Two men were arrested at Manchester airport last week as they prepared to leave the country and a third, the brother of one of the other men, was detained in Accrington, Lancashire where he worked as a security guard.
Counter-terrorism sources said the arrests related to a statement which appeared on an Arabic language website called al-ekhlaas.net, which often carries messages from senior members of al-Qaeda.
The message, written in English, appeared only briefly on January 24, and claimed to be from Shaykh Umar Rabie al-Khalaila, “The leader of al-Qaeda in Britain.”
In it, he demanded the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and the release of prisoners from Belmarsh high security jail in south east London including the radical clerics Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qatada.
Qatada was later released after an Appeal Court ruling and put under house arrest.
It is understood the men had been under surveillance by police and two were arrested as they prepared to leave the country for Finland.
The message demanded: “We, the organization of Al-Qaeda in Britain, offer a truce to the British government.
“Our demands are as follows:
“I. A complete withdrawal of the British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“II. To free all Muslim captives from Belmarsh prison, and the foremost of them Shaykh Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Shaykh Abu Hamza al-Misri [sic].”
Referring to the leader of al-Qaeda and a man said to be the leader of the “Islamic state of Iraq” the statement went on: “If the British government fails to respond to our demands by the last day of March 2008 as they fail to answer to the truce of our Shaykh Usama bin Laden and to the truce of the Emir of Believers Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, then the Martyrdom seekers of the organisation of al-Qaeda in Britain will target all the political leaders especially Tony Blair and Gordan Brown [sic], and we will also target all Embassies, Crusaders Centers and their Interests through out the country, with the help of Allah.”
It signed off: “Finally, all praise is to Allah. ”
The men arrested were all British-born Muslims of Asian origin from Blackburn, Lancashire, and were aged 21, 22 and 23.
Armed officers later converged on two houses in Blackburn, one of them in Whalley Range, the other just over a mile away in Audley.
Teams of forensics officers have since been carrying out searches of both properties and warrants have been granted to hold the men until next week.
The arrests were carried out as part of a joint operation by Lancashire Constabulary and Greater Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit.
It is thought the men were planning to attend a conference in Finland and counter-terrorism police are now in the country investigating.
Last night the mother of one of the arrested trio insisted that her son was innocent.
The woman from Blackburn, Lancs, said her son, 22, was seized by counter-terrorism officers as he prepared to fly out to Finland.
He had been due to spend the month of Ramadan teaching Muslims in Helsinki. Instead, he remains under arrest in Manchester on suspicion of terrorism offences.
The mother 50, who is married and has six other children, said: “My son is an innocent boy and we are a well-respected family here. He is not involved in terrorism.
“He hasn’t incited anyone to kill Mr Brown. He hasn’t plotted with terrorists. We haven’t even got a TV here or the internet.
“He was going to Finland for Holy month. There was going to be a grand opening but he has missed that. He’s been going there for six years. He always teaches abroad”.
Her son was one of those was arrested at Manchester Airport on August 14. Police forensics teams completed the search of his four-storey home in the Audley area of the town yesterday <ct:Italic>Fri<ct:>, but he remains in custody.
His mother said: “It’s wrong that he’s being held. Why are they taking this long?”
A neighbour of the two brothers from Whalley Range said the family had lived in the street for around 25 years, with all four children being born locally.
“Both boys are religious,” he said. “But I’ve never seen them in the mosque I go to. Sometimes they put on big turbans which looks a bit funny around here”.
The other suspect being held by police lives with his parents and five siblings at the house in Audley and neighbours described them as “a pleasant working class family”.
Chief Supt Andy Rhodes, divisional commander for eastern division of Lancashire Police, said at the time: “These types of enquiries can be complex and may take time to resolve. I would ask local residents to be patient with us and to be assured that we will keep them updated in relation to the investigation as and when we can.”