POLICE were last night hunting an Iraqi, suspected of plotting car-bomb attacks in Britain, who went on the run just days before two vehicles packed with petrol, gas and nails were found in central London.
The first device was discovered in a Mercedes parked outside one of the city's biggest nightclubs, Tiger Tiger, at about 1am when hundreds were packed inside for a ladies' night.
Police, alerted by ambulance workers who thought they saw fumes inside the car, defused the bomb.
Officers later found similar materials in a Mercedes that had been parked nearby. They said it contained gas, fuel and nails that could have been detonated and that the two cars were obviously linked.
It was reported last night that the first car, a metallic green Mercedes, was stolen in early June and was spotted first in Scotland and then in Birmingham in the two days before the bomb was defused in London.
Police say they are looking for an Iraqi who went on the run from a control order only 11 days before yesterday's failed bombing attempts. The man, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, is part of a six-strong cell linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
He went missing on 18 June in north-west England, and his whereabouts are unknown.
The Scotsman understands that MI5 and counter-terrorism police consider him a suspect in the failed attacks. However, security sources insisted he was "one of many possibilities".
The first Mercedes was found in the Haymarket area and the second, which also failed to detonate, was later discovered in an underground car park off Park Lane. It had been towed from Cockspur Street, just around the corner from the site of the first device, after being issued with a parking ticket at 2:30am.
Only a chance incident prevented the first bomb exploding and causing what Scotland Yard said would have been "significant injury or loss of life".
An ambulance crew, who had gone to the nightclub on an unrelated matter, noticed strange fumes coming from the Mercedes and raised the alarm.
The prospect of such an attack less than a mile from Downing Street cast a shadow over Gordon Brown's second day in office. And the possible link to a man who has absconded from a control order will only add to pressure on the government for an urgent review of counter-terrorism laws.
Investigators were last night examining forensic evidence from both vehicles, and considering the echoes of earlier terrorist plots linked to al-Qaeda.
In April, five men were jailed for life for plotting to explode fertiliser bombs at targets including a London nightclub. Last November, Dhiren Barot, an al-Qaeda "general", was jailed for plots including attacks using cars loaded with gas cylinders.
Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism chief, said some facts of yesterday's plot "resonate" with earlier conspiracies. But he insisted there was "no intelligence that we were going to be attacked in this way".
In a press conference last night, he confirmed that the second Mercedes contained "a considerable amount of fuel and gas canisters and a significant quantity of nails".
He said the device was "potentially viable" and that the two suspect cars are "clearly linked".
"The discovery of what appears to be a second bomb is obviously troubling," he added. "It reinforces the need for the public to be alert."
Whitehall sources later said it was "likely" the incident would be traced back to known Islamic extremists, groups inspired by the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"It is entirely possible that when MI5 find whoever it is that is behind this, it will be someone already known to them," one official said. "But that does not mean they knew that this operation was being prepared - it just isn't possible to watch every suspect at all times."
While British authorities routinely try to restrict the information flow from terrorism cases, they still share intelligence with the US authorities. And last night, Washington sources said witnesses had seen a man fiddling with a mobile phone near the car in Haymarket, possibly trying to trigger a detonating device inside.
The Iraqi man who went missing on 18 June was the second of his group to abscond from a control order. Last August, Bestun Salim, also absconded. Security officials now believe he has left Britain.
The six Iraqis had been living under control orders since autumn 2005. They were arrested after an MI5-led surveillance operation.
Although they were not charged with any offence, Whitehall sources have claimed they were in the final stages of planning terrorist attacks, possibly involving car bombs.
Instead of charging the men in open court and exposing sensitive intelligence, the government imposed control orders, effectively confining them to their homes for 18 hours a day.
Yesterday's discovery caused disruption throughout central London.
The heightened awareness was also felt in Scotland, where Lothian and Borders Police said they were reviewing the security arrangements for today's formal opening of the third session of the Scottish Parliament.
Last night, Professor Paul Wilkinson of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University, said the co-ordinated bomb plot may have been timed to coincide with Gordon Brown taking over as Prime Minister.
"I think there is a strong possibility that this is the reason for the timing of the attack," he said. "We know al-Qaeda has tried to exploit occasions of this sort in the past, and they want to try and send out the propaganda message that they can continue their so-called jihad and they are prepared to use terror to achieve their goals."
Dr Clifford Jones, an expert in explosives and petro-chemicals at the University of Aberdeen, said a propane cylinder bomb could kill or injure people tens of metres away and do structural damage to buildings.
"A mixture such as propane and air doesn't detonate but erupts in flame," he said. "The contents of the gas cylinder reacts with the air, and releases heat and if it is confined, the 'overpressure' brings a destructive blast."
