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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 17:37 GMT
The terrorist and the shop girl
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Sohail Qureshi
Sohail Qureshi: Under surveillance
"Akhi - Sorry for the late reply. The airport security is still as tight as ever - even more now though."

So said Heathrow shop worker Samina Malik in an e-mail to self-proclaimed al-Qaeda terrorist Sohail Anjum Qureshi.

The interception of that email and other evidence led to Qureshi being jailed for four-and-a-half years on Tuesday, after he admitted preparing to commit an act of terrorism overseas.

The east London man, originally from Pakistan, is the first person to be convicted of the key new terrorist offence introduced in 2006.

But it is his online links with Malik, convicted of a lesser charge in 2007, that have revealed details of how some al-Qaeda inspired extremists operate in the shadows.

Second life

Qureshi, 30, may have been a dental assistant in public - but MI5 intelligence and a police investigation revealed a second life.

Samina Malik (Pic: Met Police)
Is the checking still very harsh? Or have things cooled down a bit - Delete after read!
Qureshi in e-mail to Malik

Qureshi wanted to follow a well-trodden path among jihadi activists. He wanted to travel overseas, almost certainly to Afghanistan, and fight in the name of Muslims against those he saw as invaders - US, British or other troops.

According to the police investigation, Qureshi had already told online contacts that he had performed this jihadi rite-of-passage.

He claimed that in 1996 he had joined an al-Qaeda training camp inside Pakistan and gone on to lead another, two years later. He said he had helped to finance mujahideen groups.

According to the Metropolitan Police, Qureshi went online to discuss his plans with a key contact in late 2006. The internet is at the heart of many jihadi networks - it provides a degree of anonymity and security for extremists who are sometimes operating in different countries.

The investigation found Qureshi told jihadi contacts he was being called "back" to carry out a "14-20 day operation". He intended to "kill many" while overseas.

Military kit

As the trip date drew closer, Qureshi began gathering military kit, cash and finances.

QURESHI'S KIT
Night-vision equipment
Night-vision equipment
Batons
Military manuals

He bought a pair of night-vision goggles, a back-pack, police-style batons, sleeping bags and camping gear.

He downloaded combat manuals to his computer and had 9,000 in cash, said to be destined for mujahideen fighters he was to meet. Qureshi is thought to have raised the cash among sympathisers in the UK.

In court, his lawyer said that Qureshi was a Walter Mitty figure fantasising about becoming a hero - and that he exaggerated his importance to impress others.

But police also discovered one critical document - an eight-page message for those who would be left behind should he die.

"If I am to become a shaheed [martyr], then cry not and celebrate that day as if you celebrate a happy occasion," he wrote.

The Malik connection

Qureshi's thoughts turned to the practical issues of slipping through Heathrow Airport unnoticed. One of his online contacts was Samina Malik, a 23-year-old woman who worked at a branch of WH Smiths on the airside of the airport - beyond security measures.

Sohail Qureshi posing with a rifle
Qureshi: Said he was trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan
Police believe the pair never met in person - but Malik, convicted last year in a trial which made no mention of Qureshi - was to be key to the operation.

In an October 2006 email, Qureshi asked Malik for an update on security.

"Is the checking still very harsh? Or have things cooled down a bit - Delete after read!" wrote Qureshi.

Malik replied at 4am detailing the security measures, including searching of shoes and checks on liquids. She signed off with a nom de guerre and the line, "A stranger awaiting martyrdom."

Qureshi was never to make his trip. Police were already following him and counter-terrorism officers arrested him as he waited to board his flight to Islamabad on 18 October.

When his bags were searched, police found the military material. A further search of his home uncovered pictures of him posing with rifles in an unknown location and extremist material.

Peter Clarke, Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations of the Metropolitan Police, said: "Qureshi is a trained and committed terrorist. He was no amateur. He had a cover story. He researched airport security, he tried to cover his tracks.

"Samina Malik was well aware of Qureshi's violent extremist views and was happy to provide him with advice on security measures at the airport.

"We should all be thankful that the overwhelming evidence against Qureshi left him little choice other than to admit his guilt."



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