A suspected Islamist Christmas bomb plot was foiled yesterday when armed police swooped in co-ordinated pre-dawn raids.
Fearing they had found a possible bomb factory in a flat over a fish and chip shop, counter-terrorism officers urgently evacuated dozens of neighbours from their homes.
Police dragged a 31-year-old man from his bed and led him away wearing only his underwear. He was identified as Andy Sami Star, an Iraqi national who is understood to be the owner of the chip shop and to live in a flat above with his brother.
An Army bomb disposal unit from the Royal Logistics Corps was also sent to the property in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
At the same time armed officers stormed into three properties 15 miles away in Sheffield by blowing off the front doors and throwing stun grenades.
Police raided a flat at the back of the Fatima Community Centre, a building used as a mosque and for teaching Arabic to children.
A local pensioner said: “I heard three loud bangs like a bomb going off and looked out to see six armed police officers in riot gear. They brought somebody out from the back of the building and took him away.”
Amar Ghaman, the manager of the community centre, said two men who had recently rented the flat had been arrested.
The operation, which involved the search of five properties in total, was the result of a long-running covert investigation involving Islamic extremism.
It is understood that the suspects had been under surveillance for some time, but raids were ordered amid concerns they had begun sourcing bomb parts.
Senior officers believed component parts of a bomb were possibly being assembled and decided to act early yesterday.
Police arrested four men, aged 22, 31, 36 and 41, on suspicion of preparing or instigating acts of terrorism.
Detectives refused to reveal details of what was found or the ethnicity of the suspects, but the operation was said to be intelligence led and pre-planned.
The operation in Chesterfield appeared to focus on a flat above the Mermaid Traditional Fish Bar. It is understood the business has recently been sold.
Neighbours suggested that people had been constantly coming and going from the flat, while it has also been reported that secret codes were used to gain entry.
Officers banged on their doors at around 9am and told them they had ten minutes to get out.
Those living in three streets nearby were told to go to Chesterfield football stadium, less than half a mile away, while searches were carried out.
One neighbour said the two brothers who lived in the flat above the chip shop split their time between Chesterfield and Sheffield.
Another neighbour, Jordan Batteson said: “I saw a guy being taken out, he had no top on, it looked like he was just wearing boxer shorts.”
A spokesman for the North-East Counter Terrorism Squad said the evacuation was a precautionary measure in the interests of public safety. Part of the police cordon was lifted at around 4pm but police remained at the scene overnight.
In Sheffield residents were woken at around 5.30am by armed police blowing the front doors off three properties in co-ordinated raids. Neighbours looked outside to see counter-terrorism police carrying rifles and storming into homes under cover of darkness.
At Shirebrook Road in Sheffield a 41-year-old man was arrested at a rundown terrace house after the dramatic armed raid.
A neighbour Lizzie Fogarty said: “The police were all in black with helmets on and guns with a torch aimed at the house. All you could hear was, ‘Get down, get down’. I could hear them sweeping the house.”
Miss Fogarty said there had been a lot of coming and going from the house recently.
About four miles across the city police carried out two similar pre-dawn raids in the Burngreave area and arrested men aged 22 and 36.
Explosions were again heard as police forced their way into a ground floor flat. It is located about 200 yards from the flat behind the Fatima Community Centre that was also raided.
Police have carried out five raids in the Islamist-related investigation.
While the NECTU will not reveal individual addresses, officers are known to have searched properties in:
• Shirebrook Road, Meersbrook, Sheffield
• Stocksbridge Gents Barbers in Stocksbridge, Sheffield
• Whittington Moor, Chesterfield
• Verdon Street, Burngreave, Sheffield
• Fatima Community Centre, on Brunswick Road, Burngreave, Sheffield
By 8.30am the police operation had moved to Stocksbridge, a town on the outskirts of Sheffield. Officers were waiting outside a Kurdish-owned barber’s shop and said to be looking for a man of eastern European origin.
Owner Mohammed Ojaky said police searched the hairdresser’s and his flat above and left with the CCTV camera.
He said: “They showed me details of a man and said they thought he was connected to here. I did not know this man.
“I was happy for them to search here and let them into the flat, but they then left and we opened as usual.”
Mr Ojaky is originally from Kurdistan and has lived in the UK for 13 years. His staff are all Kurdish.
He said: “There were 15 or 20 officers here and many were armed. It was a big shock.”
As a result of the raids security was stepped up elsewhere, with armed police patrolling the Christmas markets in Manchester.
The arrests came as police and MI5 tackle a terror threat that is seen as unprecedented.
In addition to five attacks in London and Manchester this year, security agencies have foiled nine plots since the Westminster atrocity in March.
Chris Phillips, who was once head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, has said there should be no surprise if terrorists strike before December 25.
He warned that it would be impossible for police to ensure the entire country’s safety because of the sheer number of potential threats.
His warning came after posters of Santa Claus kneeling before an ISIS executioner on London’s Regent Street, and a jihadi with a bloody knife looking out over a Paris Christmas market with the Eiffel Tower in the background were shared online last month.
Both images carried the message ‘Soon on your holidays’ in English, French, and German.
The country’s current threat level has seen more armed police on the streets and bollards erected on pavements to prevent vehicle attacks.
A next door neighbour of the house in Shirebrook Road said he knew who lived next door and they were all nice lads.
The man, who did not wish to be named, said: “I heard a big bang, which turned out to be the charge they used to open the door.
“I then went to my housemate and we were watching the whole thing from out the window, we saw various armed special forces and the counter terrorism unit coming in and out and then the guy came out.
“I don’t know the guys from next door very well but we have had fires in the past and they have come down, they seemed like nice lads, it’s a shame really. I am shocked.”
A police spokesperson has confirmed that a loud bang heard by residents was not an explosion but a bang created when they were gaining entry.
Police confirmed all the properties are currently being searched and the men have been taken to a police station in West Yorkshire for questioning.
The arrests were intelligence led and pre-planned as part of an ongoing investigation by Counter Terrorism Policing North East.
A spokesman for the North East Counter Terrorism Policing Unit added: “The men have been taken to a police station in West Yorkshire for questioning.
“The arrests were intelligence led and pre-planned as part of an ongoing investigation.
“Three properties in Sheffield and one in Chesterfield are currently being searched in connection with these arrests.
“We recognise that local people may have concerns as a result of this activity. We would ask people to remain alert but not alarmed and we are grateful for the assistance and understanding of people locally.
“Residents will be kept as informed as possible and we are grateful for their understanding, patience and support while these enquiries continue.”
South Yorkshire Police Superintendent for the Sheffield area Una Jennings said: “I understand our local communities will have concerns about this morning’s police activity but I want to offer my reassurance that we will continue to serve and protect the public of South Yorkshire.
“We work very closely with our colleagues at the North East Counter Terrorism Unit and we will ensure we maintain these strong links in order to provide a high level of service and delivery to everyone in our community. Public safety is our utmost concern.”
Counter-terror teams are running about 500 live investigations involving 3,000 individuals at any one time, while there is also a wider pool of 20,000 subjects of previous probes.