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Inside the terror plot that 'rivaled 9/11'

In one of the most significant terrorism cases since Sept. 11, a British jury convicted three British citizens, accused of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners, on a charge of conspiracy to murder. Read the latest on the case here.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

In one of the most significant terrorism cases since 9/11, a British court Monday sentenced three British citizens to life in prison for conspiring to blow up transatlantic airliners in a plot that was thwarted in August 2006. The terrorist plot, which disrupted international air travel at the time, led authorities in 2006 to impose restrictions on liquids and gels on airplanes. Those restrictions remain in place today.

The three men, who were convicted by a British jury one week ago, were considered ringleaders of the conspiracy, according to prosecutors. They were among twelve charged in the case. To date, nine have stood trial.

In addition to the three convicted, the jury last Monday found four other defendants not guilty of the airliner conspiracy. One defendant was acquitted. The verdicts came at the end of a six-month retrial ordered by British authorities after a jury delivered mixed verdicts in an initial trial held in 2008.

In spite of the four acquittals in the retrial, British authorities expressed relief and satisfaction that the those they described as ringleaders were found guilty. “I cannot thank enough those involved for their professionalism and dedication in thwarting this attack and saving thousands of lives,” said U.K. Home Secretary Alan Johnson in statement. Johnson described it as the largest counterterrorism operation ever in the U.K.; the U.K. Press Association estimated the cost of the investigation and two trials at around $200 million.

The case highlighted the continuing threat posed by British-born radicals and the potential for Britain to serve as a staging ground for attacks against the United States.

Authorities said the men, arrested in August 2006, planned to smuggle liquid explosives disguised as sports drinks aboard a half-dozen or more flights headed from London’s Heathrow Airport to cities in the United States and Canada. Counterterrorism investigators say that such an attack could have killed well over 1,500 on board the planes, and many more if detonated over densely populated urban areas.

In an interview last year, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told Dateline NBC that, if successful, the alleged plot "would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy."

A review of the nearly 5,000 pages of trial transcripts and interviews with key British, American and Pakistani officials involved in the investigation offer insights into the current state of al-Qaida and the evolution of its operations, adding to the body of evidence that recruits from the West are being trained and directed by al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.

The name al-Qaida was not spoken frequently in court, but it loomed over the proceedings.

Prosecutors did not produce any evidence explicitly linking the plot to al-Qaida, but privately, British officials have suggested that al Qaida’s number three at the time, Abu Ubaidah al Masri, authorized the alleged airline plot. Al Masri reportedly died in 2007 of natural causes.

U.S. officials: Plotters trained by al-Qaida in Pakistan
A senior Bush administration official and two U.S. intelligence officials told Dateline that intelligence shows that some of the men convicted in this case – though the officials did not identify them by name – traveled to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, widely believed to be home to al-Qaida’s leaders, where they received explosives training “from al-Qaida specialists.”

Testifying before a Senate committee in 2007, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, described the plotters as “an al-Qaida cell, directed by al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan.”

While some have questioned whether an attack really was imminent or even viable, law enforcement and intelligence sources on both sides of the Atlantic insist that it was only weeks away.  “This was no dress rehearsal,” says Andy Hayman, at the time Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner Specialist Operations, whose command included counterterrorism.  If the plotters had not been stopped, Hayman, now an NBC News analyst, added, “I believe they would have been successful.”

The three convicted of conspiracy to murder by blowing up aircraft en route to North America were Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Assad Sarwar, 29, and Tanvir Hussain, 28. The verdict was not unanimous, but the judge accepted a majority verdict, according to which 11 of the 12 jurors were in agreement. At their first trial last year, all three were convicted of a general charge of conspiracy to murder, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the specific charge that their intended targets were airplanes in mid-flight. The three men Monday received sentences that were among the longest handed out by a British court in a terrorism case. Ali received a minimum 40 year prison term, Sarwar a minimum 36 year term and Hussain a minimum 32 years.

This time, the jury was persuaded by the evidence, said Sue Hemming, Head of the Crown Prosecution Service Counter Terrorism Division. “This was a calculated and sophisticated plot to create a terrorist event of global proportions and the jury concluded that Ali, Sarwar and Hussain knew what the target was.”

Those found not guilty last Monday of conspiring to bring down airliners were: Ibrahim Savant, 28, Arafat Waheed Khan, 28, and Waheed Zaman, 25. The jury was deadlocked on a general murder conspiracy charge against the three, and they could face a third trial. Another defendant in the latest trial, Abdul Waheed (a.k.a Don Stewart-Whyte), 23, who was not a defendant in the first trial, was cleared of all murder conspiracy charges. An eighth defendant, Umar Islam, 31, was found guilty of the general murder conspiracy; the jury was hung on the second conspiracy charge involving the specific airline plot. Islam this Monday was sentenced to a minimum 22 years in prison.

In the first trial last year, one individual, Mohammed Gulzar, 29, accused by authorities of flying into the U.K. from South Africa in mid-July 2006 to "superintend" the final stages of the plot, was also acquitted of all charges.

Prosecutors characterized Ali and Sarwar as lead figures in the conspiracy and the others as footsoldiers in the plot.

Authorities described Ali, who lived in the east London community of Walthamstow and had a college degree in computer engineering, as the cell leader in Britain and the one responsible for developing the mechanics of the bomb design. Sarwar was essentially the bomb chemist; he purchased and stored the chemicals to make the liquid explosive and detonator.

