UK Muslim Leaders Begin to Doubt the Plot

LONDON – Many Muslims in Britain are beginning to doubt the alleged plot to blow up aircraft flying to the United States from Britain.

The arrest of 24 people last week was followed by the cancellation and diversion of hundreds of flights at British airports. The plot story became leading global news, but most of the information on arrested suspects has come by way of allegations and police leaks. These have not yet added up to any indication of evidence.

The suspects are now in their second week in detention after the police won a court order Wednesday to hold them another week. Many Muslim leaders say this is only an indication that the police have no evidence so far, and that they are only now looking for it.

"My fear is that the whole operation which took place on Thursday may have no substance, because so far the police have not found any liquid explosive material," Ghiyasuddin Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute in Britain told IPS. "And also we know that none of these people who were supposedly to carry out the operation in a few days had bought air tickets."

The critical information leading to the arrests and the flight cancellations came from Pakistani intelligence after the arrest of Rashid Rauf, a British Muslim from Birmingham, in Pakistan. But doubts are being raised over the authenticity of this information.

"My fear is that it all probably started in Pakistan," Siddiqui said. "General Musharraf’s position is very, very bad, and he wanted to do something to win favor of George Bush and Tony Blair."

The government is up against a crisis of credibility that began with the publication of its dossier in early 2003 detailing the presence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, satellite pictures and all. That has turned out to be the most embarrassing document that Her Majesty’s government ever produced.

Soon after the July 7 bombings last year, the police shot Brazilian Charles de Menezes on a train – again on "’intelligence" from the police. And in June of this year, 250 armed police swooped upon a house in Forest Gate in East London to raid what they thought was a home factory to produce chemical weapons. One of the two Muslims at home was shot in the shoulder. The police found nothing and had to let the suspects off.

In this case, some of the accounts put out by the government do not seem to add up. British Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander was said to have been recalled from vacation in Scotland to take charge of the imminent travel crisis at airports. But the next day, Prime Minister Tony Blair left for Barbados on vacation. The Sunday before, he had found the case strong enough to have called U.S. President George Bush – on vacation in Texas – to brief him on surveillance operations on the targeting of flights to the U.S.

As government accounts go, Blair did not think it necessary to stay on to supervise the biggest police action in what the government has called the biggest threat to Britain since World War II, when Britain was as good as cut off from the rest of the world.

"I think there is some problem at the level of decision-making, and the way intelligence is gathered and presented," said Siddiqui. "We have a very big problem of credibility now."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott indicated to a group of Muslims who met him Wednesday that all of the arrested persons may not face serious charges. One of those arrested has been let off already, though another was picked up. The family members of several of the arrested suspects have said that the police have got it all wrong.

Further doubts were raised over the government’s handling of the case. There were particular legal objections raised over remarks by Home Secretary John Reid, who claimed that the biggest players were in the net. Lack of evidence to substantiate such claims could jeopardize the case against the suspects in court, some officials have said.

At the moment it is not clear what the case will be. Hundreds of police officers are searching the woods around High Wycombe, just north of London, for clues about preparations to make liquid bombs. All that has emerged after a week of investigation is talk of police carrying some empty bottles away from near the home of a suspect there.

Some of the suspects are motor mechanics, and the police have seized 30 cars to search those for clues. All computers at suspects’ homes have been taken away, and also those at Internet cafes around their homes that they may have visited.

The police have launched their widest ever fishing expedition to look for evidence. They are hoping to dig out something in the second week of investigation, amid growing doubts they will.