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Britain sees terrorist threat grow

Officials look out for 'lone wolves' and converts as new cases involve suspects from diverse backgrounds.

June 30, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The tactic echoed the unthinkable cruelty of the Iraqi war zone.

The target was a crowded family restaurant. And the accused would-be attacker, who was wounded when his bomb went off prematurely in the restaurant bathroom, was a hulking 22-year-old who police say has mental problems.

Police in the southwest England town of Exeter charged Nicky Reilly, a British convert to Islam, with terrorism in the explosion last month and alleged that extremists took advantage of his problems to groom him for a suicide mission.

"Our investigation so far indicates Reilly, who had a history of mental illness, had adopted the Islamic faith," said Deputy Chief Constable Tony Melville of the Devon and Cornwall police force. "We believe, despite his weak and vulnerable illness, he was preyed upon, radicalized and taken advantage of."

Although the explosion in Exeter did not get much international attention, it has raised concerns among Western anti-terrorism officials because it resembles cases in Iraq in which militants used people with mental problems for suicide bombings.

The case and several other recent developments have put Britain on alert for attacks by lone-wolf militants and converts.

"Here was a man with a borderline IQ and mental problems who was apparently recruited by extremists," said a senior British anti-terrorism official, who asked to remain anonymous because of restrictions on discussing investigations. "It's a method that we are aware of in Iraq. This shows we have to expand our attention to new areas where radicalization can take place. Not just prisons or schools, but mental institutions and the mentally ill."

Every year since 2003, usually during the summer vacation season, extremists have tried to strike in Britain. They succeeded on July 7, 2005, when a group of Britons, three of Pakistani and one of Jamaican descent killed 52 people in suicide bombings on subway trains and a bus. There have been several close calls, including a failed attack one year ago today in which suspects tried to explode two car bombs in a London nightclub district, then rammed a flaming, explosives-packed car into a terminal at the Glasgow airport.

This year, the threat seems to have taken on a new face. Suspected radicals have popped up in unexpected places with diverse backgrounds. Unlike previous incidents, they do not appear to have strong links to international networks such as Al Qaeda.

In April, police arrested a 19-year-old student living with his family in an affluent suburb of Bristol and who had explosives in his fortified top-floor apartment. Police carried out three controlled explosions at the residence. The suspect, Andrew Ibrahim, is the son of an Egyptian-born pathologist and a British mother and attended an expensive private school. Authorities said Ibrahim, a Muslim convert, had been a devotee of hip-hop music, had face piercings and had wrestled with drug addiction before developing an intense interest in fundamentalist Islam.

Police began investigating Ibrahim thanks to a tip from an imam who suspected that Ibrahim had been handling explosives, anti-terrorism officials said. The imam noticed that Ibrahim had burn marks on his hands and reported him to police, officials said.

The investigation has not turned up other suspects, officials said. In contrast, investigators believe Reilly, the suspect in the Exeter explosion, was radicalized and manipulated by extremists. The case is disturbing, officials said, because of Reilly's vulnerability. They described him as a withdrawn youth from a troubled working-class home who developed mental problems in adolescence.

A few years ago, Reilly converted to Islam and adopted the name Mohammed Rasheed. He attended several mosques around his home in Plymouth, about 50 miles from Exeter, and hung out with a predominantly Kurdish and Turkish group of men at a fish-and-chips shop near the apartment where he lived with his mother.

Police have not revealed details about how he was allegedly recruited and radicalized. But on May 22, he rode a bus to Exeter carrying three crude explosive devices described as nail bombs capable of causing a fireball-type explosion. He entered the Giraffe restaurant, which is popular with families, around lunchtime and went into a bathroom in the back.

One of the bombs went off prematurely as Reilly was allegedly handling it, inflicting severe burns and cuts on him, authorities said. Footage from security cameras showed him staggering out of the restaurant, his face and shirt bloody, as patrons fled in panic. Investigators say the bombs could have caused casualties if they had been set off properly.

Anti-terrorism officials say it's another sign that extremism in Britain has spread among an increasingly young and diverse population.

Last week, an association of British police chiefs released a study concluding that extremism has become "like a virus among young minds." The study found an increasing number of converts who have been swept up by violent radical ideology.

The most striking case in the study: a blond, non-Muslim, immigrant boy in West Yorkshire who became obsessed with guns and violence and distributed Internet videos of militants beheading Westerners to fellow students. He is 12 years old.


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