Police probe reported links between police slaying suspect, Algerian terrorists

Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 2:31 a.m.

MANCHESTER, England - Two men arrested by police in this northern English city reportedly were part of a network of Algerian extremists who were influenced by al-Qaida and possess the deadly poison ricin.

Few residents said they knew the suspects arrested Tuesday in a raid on an apartment in Manchester that led to the stabbing death of a policeman. One of the men was charged Thursday with murdering the officer, Detective Constable Stephen Oake.

"The atmosphere is very scary," said Mohammed Wazir, a Pakistani leading two dozen men in prayers at the North Manchester Mosque in the tree-lined suburb of Crumpsall, home to an ethnically diverse population. "People are scared. We don't want to know who lives next door."

The Guardian newspaper quoted an unidentified government source as saying British security services regarded Algerian terrorists as the "greatest al-Qaida-related threat in Europe, the most potent threat after al-Qaida itself."

The group is linked to the poison ricin, discovered in a London flat on Jan. 5, the newspaper reported. But The Guardian said police had been investigating the network _ which the paper described as an offshoot of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group _ for weeks before the poison find.

Four men described as North African were charged Monday with chemical weapons and terrorism offenses in the ricin case.

Government and police have not confirmed the men arrested in London and Manchester are Algerian. But John Reid, chairman of the governing Labor Party, said the arrests "underlined ... the need to recognize that this is a new kind of threat."

The New York Police Department said Thursday it had sent a senior counterterrorism official to London and may send in additional investigators.

A senior U.S. official traveling in Europe said there were indications the men arrested in the alleged ricin plot were linked to Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group in northern Iraq that also is suspected of ties to al-Qaida. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to elaborate.

Several U.S. counterterrorism officials, however, said no definitive link has been established between Ansar al-Islam and the London arrests.

Britain's Home Office said it could not comment on the alleged link.

The Guardian said police do not believe the Algerians are directly connected to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network but were inspired by the group and may be tied to other Muslim extremist organizations.

Several British newspapers said police who raided the Manchester apartment Tuesday were surprised to find two terror suspects there. The papers said they had intended to arrest an Algerian who had remained in Britain after his asylum request was rejected and was also wanted under anti-terrorism legislation.

Police did not handcuff the men, and an hour after they began interrogating them one broke free, ran into the kitchen and seized a knife. Oake was killed and four other officers injured.

The Guardian said the alleged killer was "a very senior player" in the Algerian network behind the ricin plot. The Times, citing a police source, said the murder suspect is believed to be a "chemist" behind the production of the ricin in London.

Manchester police said only that the raid was linked to the ricin discovery. They did not identify the three men arrested during the operation, saying only that they were North Africans aged 23, 27 and 29.

One was being questioned about the ricin, another about Oake's death, and the third was being handed over to immigration authorities.

Police said Thursday they had arrested a fourth man, a 32-year-old Algerian, under the Terrorism Act on Wednesday night. A police spokeswoman said he turned himself in at a police station in Manchester.

Ricin, derived from the castor bean plant, is one of the world's deadliest toxins and has been linked in the past to al-Qaida and to Iraq.

Saad Rashid, an environmental researcher originally from Baghdad who lives a block away from the raided house, said he was shocked by the arrests.

"This is a peaceful residential area," he said. "There isn't much crime apart from car theft."

He said he was disappointed the incident involved Arabs.

"It gives us a bad image," he said. "People will be suspicious of Arabs and they will have the right to be suspicious."

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