A terrorist attack on London was averted because two beat patrol officers stopped a man who was acting suspiciously while filming with a mobile phone, police said today.
The Algerian man claimed he was a tourist but when his phone was examined it yielded 90 minutes of footage of Tube stations, security cameras, mainline rail stations and shopping centres.
Police took the unprecedented step of releasing the “hostile reconnaissance” video as a counter-blast against mounting criticism that they are using anti-terror powers to stop and question tourists and photographers.
“I’d much rather justify what we did do in stopping someone than having to justify why we didn’t do it against the backdrop of a burning building and a terrorist atrocity,” said Detective Superintendent Chris Greany of City of London Police.
Mr Greany admitted his officers would “get it wrong sometimes” but said they were acting in the public interest in stopping people and always explained what they were doing.
He added: “We don’t just stop people for a laugh – we’re trying to make London safer.
“The cops on the street are aged 21 and 22, it’s a big ask for them to identify who is behaving suspiciously and who isn’t. It’s a difficult balance but the City of London is a terrorist target.”
The woman constable who stopped the terror suspect inside Liverpool Street station became suspicious because he was using a Nokia N95, the same model of phone that she owned. The officer noticed that the man was covering with his finger the red light indicating that the phone was in video mode.
The man said he was a tourist and didn’t speak English but was asked to attend a police station. The footage on his phone included film from the concourse at Liverpool Street, bars and cafes at Broadgate Circle outside the station and the foyer of Oxford Circus station.
The man, who was in his 40s, had also recorded film on the Northern Line platforms at Camden Town station. He then went to Mornington Crescent, one of the deepest stations on the Tube network, where his footage included the locations of the security cameras and the lifts to the platform.
Counter-terrorism units and MI5 became involved in the inquiry which revealed the man and his brother had entered Britain using false passports a decade ago.
They were engaged in large scale fraud, obtaining multiple credit cards on bogus applications which they used to buy luxury goods which were then exported to Algeria and sold for profit.
Purchases included £5,000 worth of mobile phones, using a fraudulent credit card, and an Audi A4 car on which they paid the deposit but intended to default on the remaining payments.
The brothers did not, however, have a lavish lifestyle and shared a one-bedroom flat in Brent, north London, with another man.
The inquiry, Operation Langley, looked at 30 suspects and recovered material supporting “Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” and established links with extremists connected to Finsbury Park Mosque, a centre of jihadi activity in the 1990s.
Although held under the Terrorism Act for 14 days the brothers were charged with fraud offences.
Sources said a decision was taken not to charge them with terror offences because aspects of the law were being challenged in the House of Lords at the time and the fraud offences carried roughly the same penalties.
The two men pleaded guilty and received two-year sentences. They have since completed those terms and been returned to Algeria.
Police are convinced the men were engaged on a terrorist reconnaissance mission.
Mr Greany said: “If they had not been disrupted the consequences would have been dire. You have to ask yourself why would someone be going into a ‘deep hole’ Tube station and filming the CCTV cameras.”
The video has been shared with other forces and the intelligence agencies and there is agreement that it constitutes a terrorist reconnaissance exercise.
Inquiries later revealed the gang also visited shopping centres in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Bluewater, Kent, Swindon, Wiltshire and Bridgend, south Wales. It was not clear if those visits were to identify “soft targets” or make fraudulent credit card purchases.
Police sources complained that some journalists and photographers have been deliberately trying to get themselves arrested in sensitive central London locations by filming furtively and refusing to tell officers what they are doing.
But Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, said that “enormous concern” had been generated by police officers telling members of the public that the could not take pictures of famous London landmarks.
Mr Yates, head of Specialist Operations at Scotland Yard, has issued new guidance to police officers about the use of “stop and account” powers.
He added: “These are important yet intrusive powers. They form a vital part of our overall tactics in deterring and detecting terrorist attacks. We must use these powers wisely. Public confidence in our ability to do so rightly depends upon your common sense. We risk losing public support when they are used in circumstances that most reasonable people would consider inappropriate.”