London Fugitives Captured
Police SWAT teams Friday captured the final three fugitives wanted in connection with a bombing attempt on the London transit system, two in a dramatic raid on a public housing project here and the third in a seizure by Italian police who tracked him to a working-class suburb of Rome.
The arrests culminated a manhunt that spanned at least three countries, beginning after bombs failed to explode on three subway trains and a bus July 21. Those assaults came two weeks after similar attacks in London killed 52 people and the four bombers.
The arrests of the men, whose images police say were recorded by security cameras and were shown repeatedly during the search, left Londoners feeling considerably safer. But British police warned that much work remained. The investigation now shifts to identifying suspected planners, bomb makers and accomplices in Britain, Italy and elsewhere.
“There will be more very visible police activity,” said Peter Clarke, who leads anti-terrorism operations for London’s Metropolitan Police. It seemed clear that police had closed in on the fugitives based on evidence gathered in 13 previous arrests, particularly the capture of the first suspect in Birmingham, England, on Wednesday. Phone intercepts also played a role, investigators said.
During a raid Friday morning on a top-floor apartment of a public housing project in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, a special weapons and tactics team captured Muktar Said Ibrahim, who a fellow suspect told police was the leader of the four would-be bombers.
Said was arrested along with Ramzi Mohammed, a short, athletic-looking young man who police say was filmed as he fled commuters who tried to tackle him after the attempted bombing of a subway train at London’s Oval Station.
Television footage showed officers in helmets, gas masks and body armor charging across a balcony and firing tear gas into the apartment. Shortly afterward, Said and Mohammed appeared shirtless on the balcony, their hands up, looking sullen and disoriented, as police trained guns on them. They were led away wearing hooded forensic suits used to preserve evidence.
In Rome, police captured the fourth alleged bomber, identified as Hussain Osman, 27, a Briton of Ethiopian descent who once lived in Italy, a senior Italian anti-terrorism official said. The official described the name as an alias the suspect used when he posed as a Somali refugee to gain legal residency in Britain.
The official said Osman’s actual first name was Isaac and that he was found at his brother’s apartment in a neighborhood populated largely by immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
Osman fled Britain after hiding there for three or four days, but not before British police were able to monitor a cellphone he was using and pass the information on to their counterparts on the Continent, Italian officials said.
Although the fugitive changed phone cards and took other precautions as he traveled by train, investigators set up electronic surveillance and shadowed the people he called. His cellphone activity allowed police to track him to Paris, Milan, Bologna and Rome, where he arrived this week, Italian officials said.
Osman confessed to Italian police Friday evening, the senior anti-terrorism official said, but he made claims that investigators will have to evaluate carefully.
The suspect said the partial detonations on three trains and a bus July 21 were meant to inflict terror but not to kill, the official said. And he insisted there was no connection between his London-based group and the suicide bombers who struck lethally two weeks earlier.
Instead, Osman claimed that his group seized the opportunity to put together a plot emulating the July 7 group, three members of which were from the northern city of Leeds.
“He said they did it inspired by the moment,” the official said. “They wanted to defy the police with a demonstrative act. He says he knew very well they would be arrested.”
But investigators find it difficult to believe that the backpack bombs were prepared with anything but deadly intent. If the bomb maker had not made a mistake with the potent, homemade brew, the resulting casualties would have at least matched the carnage of July 7, British police say.
Although the similar bombs, targets and methods make a link between the two plots likely, police have yet to find definitive evidence connecting them, investigators said Friday.
Osman described the July 21 attacks as the work of a tightly knit group of East African immigrants, the senior anti-terrorism official said. Osman became a radical after arriving in Britain about five years ago, according to an Italian law enforcement official.
Osman told interrogators that he and the other suspects attended Finsbury Park Mosque, a multiethnic hotbed of extremism in North London not far from the shabby, ninth-floor apartment shared by Said and alleged bomber Yasin Hassan Omar, the Somali refugee who was captured Wednesday in Birmingham. Osman told police that Said was the recruiter, bomb builder and leader of the cell.
