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MI5 trains supermarket checkout staff

London Independent | March 4, 2007
Sophie Goodchild and Paul Lashmar

Supermarket checkout staff are being trained by the security services in how to detect potential terrorists. MI5 has been secretly advising food retailers, including Asda and Tesco, on how to identify extremist shoppers.

Measures include increasing CCTV in underground carparks to prevent bomb attacks and being alert to mass purchases of mobile phones, which can be used as bomb detonators. The awareness training for staff also covers bulk sales of toiletries which could be used as the basic ingredient in explosives.

The security services and ministers are worried supermarkets are an attractive target for terrorists because of the potential for mass casualties.

One terrorism expert said: "Terrorists know if they frighten people from everyday activities they are 'winning the war'. What better than a busy supermarket which is hard to defend and with lots of cars in a car park?"

A Tesco spokesman said: "We have strict procedures and contingency plans in place and we remain in close contact with the security services at all levels." Asda also confirmed it had "contingency plans" to cover a "number of potential crises".

The Asda chain is owned by the US retail giant Wal-Mart. Last year, three Palestinian-Americans from Texas were arrested in a Wal-Mart outlet in Michigan after staff spotted them bulk-buying mobile phones.

The suspects claimed to be buying the 80 handsets to resell them for a profit, but police held them on suspicion they were planning to use the phones as detonators. Their van contained 1,000 phones and pictures of a bridge, police said. The men are awaiting trial.

The FBI has already thwarted a terrorist plot in the US which was aimed at hospitals and supermarkets. Last April, a 23-year-old man was convicted of supporting terror after plotting a jihad against supermarkets and hospitals in the US.

Hamid Hayat, who faces a possible sentence of 38 years, admitted he had attended a terror training camp in the Balakot area of Pakistan. His plea for a new trial was rejected last month.

The FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security sent out joint bulletins in February and March to police departments nationwide warning about the bulk purchase of phones for personal profit or financing terrorism.

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, warned in the wake of the bombing of the Twin Towers that supermarkets were an attractive target for al-Qa'ida, which could use them to cause mass casualties through bombings or poison plots.

MPs also warned in a report in 2003 that more needed to be done to protect the food industry after Tesco revealed there was a "real and current threat" of terrorists contaminating food supplies.

Special Branch officers were used during the IRA bombing campaigns on the British mainland to give advice to companies, including the food industry, on the threat they faced.

But security sources said that the problem is now much more serious, because modern extremists are more random in their approach, unlike the IRA which focused on very specific targets.

Whitehall sources confirmed that many businesses including "those in the food industry" have been given training and advice, although they refused to give specific details.



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