American news organisations yesterday reported an internet website used by international Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the Taleban, to post propaganda received a message that appeared to show advance knowledge of the plot.
The posting - which says, "Today I say: Rejoice, by Allah, London shall be bombed" - appeared at 08:09am on Thursday, 17 hours before the first device was found.
It appeared on the al-Hesbah chatroom, posted under the name Abu Osama al-Hazeen.
Downing Street confirmed a meeting of the government's emergency response committee, COBRA, would be held today.
Revellers danced the night away with death waiting in the streets outside
IT WAS ladies' night in Tiger Tiger. The club's dancefloors and bars were full of glamorous young women and admiring men, all oblivious to the deadly threat a few feet away on the street outside.
Even though midnight had come and gone, there were about 500 revellers still in the vast venue, which is known for its brash, flash brand of glamour: a place to see and be seen.
The 1,700-capacity club is close to celebrity haunts such as Chinawhite and just yards from the neon of Piccadilly Circus.
Most men looking at the young women thronging the club in short skirts and tight tops would be pleased at what they saw.
But other men have a very different reaction: those who believe that Islam compels them to kill and maim anyone involved in such decadence, and women in particular.
In April, a group of young British Muslims were jailed for life for plotting to explode bombs in and around London. One of their possible targets was legendary London nightclub Ministry of Sound - full of "slags dancing around".
But for two chance incidents Tiger Tiger could have become infamous in the annals of international terrorism.
A little after 1am, a drunk young clubber fell and struck his head. His injury initially appeared serious enough for an ambulance to be summoned - but just another late-night call out for medical teams in London's clubland.
The ambulance crew patched up the young man, however, before they could move on, returning to base for their next call at about 1:50am, they noticed the silver-green Mercedes.
They saw what appeared to be smoke and a glance through the window was enough to make them call the police.
Inside were green gas canisters, tanks of petrol and steel nails, ready to become deadly missiles at detonation.
That the explosion did not happen is a testimony to the bravery of two Scotland Yard bomb disposal officers.
Instead of withdrawing to a safe distance and sending in a robotic drone, the officers leaned inside the car and disabled the device by hand.
Amid all the chaos, just a few streets away sat another car. At 2:30am it came to the attention of a traffic warden who ticketed it for being illegally parked.
An hour later it was apparently towed away to a council pound in Hyde Park. A strong smell of gas alarmed staff, who then called in the police. The second car was also found to contain fuel, gas and nails.
Scotland Yard declined to comment on reports that a mobile phone was found in the first Mercedes that may have been intended as a trigger.
Rajeshree Patel, who was in the nightclub, said the Mercedes was "parked at an angle at the door of Tiger Tiger with all four doors open and headlights on."
was taken to the Forensics Explosives Laboratory in Kent at about 11am yesterday for further tests.
Police said the smoke seen inside the car is believed to have been vapour, released from 60 litres of volatile petrol inside.
Last night, London's clubs and bars remained defiantly open in the wake of the failed attacks.
Drinkers in the capital's bars were determined to carry on with their evening plans.
In Leicester Square, around the corner from Haymarket where the first device was discovered, Joanne Moss, 35, said: "We still come out for dinner. The bombs have not put us off."
Philip Matthews, the chairman of the Westminster Licensees Association which represents around one thousand bars, clubs and restaurants, said that he also expected venues to keep their doors resolutely open tonight but to be extremely vigilant.
Early test for Brown's new front-bench team
IT WAS a baptism of fire for both Gordon Brown and his new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.
Hours after their elevation in government, the pair were woken early to be told of the foiled terrorist plot that could have killed hundreds on the streets of London.
Ms Smith, whose biggest battles to date had been twisting the arms of unruly back-benchers as Chief Whip, was forced to push aside all other priorities, such as a mass release of prisoners on to the streets of the capital because of overcrowding in jails.
Instead, she chaired Whitehall's crisis committee, COBRA. Cabinet met for an extended one hour and 45 minutes yesterday, although sources close to the Prime Minister insisted just 15 minutes of this was devoted to the terrorism alert.
It was a day when the new Prime Minister could have felt vindicated in his appointment of a new junior minister for security, Admiral Sir Alan West, the former head of the navy.
He has been a sharp critic of government defence cuts since stepping down last year as the head of the Royal Navy. He was also commander of the ill-fated HMS Ardent in the Falklands conflict.
Another security-related appointment came in the form of former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, who will advise Mr Brown on security matters.
Adam Ingram, the longest-serving defence minister in history, has been replaced as armed forces minister by Bob Ainsworth. He will instead lead a year-long counter-terrorism review into the role of the military.
The review will examine how the military can best support the work of the police and security services in the UK, said the Prime Minister, who added it would also analyse "how we can build capacity overseas to tackle terrorism, rather than waiting for it to come to our shores".