By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2008
LONDON, April 3 -- Seven transatlantic flights, all leaving Heathrow Airport within 2 1/2 hours of one another, were to be simultaneously blown up in midair with the goal of killing on "an almost unprecedented scale," jurors were told at the opening of the long-awaited trial of eight British Muslims.
The men intended to smuggle liquid explosives onto the planes, including United Airlines Flight 925 to Washington, prosecutor Peter Wright said in court. By his account, flights to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto were also to be targeted.
Hydrogen peroxide, dyed to resemble a sports drink and carried in plastic bottles, was allegedly to be combined with other ingredients in flight and triggered by the batteries of everyday devices such as disposable cameras, Wright alleged.
"These men . . . were indifferent to the carnage that would ensue," Wright said as he began to detail the government's case against the men publicly for the first time since they were arrested in August 2006. The trial is the culmination of the largest anti-terrorism investigation in British history, a case that changed airport security around the world.
Amid exceptional security at Woolwich Crown Court in east London -- including bomb-sniffing dogs and checks of individual roof tiles -- the eight men were ushered into a wood-paneled courtroom and seated behind thick glass. More than a dozen uniformed police officers stood guard behind them.
The men, who range in age from 23 to 29, are almost all of Pakistani heritage. Most wore suits and ties and listened impassively as the prosecution began outlining the case against them. They have denied the charges.
Wright said the men had "the cold-eyed certainty" of fanatics and intended to kill "in the name of Islam." They were aiming, he said, for a "deadly statement of intent that would have truly global impact."
British authorities allege that the arrests of the defendants on Aug. 9, 2006, foiled the most ambitious terrorist plot since the Sept. 11 attacks five years earlier. The initial security scare paralyzed international air travel for days, cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars and led to permanent restrictions on passengers carrying liquids or gels onto commercial flights.
Perhaps the most dramatic courtroom moment came when Wright screened a computer animation of the flight paths of the seven planes that showed how the planes would all have been airborne over the Atlantic Ocean at the same time at the height of the summer vacation season.
Once the first bomb went off, "the authorities would be unable to prevent the other flights from meeting a similar fate as they would already be in midair and carrying their deadly cargo," he said.
Wright said the targeted flights were United 925 to Washington, 931 to San Francisco and 959 to Chicago; American Airlines 139 to New York and 91 to Chicago; and Air Canada 849 to Toronto and 865 to Montreal.
Those flights were highlighted on a list of departures from London discovered on a computer memory stick belonging to Abdul Ahmed Ali, 27. Prosecutors identified him in court as one of the gang's leaders, along with Assad Sarwar, 27, and Mohammed Gulzar, 26.
Wright said the memory stick also contained information on aircraft type and a detailed list of items allowed on board. Asked what the information on the memory stick was for, Ali told police it was for "holiday destinations in America."
"As terrifying a concept as it may be," Wright said, the plotters might have targeted more than seven flights. He said conversations taped by police tracking the men "for weeks and months" before their arrest indicated that as many as 18 suicide bombers were being groomed and that "at the very least seven flights" were involved.
Wright told the jury that the defendants planned to smuggle liquid explosives aboard in plastic bottles of two popular soft drinks, Lucozade and Oasis. He said they intended to use a syringe or needle to inject the liquid mixture into the base of the bottles, then glue the hole shut.
A main ingredient in the homemade explosive was to be hydrogen peroxide; food coloring would be used to turn it the same color as the sports drinks. Wright said the bombers planned to detonate the mix with a commonly used chemical compound called hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, which would be placed inside hollowed-out AA 1.5 volt batteries and then ignited using a wire attached to a small light bulb or the flash from a disposable camera.
Wright also showed the jury handwritten notes from Ali that he said contained the "blueprint for the plot" and the formula for mixing the chemicals, organic material and detonators.
Along with the three leaders, the other defendants are Tanvir Hussain, 27, Ibrahim Savant, 27, Arafat Waheed Khan, 26, Waheed Zaman, 23, and Umar Islam, 29, who before converting to Islam was known as Brian Young.
Opening arguments are expected to last two more days; the trial could take months.