The Easter innocents

THEY know all about terrorist bombs at the Wellington Inn. But they're not frightened of them. The 16th-century Manchester pub was relocated and rebuilt, half timber by half timber, after a devastating IRA attack in 1996. Mancunians were not going to give up on their "Welly" then. And, as warnings were sounded of a new threat to the Northern city this weekend, it became clear they were not prepared to give up on it now.

"We're mobbed," said Peter Allan, the pub's cheery 24-year-old assistant manager, from behind the bar on Friday night. "It takes more than a terror threat to put Mancunians off a night out." Elaine Boyes, a Liberal-Democrat councillor who represents the city centre, agreed. "There is a blitz spirit in Manchester," she said. "We were hardened by things like the IRA and nothing will deter us from getting on with our ordinary lives."

The regulars at the Welly yesterday nursed their pints and read headlines in their local paper warning of a terror "Easter spectacular". Police, Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed, had foiled "a very big terrorist plot". Early reports suggested the intended target could have been just a few hundred yards from the pub: the Arndale Centre, the busy mall wrecked by 3,300lbs of Irish Republican explosives in 1996. Police were far from certain that was the case. They were far surer the threat didn't come from Ireland. Or even from the kind of British Islamists behind the 7/7 London attacks in 2005. It came from Pakistan, a nation supposed to be the UK's ally in the war on terror.

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Security sources were this weekend stressing "the Pakistan connection". One expert yesterday told Scotland on Sunday that two-thirds of terrorist activity could now be linked to the Muslim nation and its lawless frontier with troubled Afghanistan. But what exactly are the terror links? And, with more than 50,000 people of Pakistani origin living in Scotland alone, what can be done to sever them?

They were all picked up within an hour: two sec- urity guards in a Home Base car park; students in cheap digs, one above a Liverpool off-licence, a man in a van on a Manchester motorway. There were 12 in all; 11 were Pakistani nationals, one a Briton. They are believed to be in their twenties. Police believe they were trying to infiltrate potential targets for co-ordinated attacks. Two of the men – self-employed van drivers – worked for a firm based at Manchester Airport and may have had access to vulnerable areas.

Hundreds of armed police swooped on them at locations across the north-west of England. Officers had been tipped off, sources said, by MI5 officers based in Pakistan who had intercepted "chatter" about a big attack at Easter. Undercover surveillance operatives had been trailing the men around Manchester as they stopped to take pictures at shopping centres, sights and a nightclub. An attack, the police believed, was "imminent" – although their operation was brought forward after the Metropolitan Police's head of counter terrorism, Bob Quick, was photographed clutching paperwork detailing the action.

It may have been an imminent threat, but it wasn't unexpected. For months UK intelligence agencies have been focusing on Pakistan, increasingly unstable with political problems of its own, as the source of terror in Britain. Last month the Government published a new counter-terrorism strategy, the fullest it has ever put in the public domain. Pakistan's borderlands with Afghanistan – the suspected home of some 200 core members of al-Qaeda – featured prominently. So did the attitude of ordinary Pakistanis. Fully one-third of Pakistanis, according to a 2008 poll cited, "expressed confidence" in Bin Laden.

Pakistan has been in turmoil since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. The former prime minister had returned to her native country from exile - but was killed before she could take power from the military regime of American ally President Pervez Musharraf. Her People's Party won elections in February, leading to Musharraf's resignation a few months later. Her widower, Asif Ali Zadari, was swept to power in a landslide last year but has struggled to contain popular discontent and Islamist bombings.

There have been Pakistani links to British terror before. Three of the four men who attacked the London transport system in 2005, killing 52 people, are believed to have undergone training in Pakistan. Hundreds of young British Muslims have been radicalised at schools in Pakistan. This week's alleged plot, however, was different. Most of those who are suspected of planning to carry it out are actually from Pakistan. Experts are already talking about a switch in tactics by groups linked to al-Qaeda. Rather than train or inspire Britons to kill and maim, are they sending people from Pakistan instead?

The Indian government thinks so. It is widely believed that the men who attacked Mumbai earlier this year were from Pakistan. There were some reports yesterday suggesting some of the men targeted in last week's operation were connected with the organisation behind the Indian attacks, Army of the Righteous.

