LONDON — British authorities were seeking three men Friday after police defused two car bombs that they said could have killed hundreds of people had a cell-phone trigger not failed.
The three men have been identified and are believed to be from the Birmingham area, a center of radical Islamic unrest in Britain, U.S. officials who had been briefed on the developments told NBC News.
Police said the two cars, a light green and a light blue Mercedes-Benz, were found early Friday morning in London’s theater district. The green Mercedes was defused at the site. The blue Mercedes was not discovered to be a threat until early Friday evening, after it had been issued a parking ticket and towed to an impoundment lot near Hyde Park.
“These vehicles are clearly linked,” said Peter Clarke, chief of Britain’s antiterrorism police. “The discovery of a second bomb is obviously troubling.”
Chilling new threat: Iraq-style devices
The car bombs were similar to highly destructive explosives used in Iraq and could have killed hundreds of people, U.S. and British officials told NBC News. British officials warned that the country was facing a “serious and sustained” terrorist threat.
A law enforcement official indicated that a catastrophe was only narrowly averted. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official told NBC News that the bomber or bombers apparently tried to detonate at least one of the cars but failed.
The first car, which had been stolen in Scotland, was found about 2:30 a.m. parked under a blue awning near the popular Tiger Tiger nightclub, which was jammed with as many as 2,000 people on Ladies Night.
Authorities believe it was intended to be set off by remote control by a cell phone found inside. The cell phone had received at least two calls, which should have detonated several gallons of gasoline, but when the calls came in, the bomb failed to go off, the official said.
Had it done so, that blast then would have ignited six to eight tanks of propane in a mist to make a fuel-air explosion, creating a fireball the size of a small house and propelling 18 to 20 boxes of roofing nails around a large area at bullet speed, counterterrorism officials said.
Clarke told reporters that the second car was similarly laden with gasoline, propane and nails. It was parked illegally nearby, ticketed and towed about 3:30 a.m., he said.
U.S. officials told NBC that the devices resembled the highly explosive car bombs that had been seen in Iraq but not, until now, in the West.
Islamist terrorist suspects convicted in recent London cases have spoken of moving up to more deadly fuel-air explosives, authorities said. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair said earlier this year that “vehicle-borne weaponry is the greatest danger that we can face.”
Details from cell phone
Authorities told NBC News that police had learned a great deal from the cell phone, which recorded incoming and outgoing phone numbers. In addition, they were trawling through footage from the scores of high-resolution closed-circuit television cameras that record nearly everything that happens across the city.
Police did not name the three men they were seeking, but they said the men were believed to be from the Birmingham area, home to Britain’s second-largest Muslim population and a strong recruiting base for the controversial Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation.
They said one of the three men could be an associate of Dhiren Bharot, an Indian convert to Islam who was sentenced to life in prison last year for plotting to fill limousines with explosives similar to those found Friday and park them in garages beneath hotels and office complexes.
Bharot, whom police described as a high-level al-Qaida operative, also planned to attack five financial landmarks in the United States: the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup Tower in New York; the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both in Washington; and the Prudential Building in Newark, N.J.
Second car bomb unspotted for hours
The two cars were left at the same place, but their discoveries were very dissimilar.
The first car was immediately recognized as a threat and disarmed at the scene. The second car, however, sat unrecognized for most of the day after it was hitched up to a tow truck and carted down London’s streets to a police impoundment lot, its deadly payload intact for the entire trip.
It was clear that the devices, had they exploded, would have caused great damage and many casualties in the area, which is packed with restaurants, bars and theaters.
“This is a busy area that time of night,” the police official told NBC News. “There could have been a fireball that could have penetrated the club, and with the nails, it could have caused serious casualties.”
Somber start for Brown
The attempted bombing comes just days after Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister and a week before the second anniversary of the July 7 London bombings that killed 52 people.
Brown’s new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said the country was confronted with “the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism.”
President Bush scheduled a Cabinet meeting for late Monday afternoon in Washington to assess the situation. But Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said U.S. officials had no evidence of a threat to U.S. security and that there were no plans to raise the U.S. security threat level.
With the approach of Independence Day, however, New York officials said they were ramping up security in light of the developments in London, where a New York police official was coordinating with local authorities.
“Some of you will notice, some of you won’t — but we have to be cognizant,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show.
By Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com. NBC’s Ned Colt and Stephanie Gosk in London and Robert Windrem in Washington and WNBC-TV’s Jonathan Dienst in New York contributed to this report.