Scotland Yard's counter-terrorist command yesterday foiled an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to kill the publisher of a forthcoming novel featuring sexual encounters between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride.
Early yesterday armed undercover officers arrested three men after a petrol bomb was pushed through the door of the north London home of the book's publisher.
The Metropolitan police said the target of the assassination plot, the Dutch publisher Martin Rynja, had not been injured.
The suspected terror gang was being followed by undercover police and the fire was quickly put out after the fire brigade smashed down the front door.
The foiled terrorist attack recalled the death threats and uproar 20 years ago following the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and the worldwide protests that followed the publication in a Danish newspaper in 2005 of cartoons deemed offensive to Islam, in which more than 100 people died.
Security officials believe Rynja was targeted for assassination because his firm, Gibson Square, is preparing to publish a romantic novel about Aisha, child bride of the Prophet Muhammad. The Jewel of Medina, by the first-time American author Sherry Jones, describes an imaginary sex scene between the prophet and his 14-year-old wife.
It was withdrawn from publication in America last month after its publisher there, Random House, said it feared a violent reaction by "a small radical segment" of Muslims. It said "credible and unrelated sources" had warned that the book could incite violence.
Random House reacted after Islamic scholars objected to its contents, saying it treated the wife of the Prophet as a sex object. One of them, Denise Spellberg, of the University of Texas at Austin, described the novel as "soft-core pornography", referring to a scene in which Muhammad consummates his marriage to Aisha. She called it "a declaration of war" and a "national security issue".
At the time, her warnings were dismissed by the author. "Anyone who reads the book will not be offended," said Jones. "I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam." However, Jones admitted receiving death threats after the book was withdrawn.
It was soon after this that the Met appears to have received a tip-off that the British publisher who had subsequently agreed to print it could be the target of an attack.
A Met spokesman said three men had been arrested in "a preplanned intelligence-led operation" at about 2.25am on Saturday.
Two of the suspects were arrested in the street outside Rynja's four-storey townhouse in Lonsdale Square, Islington, while the third was stopped by officers in an armed vehicle near Angel Tube station.
They were being questioned yesterday on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, a spokesman said.
Rynja, 44, could not be contacted yesterday. He is believed to be under police guard.
Yesterday, Natasha Kern, Jones's agent, said she was shocked to learn of the attack. She said the book had been misinterpreted by its critics and did not contain sex scenes, as had been alleged.
"I honestly believe that if people read the book they will see it is not disrespectful of Muhammad, and moderate Muslims will not be offended. I don't want anyone to risk their lives but we could never imagine that there would be some madmen who would do something like this. I'm so sad about this act of terrorism. Moderate Muslims will suffer because of a few radicals."
Kern said it was too early for her to comment on whether the book should be withdrawn. "That's up to Martin, and I still need to absorb the fact that he was at risk. I'm just so glad he has not been hurt."
Residents said they saw armed police break down the door of Rynja's house, helped by firefighters.
Francesca Liebowitz, 16, a neighbour, said: "The police couldn't get the door open so the fire brigade battered it down."
Another neighbour, who declined to be named, said: "I was woken at about 3am and I looked out the window and I saw several unmarked cars with what I now think were police officers in them. These officers came out of the cars and there was huge screaming and shouting. Some of the police officers were carrying sub-machineguns.
"I then saw a small fire at the bottom of the door at the house. I heard the police officers shout and scream and try to get neighbours out of the house."
The Jewel of Medina is due to be published next month.