Operation Gamble

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West Midlands Police Logo - the regional counter-terrorism division that led the investigation

This article is part of the Counter-Terrorism Portal project of Spinwatch.

Operation Gamble was the codename given to a counter-terrorism operation undertaken on 1 February 2007 in which nine Muslim men were arrested in dawn raids in Sparkhill, Washwood Heath, Kingstanding and Edgbaston – all areas of Birmingham. The operation was headed by the regional anti-terrorism command - the West-Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit and MI5. Before being arrested, the suspected individuals were placed under 24 hour surveillance for 6 months, in an operation that cost £10 million [1] and involved over 700 officers.[2]

The plot allegedly involved abducting a British Muslim soldier, beheading him and posting the video of the beheading online. According to a senior security source: if the group had "not found a suitable Muslim soldier to kill, it is quite possible they would have plucked an innocent member of the public off the streets and beheaded him."[1]

Unidentified Security Sources stated that the instruction to "kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier or soldiers in Birmingham" was issued by "Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Iraq to dozens of their followers in this country". Such a plot, they continued "was just the first of a series of planned attacks". [3] However, no evidence has emerged which suggests that Operation Gamble, or indeed any other alleged kidnap plot, was (or has been) ordered by Al-Qaeda. Nearly all of these so-called plots have been attributed to secret sources from the intelligence services, the police, the military or Whitehall.

It eventually emerged that the plot to kidnap a soldier was a grave exaggeration by the press and security oficials. Five men appeared in court, facing 12 terrorism charges, however only one of the men - Parviz Khan - was accused on "intention to kidnap and kill a member of the British armed forces". The other four men were convicted with "supplying and funding terrorists" abroad or "withholding information". [4] Four men were released without any charges being brought against them.

The operation was overshadowed by allegations that the plot was moved forward to move attention away from the intense criticism surrounding the 'cash for honours' inquiry that had engulfed Downing Street and the reports that Britain's prisons were over-populated due to John Reid, the then Home Secretary. The lead agency in the investigation, the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit believed that such misinformation and leaks were made specifically to "deflect attention from the prisons crisis and the cash for honours inquiry." [5] The misinformation that was disseminated was alleged to have come from Whitehall and Home Office officials.[6]

Police Operation

Operation Gamble was a six-month intense police and MI5 surveillance operation. It was the first major counter-terrorism operation that was controlled and undertaken by the newly formed West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit. Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw was commanding it.[7]

The surveillance operation was meant to continue for 2 extra months, but police were warned that because the group were allegedly becoming "increasingly agitated" and were "arguing about when to strike" the police decided to act.[2] At 4am, more than 700 (armed and unarmed) police officers simultaneously raided eight homes and four businesses. The raids included eight residential properties, a corner shop, two Islamic bookshops and an internet cafe. A ninth man was arrested on the A38 motorway (near Birmingham) at 3pm.[2]

An undisclosed officer from West Midlands Police said: "this terror raid has come at a very convenient time for the Government as it has taken a number of embarrassing stories off the news agenda. But it must be stressed that the timing of the operation was an independent police decision."[1]

The total cost of the operation was £10 million pounds.[1]

Over 4,500 items of evidence were seized.[8]

Misinformation & Leaks

Hit-List of Soldiers

In an article on 2 February 2007, The Times ran an article which stated that the MOD had launched an urgent investigation into "how a gang of suspected Islamic terrorists obtained a list of names and addresses for 25 serving British Muslim soldiers as part of an alleged plot to kidnap and behead a serviceman". The list was alleged to include "home addresses as far apart as Glasgow and the West Country." The article went onto suggest that the priority of the investigation was to "ensure that no Ministry of Defence "mole" provided the suspected terror cell with such top-secret personal information."[9]

Unidentified police and security sources had confirmed that a "hit-list" of 20-25 kidnap targets had been compiled by the plotters and was being investigated.[10][11][1]

