The mastermind behind the November Paris attacks had photos of Birmingham on his smartphone, suggesting that he was perhaps planning an attack on England’s second city. At least one of the pictures may have been taken by Abdelhamid Abaaoud himself, raising the possibility that he was in England, despite being wanted by authorities even before the attacks.
West Midlands Police have warned the city’s one million residents to be alert to the possibility of an attack, but have dismissed as “unhelpful” suggestions that an attack may be planned for this weekend. However, they are taking the link between Islamic State and Birmingham “deadly seriously”.
According to sources within the investigation into Abaaoud, his smartphone was found to contain a series of images of the city, and a call log which includes calls made to people within the city, leading British police to the “frightening conclusion” that an attack was being planned against Birmingham.
‘If you get these kinds of [phone-call] links, and if you get photos, it leaves you to a pretty inevitable conclusion…it does point to a certain direction, does it not?’ the source told the Mail on Sunday.
Details of the locations included in the photos have not been released, but Birmingham is home to a number of major shopping centres and sporting venues, as well as the National Exhibition Arena.
It is also understood that Abaaoud was in contact with a number of Moroccan nationals living in the Alum Rock and Bordesley Green areas of the city, both of which have been the focus of counter-terrorism investigations recently. A number of arrests have been made of suspects who were either planning to go to Islamic State strongholds in Syria, or who have returned with battlefield experience.
Abaaoud, who grew up in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, once boasted in an Islamic State magazine that he had free run of Europe, and was able to travel freely despite his notoriety.
He first travelled to Syria two years ago, and was convicted of organising a terror cell in his absence earlier this year. Despite that conviction, and having been linked to four foiled terror plots, he was able to enter Paris a month ago, and may have also passed security checks to enter the UK before that.
An urgent review is now underway.
“A great deal of discussion has gone on at a European level in tightening up intelligence-sharing,” a source said.
“There remains a series of questions over how effective it is, and in light of what is happening in Europe now, it needs to be tightened up further.”
He added that it was right to question “how someone who was at the heart of a terrorist investigation was able to move as relatively easily as he did.”
West Midlands Police have refused to comment on the new information. Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale said in a statement: “The West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit is working hand-in-hand with colleagues in London, the national counter-terrorism network and security services to provide support to the French and Belgian investigations, and, of course, to address any associated terrorism threat to the UK.”