Image: Scotland Yard
Akira Suemori  /  AP
U.K. security officials say the men arrested in a  suspected terrorism plot had been under surveillance for several weeks.
updated 12/20/2010 3:43:26 PM ET 2010-12-20T20:43:26

In the biggest anti-terrorist sweep in Britain in nearly two years, police on Monday arrested a dozen men accused of plotting a large-scale terror attack on targets inside the United Kingdom.

The suspects, who ranged in age from 17 to 28, had been under surveillance for weeks and were believed to have links to Pakistan and Bangladesh, security officials said.

Police swooped in before dawn in coordinated raids on houses in four cities — London, the Welsh city of Cardiff and the English cities of Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent. The officers were unarmed, suggesting any planned attack was not imminent.

The raid, a joint operation by Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 and police, was the largest since April 2009, when 12 men were detained over an alleged al-Qaida bomb plot in the northern city of Manchester.

Counterterrorism officials declined to give more details of the latest alleged plot, saying only that the men had been under surveillance for several weeks. No details were given as to whether explosives or arms were found, and searches were under way in the homes where the arrests took place.

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"The operation is in its early stages so we are unable to go into detail at this time," said John Yates, Britain's senior counterterrorism police officer.

Still, he said Monday's raids, involving a dozen suspects across the U.K., indicated they were planning something big.

"This is a large scale, pre-planned and intelligence-led operation involving several forces," Yates said.

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Police have up to 28 days to question the suspects before they must be charged or released.

The men are thought to be British nationals with links to Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to a counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Britain is home to large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

The arrests were not believed to be part of any planned holiday season attack, said a British security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work.

Iraqi officials claimed last week that captured insurgents believed a recent suicide bombing in Stockholm was part of a series of attacks during the Christmas season.

Those claims were rejected by both British and German officials, who insisted there are no specific threats to their countries over the holiday period.

In October, the U.S. State Department advised American citizens living or traveling in Europe to be wary amid reports that terrorists were planning a Mumbai-style attack on a European city.

Some of the details of a Mumbai-style plot directed at cities in Britain, France or Germany came from Ahmed Siddiqui, a German citizen of Afghan descent who was captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July. More than 170 people were killed in the 2008 attack in the Indian city of Mumbai.

A government official downplayed reports that the latest raids were part of larger terror concerns across Europe.

"Although serious, we believe this raid may have been a one-off and not necessarily related to larger European terror plot concerns," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Another government official said other plots being monitored within Britain had threads that linked back to the Europe-wide plot reported in October, but that there were no credible reports of a specific Christmas terror plot.

Europe has been the target of numerous terror plots by Islamist militants. The deadliest was the 2004 Madrid train bombings, when shrapnel-filled bombs exploded, killing 191 people and wounding about 1,800. A year later, suicide bombers killed 52 rush-hour commuters in London aboard three subway trains and a bus.

In 2006, U.S. and British intelligence officials thwarted one of the largest plots yet, a plan to explode nearly a dozen trans-Atlantic airliners.

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Video: In U.K, 12 held in suspected terror plot

  1. Closed captioning of: In U.K, 12 held in suspected terror plot

    >> and we are following developments involving a massive operation aimed at stopping a suspected terrorist plot in britain that has ties to al qaeda . 12 men were arrested in a series of predawn raids in four cities, including london. they range in age from 17 to 28. what do we know about the target. we have a lot of details about the operation. what about the target?

    >> well, it doesn't appear they had a plot that far advanced. they have people under surveillance all the time. at this particular time they started to move on these 12 people.

    >> i said the suspects range in age from 17 to 28. young men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack .

    >> that profile remains constant of young males often of islamic orientation that have gone radical. that's still the profile of most terrorists. we're looking at four cities including london. do we know anything further about the plot?

    >> no. ea we don't know if they're tied together yet. the british cells are normally from the north area around manchester. this spreads out the geographic reach of the cells involved in britain and raises the concerns about british and european passport holders having access to terrorist activity .

    >> and the other thing that raises a concern, the time of the year. we know it was this time of the year where that young man suspected of hiding the bomb in his underwear, underwear bomber tried to detonate over the skies of detroit.

    >> that was on christmas eve last year. twhaps during the holidays, terrorism officials are always concerned because people gather in major groups for christmas festivities, tree lighting ceremonies. also on the first of the year. those are events that greatly increase the concerns of terrorism officials. this is probably why the british move now to try to preempt that.

    >> michael sheehan with the latest on this developing news.

    >> in a matter of minutes


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