Live Bait Story

One day after the arrests, The Daily Mail reported that "senior military sources" stated that they had been informed by police of a possible abduction several weeks ago after a "list of potential victims was narrowed down to just two". The two soldiers, "instead of being taken into protective custody … agreed to act as bait to their would-be attackers." The "courageous pair” the story continued "agreed to act as 'tethered goats' in an attempt to flush out the extremists planning to kidnap them. The soldiers were placed under round-the clock surveillance for weeks as officers waited for a strike. They bravely carried on with their ordinary duties while believing that the gang could strike at any time. To protect them, security forces mounted an operation reminiscent of a spy drama, tracking the soldiers with the latest technology." A military insider stated: "It was a brave thing to do".[12]

The Daily Mail went on to report that the "two Muslim soldiers" who agreed to act as "bait" were "now in line for bravery awards".[13]

Live Bait & Hit-List Stories False

The reports about the live bait and the "hit-list" were classed as "sensational claims" and were "dismissed" by counter-terrorism officials for "being completely untrue".[5] The MOD stated that "they had no idea who was responsible for the briefings", whilst the the Home Office stated that "no briefing had been offered by its press office". However, a Home Office spokeswoman did say: "I can only speak for what has been done on the record by the press office".[5]

Despite official confirmation on 3 February 2007 that the Live-Bait story was false and bore no truth to reality, the Sunday Times on 4 February 2007 continued to run a story which stated that the beheading plot "was uncovered with the help of a brave Muslim soldier who allowed himself to be used as bait to draw out the suspected kidnappers. That was courage and patriotism well beyond the call of duty." [14]

Reaction to Misinformation

Officials from Whitehall had briefed journalists once eight people had been arrested as a result of the investigation. The press began reporting the issue, but the ninth suspect still remained at large. He was eventually arrested on the A38 motorway later in the afternoon.[5]

However, the Guardian alleged that "one tabloid newspaper had ... been tipped off the night before the dawn raids, and its reporters put on standby to race to Birmingham."[5] This allegedly happened because elements within Whitehall and the Home Office "intended to deflect attention from the prisons crisis and the cash for honours inquiry"[5]

A "counter-terrorism official” said that "an awful lot of inaccuracies" had been reported by the media which he felt had "hampered … their evidence gathering" while counter-terror officials in London said that the "speculation" that was generated had "interfered" with the evidence gathering.[5]

Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke stated:

"... on the morning of the arrests, almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked." [6]

Michael Portillo argued that the leaking of information

"... rescued John Reid [because] there was no room left for the story that had filled them in previous days: the crisis over Britain's overfull jails, and Reid's responsibility for the mess … It looks as though someone close to Reid had the bright idea of digging him out of the prison places mire but has landed him in a deeper bog. As the veteran Tory MP Kenneth Clarke (and former home secretary too) put it, if the Home Office is found to have leaked over the terror inquiry, Reid will find himself in a very difficult position. Yet again … We have reached the point where we do not trust anything that the government tells us". [15]

Paul Snape, the vice-chair of the West Midlands Police Federation said:'

"The police force is asking the question, where did it [the erroneous information and leaks] all come from? There may be political reasons for it, such as what was going on at the Home Office and at Downing Street." [5]

Solicitor Tayab Ali, who represented one of the arrested suspects stated:

"The Home Office would be guilty of 'the clearest hypocrisy and double standards' if it was behind the [secret] briefings. People in government are quick to complain that those involved in the cash for honours inquiry may not receive a fair trial, but there appears to be no such regard for ordinary criminal suspects or suspected terrorists." [5]

Investigation into Misinformation Demanded

An investigation was demanded by politicians into why and how information that was so sensitive and operational had been leaked to the press. Liberty argued that in the case of, amongst others, Operation Gamble, the "situation" was so serious that in addition to an official inquiry,

"... it [was] ... important that more systemic issues are considered with future counter-terrorist operations in mind…” Irresponsible off the record briefings during police counter-terrorist operation are a real danger …[to]…the free flow of information, and the free press [that is required] to guarantee it. [Misinformation] fosters mistrust in the general population who are left wondering if the ‘sources’ are telling the truth or spreading misinformation designed to justify unpopular operations or promote unpopular policies; such as the extension of pre-charge detention periods for terrorist suspects. Many people fear that if this situation is not addressed we will see … draconian and counter-productive legislation [being] ‘sold’ on the basis of misinformation ..." [6]

Outcome of Investigation

Out of the 5 that were charged with a terrorism offence, only Parviz Khan, the alleged ringleader and mastermind of the plot, was convicted for intending to kidnap and kill a member of the British army. The remaining four were charged and convicted with either "supplying and funding terrorists" or "withholding information".[4] Four men were released without any charges being brought against them.

