A bombing suspect arrested in Rome has told investigators that he and his co-conspirators wanted to frighten rather than kill with last week's abortive attacks on London's transit system and claimed they had no connection to the explosions two weeks earlier that killed 56 people, the Italian press reported Saturday.
"We wanted to make an attack, but only as a demonstration," Isaac Hamdi was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera newspaper, which cited no source. He told investigators the group was angry over the war in Iraq but had no links to the al Qaeda network, Italian newspapers said.
Analysts cautioned that his reported account -- the first disclosed from one of four suspected would-be bombers, all of whom are now in custody -- was self-serving and dubious but nonetheless provided an insight into the mind-set of the alleged conspirators.
It was published on a day when other details emerged in Britain about the cell that authorities said staged the botched July 21 attacks, in which assailants tried unsuccessfully to detonate backpacks filled with explosives in three subway cars and a double-decker bus.
In a triumphant conclusion to an intensive international manhunt, British police seized one suspect on Wednesday and three more on Friday, while Hamdi, who was first identified by the alias Osman Hussain, was nabbed in Rome.
Police are investigating whether one of the men detained in London Friday was a fifth would-be bomber, who abandoned an unexploded backpack that was found in a park.
An official, who refused to be identified, confirmed that this potential fifth bomber is Wahbi Mohammed, brother of Ramzi Mohammed, one of the four identified suspects. He was arrested in the Notting Hill area of London, near the flat where his brother and another man, Muktar Said Ibrahim, were seized by armed police who stormed the apartment.
Police, while expressing relief over the arrests, nonetheless warned the public Saturday that other cells could still be preparing new attacks.
British police, who by law can question the suspects for up to 14 days before charging or releasing them, drew a curtain of secrecy over the investigation Saturday, citing the need to honor Britain's strict rules on pretrial publicity. But the Italian authorities were far less reticent, offering details of Hamdi's statement and an account of how they tracked him down.
A naturalized British citizen of Ethiopian descent, Hamdi told interrogators he met Ibrahim, who he identified as the ringleader of the group, at a gym in Notting Hill, according to a report in the Corriere della Sera. He said the men got together frequently to practice martial arts and watch videos of the Iraq war.
Ibrahim "said we had to do something big," said Hamdi, who purportedly readily agreed to participate in the July 21 attacks. "We have no ties with al Qaeda, we had no contacts," Hamdi reportedly maintained.
Ibrahim "gave me instructions for the bombing," Hamdi told investigators, according to the report. "I was warned to pay attention in transporting the bomb, because the acid could leak and it would be dangerous. They told me that I could burn myself." Hamdi reportedly showed investigators an acid burn on his leg.
Witnesses said Hamdi attempted to detonate a backpack bomb on a subway near the Shepherd's Bush station and fled after it failed to explode.
In a statement to Italy's Chamber of Deputies, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Hamdi fled Britain five days later via London's Waterloo station. It is the London terminal for Eurostar trains that cross to the continent through a tunnel under the English Channel.
Pisanu said police traced Hamdi through a series of cell phone calls from Paris, Milan and Bologna before he arrived by train in Rome. Pisanu said a network of contacts in the Ethiopian and Eritrean community in northern Italy helped Hamdi along the way. Police searched 15 locations following Friday evening's arrest.
Italian newspapers reported that Hamdi arrived in Rome on Friday morning, and that he went with his brother, Remzi Hamdi, 34, who runs a jewelry store near the central train station, to a mosque to pray. Police arrested the men when they returned to the brother's apartment.
According to La Repubblica newspaper, Hamdi, who grew up in Italy and speaks fluent Italian, told investigators he fled to Rome because he had nowhere else to go and had friends there. He said he knew of no plans for attacks in Italy, which Islamic extremist groups have declared a prime target because of its support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
British investigators have asked for a speedy return of Hamdi to London under new European Union procedures designed to streamline such requests in terrorism cases. But an attorney representing him, Antoinetta Sonnessa, told reporters after a brief hearing that he would resist extradition.
"He doesn't consider himself a terrorist," Sonnessa told Italian TV. She declined to say what explanation he gave when interrogated, but said: "He defended himself with extreme calm, coherence."
The four men captured in Britain are now being held at the high-security Paddington police station. Like Hamdi, they have ethnic links to the Horn of Africa region.
The first to be arrested, Yasin Hassan Omar, 24, was born in Somalia but came to Britain in 1992 with family members. He spent time in foster homes and for the last five years shared a government-subsidized flat in north London with Ibrahim, a former convict who became a devout Muslim after serving a jail sentence for muggings.
British press reports said Omar has demanded an interpreter and has complained of nausea and headaches -- the result of being subdued by a stun gun when he was arrested in Birmingham on Wednesday. He is suspected of attempting to bomb a subway train near the Warren Street station.
The other men were seized after a tip from a suspicious resident in North London. Wahbi Mohammed, who neighbors said was a bus driver, was taken without a struggle, while his brother Ramzi and Ibrahim were seized in the nearby Ladbroke Grove neighborhood by police using stun grenades and tear gas.
Capturing an entire cell of suspected operatives was a major coup for police. "It was probably the Metropolitan Police Service's best single day in the last 30 years in terms of coming up with the goods," said terrorism expert Michael Clarke of King's College London.
Interrogators are required to give the suspects regular rest and three meals a day and allow them to pray five times each day. Nonetheless, Clarke said he believed investigators would have little trouble inducing the men to talk. "They were quite professional in terms of planning the operations. They clearly weren't thinking in terms of what they would do after an attack," he said. "That's one reason why they were caught so easily and why they are not likely to resist interrogation for very long."
Seven other people remain in custody in Britain, suspected of harboring or otherwise aiding the would-be bombers. Two women arrested Friday at an East London train station were released without charge, police said.
The investigation, which Police Commissioner Ian Blair called the largest and most complex in British history, has cost more than $8 million and involved at least 1,000 police officers.
Special correspondent William Magnuson in Rome contributed to this report.