British Jury Renders Split Verdict in Airliner Bomb Plot

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

LONDON, Sept. 8 -- A British jury reached a split decision Monday in Britain's most high-profile terrorism case, convicting three men of conspiracy to murder but reaching no decision on whether they intended to destroy transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs.

The jury returned guilty verdicts against Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, Assad Sarwar, 28, and Tanvir Hussain, 27, who were among eight British Muslims charged with plotting to bomb at least seven planes flying to the United States. Allegations that the men intended to smuggle liquid explosives aboard the jetliners in sports-drink bottles brought air traffic to a virtual standstill for days after they were arrested in August 2006.

The case also led to permanent restrictions on liquids and gels being carried onto planes and cost airlines and related businesses millions of dollars.

But on Monday, in a significant setback to British authorities' broadest anti-terrorism investigation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the jury at Woolwich Crown Court declined to convict any of the eight defendants of plotting to bomb airliners. Ali, Sarwar and Hussain were convicted only of "conspiracy to murder persons unknown" and face the potential of life in prison.

During the trial, which began in April, jurors were shown extensive evidence that the men had gathered hydrogen peroxide and other bomb-making materials.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Ali had been researching transatlantic flights from London. A computer memory stick in his possession contained schedules highlighted for seven U.S.-bound flights on United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada. Prosecutors contended the plotters had been planning a practice run to test security at Heathrow Airport.

The jury saw videotapes that prosecutors said were martyrdom messages intended for release after the defendants' suicide attacks. In one, Ali, the alleged gang leader, invokes Osama bin Laden and threatens to leave "body parts decorating the streets" of Britain.

In July, the three men pleaded guilty to conspiring to set off bombs -- which also carries a potential life sentence -- but they continued to deny targeting airplanes.

Ali and Sarwar testified that they intended to detonate bombs at Parliament or other high-profile sites without causing injuries. Those bombs, and a documentary film they said they were producing, were to be a "publicity stunt" to protest Britain's role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they said.

On Monday, the jury failed to reach a decision on murder conspiracy charges against four other defendants: Ibrahim Savant, 27, Arafat Waheed Khan, 27, Waheed Zaman, 24, and Umar Islam, 30. Another defendant, Mohammed Gulzar, 27, was acquitted on all charges and set free.

But seven of the eight defendants -- all except Gulzar -- also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to create a public nuisance over their plans to make and distribute the videos.

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that charge alone carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, meaning seven of the eight defendants face potentially long prison terms.

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