British Muslims with Pakistani connections are now intensely monitored as they come and go from Pakistan. Many bristle at the attention – and what they say are cack-handed questions, including an apparently stock query asking if they know the whereabouts of Bin Laden. But could the scrutiny on Britons have encouraged the Pakistani nationals, who find it relatively easy to get visas to come to Britain? Nearly 10,000 student visas were granted to Pakistanis in the last year alone.

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There is certainly no shortage of recruits for jihad in Pakistan – thanks to seething resentment over the West's war on terror, especially in areas of its borders effectively controlled by the Taliban or at least those sympathetic to the Afghan fundamentalist group. The beleaguered government and security forces of Pakistan has been under constant attack from suicide bombers and other terrorists in recent months.

That comes as a relief to Paul Wilkinson. The St Andrews University professor, an expert in terrorism, has been talking about Pakistan for years, even as security chiefs in Washington and London focused their might, in his view wrongly, on Iraq in the years after the 9/11 attacks. "The government has stated quite candidly that two-thirds of terrorist-related activity is linked with Pakistan," Wilkinson said yesterday. "Either the terrorists come from Pakistan, or they are trained in Pakistan, or they are inspired by websites from Pakistan."

A tiny minority of British Muslims also remain a threat. "There are 2,000 people that the government is interested in," said Wilkinson. "Perhaps more." The new government counter-terrorism strategy, dubbed "Contest Mk2", makes clear there remains a network of al-Qaeda cells in Britain. The single biggest ethnic group in the cells, the paper claims, are British Pakistanis.

Professor Wilkinson, meanwhile, hasn't given up hope. Heartened by Barack Obama's new outlook – and the dying down of conflicts in Iraq and Chechnya that have inflamed resentment against Europe and America – he believes support from extremism in the Muslim world, including Pakistan, could wane. In Egypt, a former extremist leader, Dr Fadl, is pouring scorn on Bin Laden. "He has attacked them scathingly," said Wilkinson, "for killing their co-religionists. Many Muslims respond to that." However, a major poll in the Islamic world revealed a significant minority still sympathises – 7% of respondents said they felt the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, were "completely justified".

So what is the level of threat this weekend? Officially, it is "severe". That means an attack is "highly likely" but not now imminent. The official threat level has been at the highest two levels – either severe or critical – since it was first publicly quoted in 2006. Experts are bracing themselves for an attack. But they also know that the earlier they intervene, the harder it is to get the evidence they need for a full conviction. There are currently around 200 people in British jails on terror charges. But one-third of them are on remand, still unconvicted of any crime.

Meanwhile, there are practical measures that can be taken against the terror threat from Pakistan. Ministers have admitted weaknesses in the visa regime, especially for students. They will now come under intense pressure to overhaul the visa system, especially after it emerged that all bar one of this week's suspects were in the country on student visas – two reportedly being allowed to stay despite irregularities in their papers. Most of the men, according to reports yesterday, had never even been near a college.

The Home Office reckons there are up to 2,000 bogus schools and colleges, mostly pretending to provide English or computing lessons, across the UK. More than 40,000 Pakistanis were given student visas from 2004 to 2007 and more than another 9,000 in the last year. Until recently, applicants' names were not checked against full terror watch lists. The Pakistani authorities have previously claimed that half of all individuals given student visas subsequently disappear – mostly finding jobs rather than studying.

British authorities can also step up their co-operation with authorities in Pakistan. One expert, however, admitted this would be hard work. "There is not always a lot of trust there," he said, referring to claims some of the Pakistani security services are sympathetic to the Taliban.

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The UK may have a secret weapon in its battle with Pakistani extremists: its own Pakistani community. "Our people are very vigilant," said one Scottish Islamic leader yesterday. "We can be the eyes and ears of the police." The role of Pakistan in the latest terror threat hurts, however. Scots of Pakistani origin – or even birth – are traumatised by the "Pakistan connection" and the horrors of terror.

In Glasgow, 83-year-old Bashir Maan, the first Muslim ever elected to political office in Scotland, was yesterday distraught. "I am sinking into my armchair," the former Labour councillor and convener of Scotland's biggest police board, said, his voice weighed down with grief.

"The truth is that every Pakistani is now a suspect. Everybody will be stopped at the airports by the police. And can you blame them? My heart is very heavy but what can you do? These people kill innocent people. And that, in Islam, is a cardinal sin."