Government sources said almost no one seeking asylum from the long-running conflicts in the Horn of Africa had been turned away, even in cases where they were not granted official refugee status. A large refugee community, made up mainly of Somalis, has developed in London.
Ibrahim and Omar are still on the run, along with two other would-be bombers whose pictures were captured on closed-circuit television, and whose names are also known to the police but have not been released. An unknown fifth man is believed to have abandoned a similar explosive device near another train line.
Five others are under arrest on suspicion of being connected to the bomb plot. Four men who killed 52 persons in a similar plot on July 7 died in the explosions.
Thursday’s failed bombers were reported to be regular worshippers at a radical mosque in north London. Neighbors at a nearby apartment block said they had seen the four men carrying heavy cardboard boxes into their ninth-floor apartment.
“They said the boxes were for redecorating the house,” said Samantha Jones, a 33-year-old mother of two who said she recognized two of the men when shown photographs by detectives.
“The man I now know is called Muktar … used to have a long, bushy beard but he then shaved that off,” she said.
All four men played soccer on Sundays with a team made up of East Africans, said another neighbor, Vance Noor, 18.
British newspapers focused outraged headlines on the fact that each of the four had received around $7,500 a year in housing-benefit payments, and more in income support.
But far more serious for the investigators is the fear that al Qaeda has set up sleeper cells of East Africans.
They noted that Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan for five years in the 1990s, and that the al Qaeda leader boasted of planning the suicide attacks that killed 224 persons — mostly Africans — at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
In 2002, a missile fired at an Israeli charter plane in Kenya narrowly missed its target while a suicide bomber exploded a truck at a Kenyan coastal hotel near Mombasa that was frequented by Israeli tourists.
The perpetrators of that attack — who were never caught — were believed to have entered Kenya from Somalia, which has been virtually lawless since the overthrow of President Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.
Intelligence agencies have long suspected that East African “sleeper cells” had entered Britain amid the large-scale influx of asylum-seekers.
More than 30,000 Somalis, excluding their dependents, were given asylum or allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds between 1993 and 2004. The government admits it has lost track of many of them.
The FBI has described East Africa’s porous borders as “the weakest link” in their war on terror. Western intelligence agencies have also said a new generation of terrorist training camps is being set up in the region by militant Islamic groups.
U.N. investigators, monitoring an arms embargo on Sudan, obtained photographs in March showing what they said were 17 mobile training centers in a remote Kenyan coastal strip and near its border with Sudan.
Distributed by World News & Features.