Last updated : 15 February 2006 By Editor

In a feature on the exaggeration of the terrorist threat by the British authorities the focus falls on the supposed threat, as revealed by the Sun, to the Utd-Liverpool match in April 2004:

In April 2004, the British people were alerted to an amazing coup. They learned how the police had seized a terrorist gang just as it prepared to launch an audacious bomb attack on Old Trafford stadium on match day, an attack which could have killed thousands of people. It was a national sensation. And yet there was not a shred of truth in the story. The police and, to an extent the media, are responsible for the invention.

On the morning of Monday 19 April 2004, more than 400 officers from four police forces, many of them armed, raided half a dozen houses, flats and businesses in and around Manchester. They arrested eight men, one woman and a 16-year-old boy. They were held for several days and intensively interrogated. In due course the suspects were released. No charges were ever laid.

The newspapers, by contrast, had no doubt about what the story was. The front page of The Sun proclaimed: "MAN U SUICIDE BOMB PLOT". On pages four and five the paper claimed: "EXCLUSIVE: MAN UTD SUICIDE BLASTS FOILED".

Once the story had started to run, it was further fuelled by the Manchester police. Rather than issue a cool denial, they played it up by holding a press conference. The accompanying press release read: "We are confident that the steps that we have taken to date have significantly reduced any potential threat in the Greater Manchester area." With the weekend fixtures looming, it went on: "Greater Manchester Police and Manchester United Football Club have put in place extra security measures to reassure the public about the safety of both matches."

The police and security services have, very properly, refused to discuss what intelligence led to the raids of 19 April being made. But the police interrogations of the suspects shed a ray of light. One of the suspects, a Kurd, suffered so badly from having his name linked to a terrorist plot that he wants to remain anonymous.

He told me how Old Trafford had cropped up in his interrogation: "I was in the police station and the interview stopped, like a rest, and somebody, they bring in the coffee and they ask me what you like? I say I like the football. Oh, who do you support? They ask me just like a friendly, who do you support? I say Manchester United. Oh, how long you support Manchester United? I said a long time I support Manchester United, when I was tiny, I was small, you know and all my family supported Manchester United ... they asked me, have you been football ground? I said, of course I've been to the football ground. Two years ago, long time ago, I can't remember."

These questions were surely prompted by the discovery, at the anonymous suspect's flat, of Manchester United paraphernalia: a poster of Old Trafford, and ticket stubs the suspect had kept as souvenirs of his only visit to the ground, when he had gone with a friend to watch United play Arsenal the year before.

The two friends had bought their tickets from touts, which meant that they sat at different parts of the ground. The Sun reported that the bombers planned to sit at different parts of the ground, in order to cause maximum damage with their bombs. This claim can only have been based on the fact that the old ticket stubs found by the police were for seats in different parts of the stadium. This information had not been made public, so The Sun could only have obtained it from the police.

The Kurds I spoke to had come to Britain in order to escape the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. Perhaps their most meaningful emotional connection with Britain was a love for Manchester United, which was why they kept the souvenirs in their flat. The Manchester police discovered nothing else suspicious. Nevertheless the police probably viewed the Manchester United souvenirs as potential evidence of a bomb plot. This evidence was then prematurely leaked, through unofficial police sources, to the press.

Manchester police then encouraged the story to run by issuing public statements that, while falling a long way short of giving outright confirmation, could be read as corroborating the story. Disgracefully, the Greater Manchester Police refused to launch an investigation into the numerous leaks.

The reporting of this incident was inflammatory and misleading. It caused needless alarm among millions of TV viewers and newspaper readers. It stirred up anti-Islamic prejudice. It ruined the lives of several of the suspects. They lost their homes, their jobs and their friends as a result. They have never received a personal apology, either from the police or from the press.