Police and court records depict Said, a 27-year-old Briton who emigrated from Eritrea when he was 14, as the angry product of a London underworld where street crime and Islamic extremism converge.
After being convicted of robbery at 18, Said apparently converted to Islam while he was serving a five-year term in several prisons. He embraced radical Islam at the same prison where Richard Reid, later convicted in the U.S. of trying to blow up a Paris-Miami flight, fell under the influence of militants, according to officials and court records.
The Italian official said Osman had told police that Said recruited the others partly during workout sessions at a gym. In previous cases, militants have said they bonded while practicing martial arts or sports.
“Of course, there is a lot of work to do to check out this story,” the official said. “Among other things, he made a lot of phone calls to a lot of people in Britain and Italy who have to be traced and investigated. And their contacts have to be investigated.”
Security cameras reportedly caught Osman on the day he allegedly tried to ignite a backpack bomb in a train near Shepherd’s Bush Station. A witness’ description of Osman’s demeanor just after the partial detonation has raised questions about his claim in Rome that he did not intend to die on the train.
The detonation knocked him to the floor and left him groggy, the witness told British newspapers. Osman then got up, climbed onto the tracks and escaped on foot, police say.
His flight ended Friday in Tor Pignatta, a working-class suburb on Rome’s eastern edge a mile or two from the central Termini railway station. He was lounging on a sofa near the entrance to his brother’s second-floor apartment when teams of counter-terrorism and SWAT police burst in using keys his brother provided, an Italian official said. Osman did not attempt to flee or resist.
The brother told police that he had obtained false documents for the suspected bomber, suggesting that Osman was going to either keep running or establish himself somewhere else.
Early today, follow-up raids were being carried out in Milan, Brescia and Rome at the homes or properties of Osman’s relatives or associates, law enforcement sources said.
But the senior anti-terrorism official said Osman’s capture did not necessarily reveal the existence of a full-fledged East African extremist network in Italy.
“I think we are talking more about someone who’s on the lam and moves in the environment of Ethiopians, relatives, friends, looking for help,” the senior official said. “This guy had lived in Italy.”
As in Rome, the arrests in Britain reinforced the idea that the fugitives had taken refuge with relatives or friends in their ethnic communities. British police also arrested three other people Friday, including one who is thought to be the brother of Mohammed, one of the suspects captured in the Notting Hill raid.
One crucial question is whether the cell was part of a larger, international network. The answer may hinge on establishing a link to the bombers in the July 7 attacks. Three of them were British-born, middle-class men of Pakistani descent who had traveled to Pakistan, officials say. The suspected lead figure in the Leeds cell, Mohamed Sidique Khan, had ties to an international network with a presence in Pakistan, Canada and the United States that was already under investigation for a bomb plot that was broken up here last year, investigators say.
The fourth dead bomber was a Jamaican convert to Islam who lived in Luton, a profile that more closely resembles those of the July 21 suspects.
Another figure of interest in the investigation is Haroon Rashid Aswat, a well-traveled Briton of Indian descent suspected of longtime ties to Al Qaeda. Aswat, most recently a resident of South Africa, is being held in Zambia, where he fled from British and U.S. investigators who had been tracking him. British and U.S. officials are now in Zambia discussing where he might be prosecuted.
Aswat has had extensive contact with Finsbury Park Mosque and has been linked to the July 7 attacks because calls were placed from his cellphone to some of the Leeds bombers. Intelligence officials believe he may have had contact with them in the past.
But British and American officials say it is uncertain whether Aswat or someone else placed those calls. It may end up that Aswat is handed over to U.S. agents investigating his role in an alleged plot by radical London imam Abu Hamza al Masri to create terrorist training facilities in Oregon.
“It’s suggested to me that he’s someone more connected in general to Al Qaeda terrorism than specifically to London,” said a British official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Livia Borghese in Rome contributed to this report.