By Lucy Panton & Ian Kirby
THE al-Qaeda plot to behead a British Muslim soldier was smashed after MI5 intercepted a panic order to the kidnap gang: "If you can't find a Muslim, ANY squaddie will do."
The demand, made directly to Birmingham from a terror boss in Pakistan, came after the British-based cell spent days trawling a Midlands army base for a victim.
A military source revealed: "Security services and police had been watching for them to try to grab a Muslim soldier. But as soon as we knew they were willing to take anyone in any uniform — man or woman — and cut their head off then they had to act.
"The sheer casual, callous evil of what these British guys were willing to do on the orders of al-Qaeda is beyond belief."
Now we can reveal the truth behind the Birmingham raids is even more terrifying than first thought.
- AL-QAEDA CHIEFS in Pakistan planned, ordered, directed and activated the plot. It was not a home-grown idea.
- Anti-terror police and MI5 became seriously concerned about the plot just FIVE WEEKS ago.
- None of the Birmingham suspects had recent terror training abroad. "SLEEPERS" were put in place years ago waiting to be activated.
- Suicide attacks were ruled out. Al-Qaeda wanted the group to do it AGAIN as many times as possible.
- Large bundles of CASH were handed over to the suspects to fund the planned atrocity—hiring houses, buying clothes and video cameras.
One senior Anti-Terrorist Squad officer said: "This is even more terrifying than some of the highly complex long-term plots we have already disrupted and taken to court, such as 21/7 and the airline bomb plot. "It was barely a month in the making and its aim — to kidnap and kill one anonymous soldier — was so limited they could easily have succeeded. But the ramifications would have shocked the nation, probably the world."
The News of the World can reveal a massive counter-terrorism police and MI5 operation was swung into action between Christmas and New Year when they discovered a top secret communication from a notorious senior al-Qaeda chief to a known British extremist suspect.
An MI5 source explained: "We had known for some time via routine terrorist ‘chatter' we monitor worldwide of a vague plot but it seemed that was all it was — words.
The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, said recently that at any one time there are about 30 top-level Islamic terror plots under way in this country that we are fully committed combating.
"This was not one of them. It was far lower priority until that message from AQ in Pakistan in explicit terms, which activated this sleeper group into carrying out the attack.
"The logic from Pakistan to the Birmingham guys was simple. They'd wanted a summer spectacular, but one hadn't happened, and the airline plot had been defeated.
"They wanted something, anything — and this was the quickest and easiest plot they could think of that wouldn't require complex planning like, for instance, buying a ton of special fertiliser from scores of garden centres to make bombs.
"Ideally they wanted a Muslim soldier, preferably in uniform, and hopefully one who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"They didn't look for one home on leave, as has been suggested. In fact there is a military base in the Birmingham area where some troops live with their families in army houses on estates mixed in with ordinary civilian housing.
"We monitored suspects 24/7 and saw them begin scouring the streets there simply looking for a Muslim face in a uniform."
Around 700 counter-terrorist detectives from Scotland Yard and MI5 agents from London, Wales and Manchester poured into Birmingham to help local anti-terror cops.
MI5 discovered barely 100 Muslim servicemen had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those about 20 lived in the Midlands.
The source added: "They never got to the point of finding a specific Muslim target, though we spotlighted two most likely victims and gave them specific protection in case the gang made a kidnap bid."
A Ministry of Defence source revealed: "Because they'd failed to target an individual Muslim, AQ back in Pakistan got impatient.
"Last weekend the security services discovered another message had been brought to Birmingham which ordered the suspects to strike immediately - and if they couldn't find a Muslim squaddie, simply snatch any serviceman or woman off the street.
"After that we couldn't allow the police to wait any longer. Protecting a small group of soldiers and their families 24/7 is one thing, particularly as they were doing it in secret.
"But the danger of anyone in the armed forces—man or woman, black, white, Muslim or Chinese—being taken off the street like this to be beheaded on film was another.
"They couldn't put protective surveillance around them all. So we insisted it be brought to an end and the raids began."