Police foiled a major kidnapping plot, the first of its kind in Britain, with the arrests Wednesday of nine terror suspects who reportedly planned to torture and behead a British Muslim soldier and broadcast the killing on the Internet.
The alleged plot, said by British media to mirror the brutal executions of foreign hostages in Iraq, was in its final stages and uncovered during a six-month surveillance operation by anti-terror officers in this city of more than 1 million in the heart of England. The arrests came in a pre-dawn raid on homes and businesses in several Birmingham neighborhoods, which were mostly Pakistani.
"The threat from terrorism remains very real," said Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw, who would not confirm reports from the British Broadcasting Corp. and other media outlets that the intended victim was an army soldier to be killed in an "Iraqi-style" execution and broadcast on the Internet.
Britain has been at the heart of several thwarted alleged terror plots, including a scheme by a British Muslim to blow up the New York Stock Exchange and other landmarks, and a plan by Muslim extremists to use liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 flights between the United States and Britain.
But the Birmingham kidnapping plot raised fears that a new type of terrorism has reached Britain, one which uses individual victims to send a message through kidnappings and publicized beheadings. Although the motive in the new plot was not disclosed, the announcement coincides with other indications that young British Muslims are becoming increasingly angry over this country's involvement in the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The four British Muslims who attacked London's transit system in Europe's first suicide bombings had expressed rage over Britain's role in the wars. Their attack at rush hour on July 7, 2005 killed 52 people.
In the past year, the object of that anger has spilled over to the 330 Muslims who serve in the 180,000-strong British armed forces.
The potential victim of the latest plot was reportedly a British Muslim soldier who was under police protection, British media reported, though the Defense Ministry would not confirm this.
Britain's first Muslim soldier to be killed in Afghanistan last year was from Birmingham, where the death prompted militant Islamist Web sites to denounce Cpl. Jabron Hashmi, 24, as a traitor. One site - that of extremist British sect al-Ghurabaa - posted an image of the soldier surrounded by flames.
Non-Muslim servicemen are also being targeted.
Last year, a London street vendor was sentenced to six years in prison in a plot to kill a decorated British soldier. Abu Baker Mansha was accused of targeting Cpl. Mark Byles, whose address and other materials were found in Mansha's apartment.
Byles was awarded a military cross for bravery following an attack in which several Iraqi insurgents were killed - exploits covered by British newspapers. One of the articles with Byles' name was circled and found in Mansha's apartment.
Twelve houses and four business - including two Muslim book stores and an Internet cafe - were cordoned off in Wednesday's raids.
Mohammed Majid, 30, watched as police barged into a house.
"At 4 a.m. I heard a loud bang. I looked through the window and thought it was a fire. I saw anti-terrorism police with shields and guns. They broke windows and doors and raided the place. They took a (South) Asian man with a beard who was in his 30s away in handcuffs. He looked dazed."
Forensic teams removed items from the house and shot a video of the scene, he said.
Sky TV reported that British investigators contacted Pakistani intelligence agents four days ago about the plot. In Islamabad, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said, "The British authorities have confirmed to us that there is no Pakistan connection." She gave no other details on the contact between authorities in the two countries.
Still, the raid opened fresh divides in Birmingham's predominantly Pakistani neighborhoods.
"People don't trust their own children any more," said Shabir Hussain, chairman of the Ludlow Road Mosque in Birmingham. "You feel like you should challenge your son or daughter: `Where are you going at night? What are you watching on TV? What are you doing on the Internet?'
Muslims in Birmingham are mindful of the dangers inherent in any raid: Police shot a man in a raid last year in London.
"The police and government seem to be against Muslims and are trying to turn us against one another," said Kadir Mohammad, 18, who lives in one of the raided neighborhoods.
Britain's MI5 has said it set up a network of eight new regional offices across the country in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, including a center in the West Midlands. The service had previously had regional branches in Northern Ireland, but uses the new offices to coordinate with police in counterterrorism work.
Counterterrorism experts said Islamic extremists have been looking for new ways to rattle the West with their use of the Web to broadcast propaganda and unsettling images such as the beheadings of Western hostages in Iraq.
One widely publicized case was that of 62-year-old Kenneth Bigley from Liverpool. He was abducted from a Baghdad suburb where he was working in September 2004 and beheaded three weeks later. His death was captured on video.
London's counterterrorism officers had never before dealt with a terrorist plot to abduct and murder, a police spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The Irish Republican Army and other Northern Ireland paramilitary groups routinely conducted kidnappings, mainly for the purpose of extortion - often targeting family members of those with access to banks, British military installations and police stations.
"This would be the first case (in Britain) of Islamic extremists using kidnapping as a tactic - but these are not the first terrorist kidnapping threats to Britain. The IRA provided those," said former U.S intelligence officer Bob Ayers, now a security analyst based in London.