In fact, one of the released men was questioned for only "three hours and 20 minutes" whilst the second was questioned for only "one hour and five minutes". Both men had been watched 24 hours a day for 6 months under an intense joint MI5 and Police surveillance programme.[16]

Two of the men that were released told the Guardian that they were never "questioned about any kidnap or murder plot during their seven days under arrest … nor were they asked about any British soldier."

Representing the two men was Ms Gareth Peirce, who stated:

"they have left the police station without any better understanding of why they were there than when they first arrived seven days ago. Not a word was ever mentioned to either of them about a plot to kidnap, or the grisly suggestion of a beheading - or even of a soldier at all … They were asked about their family, questioned about a blank CD and asked about an electricity bill".[16]

Allegations of Police State

One of the individuals that was released without charge (Abu Bakr - a PhD student at Birmingham University who was studying Political Islam) criticised the police for the way they handled the case and stated that “he was a "pawn" in a political game". Bakr stated that he was arrested "to distract [attention] from the government's troubles, including the cash for honours inquiry" and accused the police of being "amateurish" in their conduct.[17]

He also stated that police were behaving in a discriminatory and racist manner because he would not have been treated in the same way had he been a non-Muslim - "it's not a police state for everybody else because these terror laws are designed specifically for Muslims and that's quite an open fact."[18]

Only after he was taken into custody and fingerprinted, was he informed by his solicitor that the reason he was detained was supposedly because he was involved in a "plot to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier". He only realised how serious the situation was when his solicitor informed him that media crews and journalists had gathered outside his house.[18] At no point throughout the questioning was the supposed plot to abduct and behead a solider mentioned to him. He was interviewed "for no more" than four hours, even though the 24 hours surveillance operation on him (and his co-accused) lasted six months.[17]

In response to the claims made by Abu Bakr, Jack Straw said that such claims were "absolute, utter nonsense".[17] The Prime Ministers spokesman rejected that the UK was a police state and said "in a police state, a court would not have been able to release someone who was being questioned by the police. Nor would he have been able to be interviewed by the media".[17]

MP Shahid Malik rejected the claim that Britain was a police state. he stated:

"I can understand Abu Bakr's anger and hurt but it definitely doesn't lead to the conclusion that we're in a police state ... It's really important that people do remain patient and let justice take its course." [18]

SAS Training

Due to the alleged plot to kidnap and behead a British soldier, an SAS unit was deployed to London and placed on 24-hour standby in case a kidnapping occurred. The SAS, it was anticipated, would therefore be in a position to "carry out a hostage rescue mission within minutes of being alerted". [19] According to an unidentified source, "[terrorist] cells in the UK have been [instructed] to carry out this type of attack as opposed to the more sophisticated type of bombing in which you place a large number of volunteers at risk. All you need for a beheading is a bit of courage and a sharp knife." [19]

An unidentified security source added: "terrorists are always looking for new ways to strike terror into the population. With kidnappings, there is also the propaganda issue relating to it, plus the added importance to al-Qa'ida of the internet and visual imagery. There is no end of the possibilities where terrorists can try to cause terror to the public." [20]

Unidentified Whitehall sources also stated that the "kidnapping threat is now the most likely thing that is going to happen [in regards to terrorism]. London and the South-East is the most likely area [which is why] an SAS unit has been moved into London where it is likely to be in a better position to respond."[21]

