UK security agencies are sifting through information sent by Indian authorities to establish whether British Muslims were involved in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that traumatised India.
The search to track down the "British connection" in the carnage began after a number of Indian officials claimed that evidence had been found on dead and captured gunmen linking them to the UK. Senior Whitehall sources confirmed that police and the security and intelligence services were combing through information sent by Indian authorities to ascertain whether any of the group which carried out the assault were UK citizens or had visited or lived in this country.
According to one report, four of the terrorists, two of them dead, had connections with Britain. The Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh told Associated Press that two British-born Pakistanis were among the eight gunmen arrested by Indian authorities.
However, British officials stressed they had not yet received "hard" evidence that the men were British nationals. "There is a hell of a lot going on at the minute and it is not just a matter of citizenship – that's a bit of a red herring," said one source. "We are trying to establish whether any of these men had been in this country and who they lived with, who they associated with, but it is very early days."
At least 155 people are known to have died in the multi-pronged attacks. Last night, the Indian government said the death toll could hit 200.
Britain's security agencies confirmed they were looking through intelligence on domestic suspects with overseas extremist links and reviewing tracked telephone calls to see if the "chatter" revealed British citizens were involved in the Mumbai plot. Investigators are said to be concentrating on the Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has previously recruited from the UK. Rashid Rauf, who was wanted in connection with a terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners and was reported to have been killed recently in an American missile strike, was associated with Lashkar.
Unconfirmed reports from India stated that some of the terrorists were from Dewsbury and Bradford, areas from which some in the Muslim community had left in the past to join jihadist groups abroad. Security officials stated that all leads were be explored but stressed that no arrests had taken place in this country yet in relation to the Mumbai attacks.
Gordon Brown said: "At no point has the Prime Minister of India [Manmohan Singh] suggested ... there is evidence ... of any terrorist of British origins, but obviously these are huge investigations ... and I think it will be premature to draw any conclusions at all."
Security officials said it was looking increasingly likely that Lashkar-e-Taiba, previously known as Jaish-e-Mohammed, was involved in the attack with the militant group, Indian Mujaheddin. They played down suggestions of a direct al-Qa'ida link.
As anti-terrorist officers from Scotland Yard flew out to Mumbai, security officials urged against jumping to conclusions on documentation which may have been found on the gunmen, pointing out that they may be forged. What was crucial, said a senior source, was to establish their links in Britain and find people they had been associating with.
Ed Husain, director of the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank that campaigns against extremism, said of the reports of British involvement in the attacks: "British Muslim leaders need to take their heads out of the sand and begin systematically dismantling the warped theology that has inspired these and other attacks. Unless our government is bolder in identifying Islamism as the root cause of extremism, we will only be responding to and not preventing terrorism. Extremist Islamist groups continue to hold events in England and recruit new followers. Radical Islamism has no place in our country."
There were still many unanswered questions last night about how many of the gunmen had been in the cell and the degree of planning they undertook before launching their operation. Indian officials said the gunmen had been arrested and were being questioned by anti-terrorism officers. Meanwhile another report, carried on the Indian NDTV news channel, suggested there may have been a total of 40 militants, 29 of them from Pakistan and the remainder from Bangladesh.
What does seem clear is that the gunmen were well-armed and well-trained. It might also be assumed that while they may have made extensive plans about the attacks, there was no plan to escape. No demands were made of the authorities and no attempt was made to use hostages to further their cause, except to cause terror. It was, in effect, a suicide mission.
Yesterday, evidence about the training and planning of the gunmen came from the commandos whose task was to confront the militants. At both the Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi hotels, they said it had been a game of cat-and-mouse.
"These people were very, very familiar with the hotel layouts and it appears they had carried out a survey before," said one commando, who declined to be named. He said the gunmen used their knowledge to move skillfully from place to place. "[They] showed no remorse to anybody; whoever came in front of them they fired at," he added. "They appeared to be a determined lot, wanting to create and spread terror."
The gunmen had come well-prepared. One backpack discovered by the commandos contained 400 rounds of ammunition. It is understood that some of the gunmen were carrying bags of almonds to eat during a long siege. They also had foreign currency and credit cards. Not only were they well armed with assault rifles and hand grenades, but they knew how to use them. The commando added: "It's obvious they were trained somewhere ... not everyone can handle the AK series of weapons or throw grenades like that."
Other questions will inevitably focus on how the gunmen were able to reach the coastline undetected. Some experts have suggested a lack of co-ordination between marine authorities.