Image: Police stand guard at self storage depot
Ian Waldie  /  Getty Images
Police stand guard outside a self-storage depot where half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer was discovered Tuesday in West London.
updated 3/30/2004 7:59:13 PM ET 2004-03-31T00:59:13

Police arrested eight men and seized half a ton of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate — commonly used as a bomb ingredient by terrorists — on Tuesday in anti-terror raids in and near London.  

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that the arrests had disrupted “a major operation that one has to assume was (the work of) al-Qaida.”

The operation, with 700 officers raiding two dozen locations in and around London, resulted in the largest seizure of potential bomb-making material since the Irish Republican Army suspended its campaign in 1997.

British authorities declined to say whether they believed the suspects — all British citizens between the ages of 17 and 32 — were involved in a plot to mount a major attack in London, but Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke said they were taken into custody as part of an operation targeting alleged international terrorist activity.

‘A timely reminder’ of terrorism's danger
Home Secretary David Blunkett said the arrests were “a timely reminder that the (United Kingdom) and its interests abroad remain a target.”

Press Association, the British news agency, and Reuters news agency quoted police sources as saying that all eight suspects were Muslims of Pakistani descent, but police declined to confirm or deny that.

“As we have said on many occasions in the past, we in the police service know that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community are law abiding and completely reject all forms of violence," Clarke said, without confirming that those arrested were Muslims. "We have a responsibility to all communities to investigate suspected terrorist activity.”

Clarke said the ammonium nitrate — a common fertilizer that can be mixed with fuel oil to make a powerful explosive — was found at a self-storage facility in west London.

The potent fertilizer-oil mixture was used in bombings in Turkey and Saudi Arabia in recent months and the the Oct. 12, 2002, blast in Bali that killed 192 people, all of which are believed to be the work of Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

It also was used to make a bomb in a van which was parked near the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 15, that did not explode.

Fertilizer used in Oklahoma City bombing
Such bombs can have catastrophic consequences. U.S. authorities estimate that 4,800-pounds of ammonium nitrate was used by domestic terrorists in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

A source in Britain's anti-terror squad, who spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity, said there was enough material in the storage facility to launch an attack on the same scale as the Irish Republican Army's 1996 bombing near Canary Wharf in London's financial district, which destroyed a building, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred.

The source said that while some of the arrests took place near London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, there was no evidence to suggest that either was a target.

Clarke also said there was no indication the the operation was connected to the Madrid train bombs earlier this month or Irish terrorism.

Two suspects were arrested in Uxbridge, also in west London, and three in Crawley, south of the capital. One was detained in Ilford, east London, another in Slough, west of London, and another in Horley, south of the capital.

Officers conducted a total 24 searches that also targeted addresses in Reading, Luton and north London.

Around 500 people have been held in Britain under its sweeping anti-terror laws since Sept. 11, 2001, with about 90 charged with terrorism-related offenses.

NBC News producer Robert Windrem and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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