Becuase of the threat of kidnappings and beheadings, MI5, the Police and the SAS carried out simulation exercises in a bid to understand how they would deal with such eventualities.[22] Mock exercises took place shortly before Christmas 2006 at an RAF base near Chester.[22] The Observer reported that "five police forces" were involved in a mock operation that envisaged an international conference being stormed and children being taken hostage by terrorists who were "equipped with mobile phones and a satellite uplink that allowed them to beam pictures of the hostages on to television screens". The operation ended with a decision being made to engage the terrorists by sending in the SAS.[22] An unidentified counter-terrorism source believed that "this scenario is something that is very much on the radar screen …. we have envisaged a British Beslan for several years."[22]

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Stephen Wright and Ben Taylor, 'Al Qaeda was behind plot to behead soldier; British gang planned to kidnap British Muslim serviceman', The Daily Mail, 1 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Russell Jenkins and Daniel McGrory, 'How al-Qaeda tried to bring Baghdad to Birmingham', The Times, 1 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 09.09.10
  3. David Leppard, ‘Al Qaeda order British beheadings’, The Sunday Times, 4 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  4. 4.0 4.1 Rod Chaytor, 12 Terror Charges..only one mentions kidnap and kill plot, The Mirror, 10 February 2007, accessed on 08.09.10
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Ian Cobain, Steven Morris, Michael White and Sandra Laville, ‘Police fear lurid terror briefings being used to divert attention from Whitehall problems, The Guardian, 3 February 2007, accessed on 08.09.10
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 'Setting the Record Straight: The Dangers of 'Off-the Record' Briefings to the Media During Police Counter-Terror Operations', Liberty, May 2007, accessed 08.09.10
  7. Jason Bennetto, 'Suspects 'had list of targets', The Independent, 2 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  8. Duncan Gardham and Richard Holt, Sixth man due in court charged with terror offences, The Telegraph, 10 February 2007, accessed 09.09.10
  9. Daniel McGrory, Russell Jenkins and Steve Bird, 'Terror hitlist named 25 Muslim soldiers', The Times, 2 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  10. Jason Bennetto, 'Suspects ‘had list of targets’, The Independent, 2 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  11. Vikram Dodd, Steven Morris and Paul Lewis, 'Birmingham terror raids: Tighter security for Muslim police officers in fear of kidnap by Islamic extremists: Met promises urgent risk assessment after arrests: Magistrates allow 7 more days to question suspects', The Guardian, 2 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  12. Matthew Hickley, Ben Taylor and David Williams, ‘Live bait for beheading gang; Muslim soldiers used as ‘tethered goats’, The Daily Mail, 2 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  13. Andy Dolan and Sam Greenhill, 'The suspect known as the Terminator', The Daily Mail, 3 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  14. Minette Marrin, 'We’re far too nice to Muslim extremists', The Sunday Times, 4 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  15. Michael Portillo, 'Britain isn’t a police state, but it’s close to being a liar state', The Sunday Times, 11 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  16. 16.0 16.1 Vikram Dodd, Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Police forced to defend terror investigation after two freed over alleged beheading plot, The Guardian, 8 February 2007, accessed on 00.09.10
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Steven Morris, 'Terror suspects charged as ‘police state’ claim denied', The Guardian, 9 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 'Ex-terror plot suspect speaks out', BBC News, 8 February 2007, accessed 09.09.10
  19. 19.0 19.1 David Leppard, Al-Qaeda tells British cells to carry out wave of beheadings, The Sunday Times, 4 February 2007, accessed on 09.09.10
  20. Jason Bennetto and Nigel Morris, 'From Baghdad to Birmingham? Nine held over ‘plot’ to kidnap British Muslim soldier; terror arrests', The Independent, 1 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10.
  21. Jo Willey and Padraic Flanagan, 'SAS on standby to foil a second terrorist kidnap', The Express, 3 February 2007, accessed via LexisNexis on 08.09.10
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Jamie Doward and Anthony Barnett, 'MI5, police and SAS practice for a ‘Beslan’ siege', The Observer, 4 February 2007, accessed on 08.09.10