By Tony Thompson, Mark Townsend, Martin Bright and Barbara McMahon Rome
The Observer UK
One of the men accused of taking part in the failed terror attacks in London on 21 July has claimed the bomb plot was directly inspired by Britain's involvement in the Iraq war.
In a remarkable insight into the motives behind the alleged would-be bombers, Hussain Osman, arrested in Rome on Friday, has revealed how the suspects watched hours of TV footage showing grief-stricken Iraqi widows and children alongside images of civilians killed in the conflict. He is alleged to have told prosecutors that after watching the footage: 'There was a feeling of hatred and a conviction that it was necessary to give a signal - to do something.'
But some of the Italian media reports told a conflicting story. Some reports quoted Osman as saying: 'I hardly know anything. They only gave me a rucksack to carry on the tube in London. We wanted to stage an attack, but only as a show. Who gave me the explosive? I don't know. I didn't know him. I don't remember. We didn't want to kill, we just wanted to scare people.'
Milan's Corriere della Sera newspaper said Osman first told authorities he did not know what was in the backpack he took on the London underground, then changed his version, saying he was told the attackers were only supposed to carry out 'demonstrative' attacks. But the Rome daily Il Messaggero said the suspect told investigators: 'We were supposed to blow ourselves up.'
Osman allegedly said: 'More than praying we discussed work, politics, the war in Iraq ... we always had new films of the war in Iraq ... more than anything else those in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed by US and UK soldiers.'
If these reports turn out to be true, they will provide valuable insights into the workings of the alleged terrorist cells. The revelations come as police in the UK begin hunting an al-Qaeda mastermind believed to be behind the recruitment and training of both sets of London bombers.
The prospect of a UK mastermind controlling the cells raises fears that other units may be active in Britain. Despite the arrest of all five men wanted in connection with the failed attacks, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, warned last night of the risk of further bomb attacks.
According to the reports, Hussain claimed the men did not talk about al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. 'We had no contacts with the organisation of bin Laden. We knew it existed - we accessed its programmes through the internet - but nothing directly,' he is reported to have claimed, adding that the bombings of 7 July took them by surprise: 'We never had any contact with the Pakistanis.'
However, the bombs that devastated London that day were a signal that they could go into action. 'Our boss taught us how to make explosives out of fertilisers,' he is reported to have said, claiming the men put them into rucksacks and used timers.
Security sources fear that at least one senior figure in the global terror organisation is based in the UK. He may have taken part in a whitewater rafting trip used as a bonding session for several of the suicide bombers in north Wales in early June.
Sweeping new security measures are to be introduced on Britain's road and rail networks this week, including highway patrol officers on the M25 who will check bridges for bombs.
Senior officers are particularly concerned there could be a third attack on Thursday, two weeks after the last attempt. One officer said: 'When you look at the history of terrorist attacks and of al-Qaeda in particular, there is a pattern of repeated attacks on the same targets. They hit the World Trade Centre twice. They attacked the embassies in Egypt twice. If anything the level of security around public transport on Thursday will be even higher than last.'
Rather than the two cells being linked directly, investigators are now focusing on the idea that the men responsible for the 7 July bombs and those behind the failed attacks on 21 July may have been recruited and directed by the same person.
'If you look at the structure of al-Qaeda, what you basically have is a pyramid,' a security source told The Observer. 'If you see the two groups of bombers as two separate teams of footsoldiers on the very bottom, then there is a possibility they are linked by the command structure in the level above. This is the level we are trying to identify and track down.'
The hunt has been given fresh impetus by this new intelligence which suggests that, rather than being manufactured between them, the explosives given to the bombers were handed over by people so far unidentified.
Italian officials are preparing extradition proceedings against Osman. They say he was born in Ethiopia, not Somalia, and may have used fake documents to obtain British citizenship.
The Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, told his parliament yesterday that Osman had tried to evade capture with the help of contacts among Italy's Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant communities, after fleeing London on the Eurostar train.
The suspect appeared before magistrates yesterday. His lawyer, Antonietta Sonnessa, objected to his extradition and said it could take up to two months for him to be returned to London.
It has also emerged that Britain's Somali community 'shopped' the first alleged bomber, Hassan Omar, who was found in Birmingham last Wednesday.