UK government faces questions over Hezbollah bomb factory probe

Four properties were raided in 2015 after claims that the terror group was stockpiling explosive material

epa07616555 Hezbollah Supporters listen to Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech via a big screen during a gathering to commemorate the 'Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day' in southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 31 May 2019. Many Muslim countries demonstrate on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, to mark Al-Quds day, and to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day is an annual event opposing Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. Anti-Zionist demonstrations are held on this day in some Muslim and Arab countries and by Muslim and Arab communities around the world, but especially in Iran where the occasion was first suggested.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

A British MP has demanded assurances that the UK did not cover up the discovery of a suspected Hezbollah bomb factory in London four years ago because it could scupper the newly signed Iran nuclear deal.

London police confirmed for the first time this week that it raided four properties in 2015 and arrested one man, but declined to say if it was connected to potential Hezbollah-linked terrorism.

The raids broke up an operation by the Iran-backed group that sought to stockpile tonnes of explosive material on the outskirts of London, The Daily Telegraph reported.

It said police and security forces found three tonnes of ammonium nitrate stashed in disposable ice packs – more than the total used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 people.

There was no evidence to suggest that the UK was a target or that any plans for an assault were at an advanced stage.

The suspect, aged in his 40s, was bailed and later released without charge.

“No other arrests were made in connection with the investigation, which is now closed,” London’s police force said.

The inquiry was a "covert intelligence operation" that was not seeking a criminal prosecution, The Telegraph claimed.

The raid on the premises on September 30, 2015, came less than three weeks before the nuclear treaty agreed on between Iran and the US, China, Germany, France, Russia and the UK came into effect.

The deal, signed in July that year, promised to lift sanctions on Tehran in return for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

Joan Ryan, an opposition MP who led efforts to have Hezbollah banned in  Britain in 2018, wrote to Home Secretary Sajid Javid on Monday to ask why details of the so-called bomb factory were withheld from MPs.

Then prime minister David Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, who was serving as interior minister, were reportedly told about the find.

Hezbollah's militant wing was banned at the time but the group as a whole was only added to Britain's list of terrorist groups this year.

“We now need to know urgently why the government failed to disclose this vital information to the public and parliamentarians, and resisted for more than three years my calls to ban Hezbollah in its entirety,” Ms Ryan said.

The raids followed a tip-off from a foreign government, the newspaper reported. US court documents suggested the find had the hallmark of other Hezbollah-linked operations around the world.

Samer El Debek was arrested in the US in 2017 accused of being part of the Islamic Jihad Organisation (IJO), part of Hezbollah that was responsible for planning attacks outside Lebanon.

Mr El Debek allegedly travelled to Thailand to remove “explosive precursor materials” from a Hezbollah safe house that was believed to have been compromised, court papers showed.

He has not yet gone on trial.

The terrorist threat to Europe posed by Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah has fallen under the radar.

In 2015, Hussein Abdallah, an IJO operative, was arrested and later jailed for six years in Cyprus after authorities seized 8.2 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, some of which was stored in First Aid ice packs, the documents showed.

A third Hezbollah operative was convicted last month of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the US on targets including JFK Airport. Ali Kourani faces a possible life term in prison.

Prosecutors said Kourani visited Guangzhou, China, where a factory made the ice packs that were discovered in other counter-terrorist operations.

The discovery of the possible bomb factory adds to a growing number of Hezbollah plots that have come to light in the past two years.

They included an alleged attempt to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in France in June last year and an assassination plot targeting other anti-regime officials in exile in Denmark.

“The terrorist threat to Europe posed by Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah has fallen under the radar," said Emma Webb, at the Civitas think tank.

“The terrifying extent of this threat, and the concerted organisation on the part of these groups to stockpile materials to be used in attacks, has not played a part in the public consciousness surrounding the terrorist threat.

“The Government’s decision to finally proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety has been vindicated, but it raises questions over how well MPs were informed on the scale of the problem in Europe when debating proscription.”