By Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
LONDON, Sept. 7 -- A British court on Monday convicted three men of plotting to kill more than 1,500 people by smuggling bombs made with flammable liquid aboard at least seven transatlantic airliners, including one bound for Washington, in a case that changed the way millions of air passengers travel worldwide.
The men were arrested in August 2006 after officials uncovered the plot targeting jets departing London's Heathrow Airport and destined for cities in the United States and Canada. The failed plan involved bringing on board homemade bombs filled with hydrogen peroxide and disguised in soft drink bottles, and using parts of light bulbs and chemicals hidden in batteries to detonate them almost simultaneously.
Discovery of the plan snarled air travel for weeks and prompted sweeping new rules for taking liquids onto commercial flights -- regulations that continue to cause security backups at airports worldwide.
If successful, the plot would have caused the biggest loss of life in a terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001. It amounted to a complex, often frustrating case for prosecutors, law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies in Britain and the United States. Last year, a jury convicted the same three men of conspiracy to murder but failed to reach a decision on broader terrorism charges.
British prosecutors, using evidence supplied by the CIA and other U.S. agencies, mounted another legal case against the men to try to secure tougher sentences. After a six-month trial that the BBC estimated to have cost $65 million, their reward came in the form of convictions for Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Assad Sarwar, 29, and Tanvir Hussain, 28, on higher charges of conspiracy to murder by bombing aircraft in flight.
The jury found another defendant guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder and deadlocked on that charge for three other men. Prosecutors will decide whether to pursue another trial against them. An eighth alleged conspirator was acquitted of all charges.
Though U.S. intelligence officials were involved from the early stages of the counterterrorism operation, sources familiar with the trial said the case had divided the British and Americans from the beginning. U.S. intelligence had pressed for quick arrests of the terrorist cell involved in the plot, while the British sought to wait to gather more evidence in the hopes of winning more convictions.
Nevertheless, the convictions of three of eight men after what had become the biggest counterterrorism operation in British history were hailed by the government here as a triumph of justice.
"I am pleased that the jury has recognized that there was a plot to bomb transatlantic flights and that three people have been convicted of that plot," British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said. "This case reaffirms that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism."
In contrast to other homegrown terrorism plots in the United States and Britain, the three men found guilty Monday were British nationals who were shown to have direct links to leading al-Qaeda operatives. Ali was said to have finalized the plot during a trip to Pakistan, and a martyrdom video showed him threatening the British with "floods of martyr operations."
All eight men had pleaded innocent to most of the charges, saying they were planning nothing more than a publicity stunt to raise awareness of Western policies in the Islamic world. The three men are due to be sentenced Sept. 14.
Though the plotters were foiled days before their planned attack, they "did achieve their goal of disruption, which is still going on three years later," said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a counterterrorism research organization. Today, a "whole gamut of increased security is a result of this plot," he said.