British police arrested a suspected Al Qaeda operative and searched his home and a mosque for explosives Thursday in raids that were carried out as counter-terrorism forces in much of Europe were on heightened alert.
Britain's top law enforcement official described the arrest of the 24-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent in the western city of Gloucester as "significant." Home Secretary David Blunkett indicated that intelligence agents may have broken up a terrorist plot in Britain just a week after suicide bombings of British targets in Turkey.
"It is the belief of the security [services] that this man has connections with the network of Al Qaeda groups," Blunkett said. "We would not have taken these steps if we did not believe that this individual posed a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country.... There has been an evacuation of a nearby mosque. There is a concern that this individual had in his possession explosives."
Deploying at dawn, authorities said, police cordoned off three streets and evacuated 119 homes in a mostly Asian immigrant area of central Gloucester, a cathedral city in a hilly region where the British royalty have rural estates. Investigators also searched a mosque and an Islamic college connected to the suspect in nearby Blackburn during the operation by local police, Scotland Yard and the MI5 domestic intelligence agency.
Police will conduct forensic tests on items confiscated during the raids, officials said, and are examining possible links between the suspect and Richard Reid, the British Al Qaeda terrorist convicted in the U.S. of trying to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with explosive-packed shoes in December 2001.
Police were investigating whether the suspect arrested Thursday tried to rig a similar explosive device in shoes.
The Gloucester suspect and a man arrested in Manchester on Thursday were held "on suspicion of involvement in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism," Scotland Yard said.
Britain has been on high alert since last week's bombings of the British Consulate and HSBC bank office in Istanbul, Turkey, which came five days after double suicide bombings of synagogues in that city. The violence killed 61 people and raised the fear of terrorist strikes in Europe and around the world.
There is particular concern in Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia, all countries that Islamic extremists have singled out with recent threats or violence because of their roles in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, according to European investigators. Britain and Australia have warned of possible attacks on their interests in Turkey, and Argentina toughened security this week in response to intelligence reports of plots against British, Spanish and U.S. interests.
In Italy, police made four arrests Thursday night in a blitz targeting a recruitment network linked to Iraq and Syria. A bomb killed 18 Italian military policemen at their base in Nasiriyah, Iraq, this month.
"There is the fear that the terrorists will arrive in Europe," an Italian law enforcement official said. "After we were hit in Nasiriyah, the concern is worse. Before, it seemed that it took a long time to prepare attacks, but in Turkey and other places we have seen that the manipulation is much faster. Suicide bombers are prepared quickly."
Al Qaeda has not carried out a successful attack in Western Europe. But entrenched terrorist networks there remain a threat, especially now that Al Qaeda is focusing on Britain because of its role in Iraq, a Belgian law enforcement official said.
British police did not identify the man arrested in Gloucester, who, according to a British Broadcasting Corp. television report, was a longtime resident of the city. A worker in an Islamic butcher shop told the BBC: "He's a very good boy. ... Very smart. And very helpful."
Suicide bombers directed or inspired by Al Qaeda are a continual worry for British authorities.
Reid had links to extremist cells in Britain, France and Belgium. And two Britons of Pakistani descent were radicalized in Britain by ideologues linked to Al Qaeda before carrying out a suicide bombing at a beachfront cafe in Tel Aviv this year.
Rotella reported from Paris and Stobart from London.