Nine men were being held tonight in England over an alleged terrorist plot to carry out an Iraqi-style kidnapping of a British Muslim soldier.
Eight were arrested this morning in a series of dawn raids in Birmingham, with the ninth arrested late this afternoon on a motorway in the city.
Security sources said the alleged plot was to abduct a serving Muslim soldier, who would have been filmed, possibly tortured and ultimately executed.
It could have mirrored the kidnappings of the British hostages Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan by Iraqi insurgents.
Sources said a target for the alleged plot had already been identified – a young Muslim soldier in the British army who had served in Afghanistan.
The operation to thwart the alleged plot was led by the new Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, only set up a few months ago.
Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw, from West Midlands Police, described it as a “very, very major investigation” which would take “days if not weeks”.
“The threat from terrorism remains very real,” he said.
At a news conference this afternoon, Mr Shaw declined to give any details about the alleged plot, but said today’s 4am raids marked the “culmination of many months of activity”.
“I can only stress that we are right at the foothills of what is a very, very major investigation for us,” he said.
Sources confirmed that a surveillance operation by anti-terror officers had been ongoing for six months.
The start of the news conference was delayed as officers swooped to arrest the ninth suspect on a motorway in the Birmingham area.
“That illustrates to you this is a dynamic and fluid operation that is by no means finished,” Mr Shaw told reporters.
The earlier arrests were made at eight houses in the Sparkhill, Washwood Heath, Kingstanding and Edgbaston areas of Birmingham.
They were being searched by specialist forensic officers in black suits tonight. Four commercial premises have also been secured and sealed off.
Some of the nine suspects were thought to be at a high security police station in Coventry tonight. Under new anti-terrorism laws, police can hold them without charge for up to 28 days.
They were arrested on suspicion of the “commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2000.
Home Secretary John Reid is receiving regular briefings on the progress of the operation, but he declined to disclose any details when interviewed this morning.
The Home Office earlier described it as a “major counter terrorism operation” and a reminder of the “real and serious nature of the terrorist threat we face”.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman declined to comment.
Security sources said the alleged plot was to carry out a “close quarters” style abduction of a Muslim soldier, which could have mirrored the Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan kidnappings.
The victim would have been filmed and ultimately executed, sources alleged.
Mr Bigley, from Liverpool, was taken hostage in Iraq by the Tawhid and Jihad militant group in September 2004 and murdered just over three weeks later, with his death captured on video.
Mrs Hassan, who had British, Iraqi and Irish nationality, was kidnapped in October 2004 and shot a month later.
The kidnap plot was said to have been in the later stages of planning.
West Midlands Police refused to confirm claims that the alleged target had been made aware of the threat and placed under protective custody.
Such a tactic has not employed by terrorists in the UK but is a constant threat for foreigners in Iraq.
Sources said it marked a new approach to terrorism and that a major incident had been thwarted.
Patrick Mercer, the Conservative homeland security spokesman, said of the alleged plot: “If this proves to be accurate this is a disturbing departure.”
Recent al Qaida-style terrorist bombings have been designed to cause mass casualties – often on public transportation systems or at iconic targets.
But sources said today’s operation was not connected to any July 7-style bombing or attempted hijacking.
Police said the operation posed “no specific threat to the West Midlands”.
The addresses targeted by dozens of police officers included a property near the junction of Poplar Road and Stratford Road in Sparkhill. Two more addresses were raided in Jackson Road and Foxton Road in Alum Rock, east Birmingham.
A man arrested at Jackson Road was named locally as 29-year-old Amjad Mahmood.
His brother, who did not want to be named, told reporters: “The police won’t let me know where he is. His wife and kids are very distressed. My mother and father are very distressed. The police won’t tell them where he is.”
Local councillor Ansar Ali Khan said he had spoken to the father of the arrested man who, he said, was “in shock to know that his son had been arrested”.
He described him as “a very hard working local businessman”, adding: “He has served the community for 30 years and he is proud to be British. He cannot imagine his son having any link to this sort of activity.”