A major counter-terrorism operation on Friday resulted in the arrests of five men. Bomb disposal experts were ordered into a premises in Birmingham city centre where they spent several hours examining for any evidence of materials to stage an attack.
The men were arrested in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent as a result of an operation by the security service MI5 and police following suspicions of an Islamist terrorist plot. The group, whose ages ranged from 18 to 37, were arrested on suspicion of commissioning, preparing or instigating acts of terrorism.
Two men aged 32 and 37 were held in Stoke, Staffordshire; two aged 18 and 24 were arrested at their homes in Birmingham; and a 28-year-old man was detained in a different area of Birmingham.
The property being examined by the British army’s bomb disposal unit is minutes from the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham city centre. It is known to have been visited last year by at least one member of the terror cell that attacked Paris and Brussels.
During searches by bomb experts, guests in a nearby hotel were told to stay inside as a precaution.
Ash Sangha, a hotel worker at the Pentahotel in Holloway Head, said he had seen bomb squad experts in the street and staff and guests had been warned by police to stay indoors for their own safety.
Locals said the bomb squad arrived just after 3pm, according to the Birmingham Mail. Several hours later, explosives experts and a bomb robot were still at the scene, which remained cordoned off. West Midlands fire service were put on standby and tweeted: “Fire crews have been supporting police colleagues with an ongoing operation in the Lea Bank area of #Birmingham.”
A spokesperson for the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit said: “Police are searching a number of properties in the Stoke and Birmingham areas as part of the investigation; these searches are ongoing. There is no risk to the public at this stage.”
Since August 2014, Britain has been at its second highest stage of terrorist alert – severe – meaning an attack by those following the violent Islamist ideology is highly likely.
However, a number of arrests based on intelligence of suspicion of planning jihadi violence in Britain have led to suspects not being charged and claims that intelligence was flawed.
Friday’s arrests followed a joint meeting between police and MI5. Such a decision is reached if they believe they probably have sufficient evidence to go to court or they believe they can no longer let the people they suspect remain free.
Few details were given about the arrests and the reasons behind them. Police said: “The arrests were intelligence-led and part of an ongoing investigation.”
It is known that last year at least one member of the terrorist cell that staged gun and bomb attacks in Paris visited Birmingham.
The attack on Paris in November 2015 was led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a top Islamic State commander, who died after the atrocity in a shootout with French forces. Found in his possession after his death was a phone, which contained pictures of visits to Birmingham and London months before the carnage in the French capital.
It is unclear whether Abaaoud, or another cell member Mohammed Abrini, or both, visited Birmingham last year.
In February, the West Midlands chief constable, Dave Thompson, told the Guardian that his force was conducting a number of inquiries, involving international partners, into the visit to Birmingham by one of the European-based cell.
Thompson declined to discuss details and said counter-terrorism officials were alert to the dangers of “hostile reconnaissance” by terrorists before an attack.