Ali, Sarwar, and Gulzar all had significant links to Pakistan. Between 2002 and 2006, both Ali and Sarwar made repeated trips there. In early 2003, according to court testimony, both traveled to a refugee camp in Chaman, Pakistan near the Afghan border, on behalf of a London-based Islamic medical charity. Ali testified that the suffering he saw in the refugee camps made him increasingly angry with U.S. and British foreign policy, anger he claimed intensified after the outbreak of the Iraq war that spring.

According to U.S., U.K., and Pakistani law enforcement sources, Ali and Sarwar’s key contact in Pakistan was Rashid Rauf, a U.K. national who allegedly fled to Pakistan in 2002 after he became a suspect in the murder of his own uncle in Birmingham, England. Rauf is believed by counterterrorism investigators to have played a critical role in the alleged airline plot, coordinating between the plotters in the U.K. and the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan.

On the stand, Ali and Sarwar acknowledged being in frequent communication with men in Pakistan and testified that they were in touch with a Kashmiri militant who went alternately by the names Yusuf and Jamil Shah. Sarwar told the court that he received explosives training from the man in Pakistan in early summer 2006. Several British investigators told Dateline they believe that the man was almost certainly Rashid Rauf, the suspected Al Qaida point man in the terrorist conspiracy, who used the names as aliases.

Ali, who was in Pakistan during that same period, was already on the radar screen of British intelligence, according to British counterterrorism sources, who told Dateline that Ali’s name had surfaced in an intelligence analysis mapping out the associates of suspected terrorists.  The British security service MI5 brought in Scotland Yard, the sources say, and the two agencies coordinated closely from that point on. The sources say that the first clues that Ali might be planning an attack on commercial aviation came to their attention in June 2006, though a more complete picture only emerged several weeks later, in mid-July.

British counterterrorism investigators suggest that the alleged airline plotters may have had links to individuals involved in other plots. If nothing else, they point to an intriguing set of coincidences. For instance, Mohammed Hamid, a radical preacher who called himself Osama bin London, worked near the east London-based charity where Ali and Sarwar, the alleged airline plot leaders, volunteered; and all three traveled to the same refugee camp in Pakistan. In 2008, Hamid was convicted of arranging terrorist training in the British countryside for several of those plotting to bomb the London transport system on July 21, 2005.

Furthermore, British court records reveal an intriguing coincidence in the timing of trips to Pakistan made by leaders of four major terrorist plots in Britain: a 2004 fertilizer bomb plot, the July 7 and July 21, 2005 London transit attacks, and the alleged airline plot. Some counterterrorism investigators wonder if these plots may have been part of a campaign by al-Qaida to hit Britain with a rolling sequence of attacks.

Andy Hayman refused to comment directly on that possibility. “Until you absolutely know for sure through evidence, intelligence what happened when they went to Pakistan, you could never reliably answer that question. “But,” added Hayman, “on the balance of probability, do you not find it rather strange that the country that they visited, and whatever went on there precipitated them coming back to the U.K. and committing acts of terrorism? I leave that open for others to draw their own conclusions.”

Piecing together a timeline
Testimony established that Ali, the alleged airline plot ringleader, was in Pakistan in the fall of 2004 and traveled back to Britain in early 2005. During that same period, additional court records show, key figures in the July 7 and July 21, 2005 bombings were also in Pakistan, including July 7 suicide bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, and July 21 ringleader Muktar Said Ibrahim, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Ali may have been in communication with Said Ibrahim in the spring of 2005, according to British officials, who explain that a cell phone police recovered from Ali contained a number used by Said Ibrahim.

That information was not presented at either trial; nor were the juries told that Mohammed Gulzar, the alleged plot supervisor who was acquitted, was a close friend of Rashid Rauf.

According to investigators, Rauf and Gulzar grew up together in Birmingham and then both attended Portsmouth University at the same time on Britain’s south coast. Law enforcement officials say that when Rauf left the UK following the murder of his uncle in 2002, Gulzar also fled for Pakistan, after British police also sought him for questioning. When he returned to the UK in July 2006, authorities say he used a fraudulent South African passport.

On the witness stand, Gulzar acknowledged that, following his return, he was in frequent contact with an individual in Pakistan. British investigators told Dateline they believed that man to almost certainly be Rauf.

After arriving in the U.K., Gulzar met several times with Mohammed al Ghabra, 28, a British citizen, who has been designated an al-Qaida facilitator by the U.S. government.  Al Ghabra (seen in the picture below) and Gulzar’s meetings took place in South Africa and London in the spring and summer of 2006.

In announcing al Ghabra’s designation on December 19, 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department stated: “Al Ghabra has organized travel to Pakistan for individuals seeking to meet with senior al Qaida individuals and to undertake Jihad training.” It also stated that al Ghabra “maintains contact with… senior al Qaida officials in Pakistan.”

Al Ghabra, who has been living openly in east London, has denied the allegations. In 2004, according to the Times of London, al Ghabra was acquitted on unrelated charges of fraud and “possession of a document or record that could be useful to terrorism.”

According to a British counterterrorism source, after his release, Gulzar was made subject of a “control order,”, a legal mechanism severely restricting his movements and communication. 

Ali, the alleged airline plot ringleader, made four trips to Pakistan between 2003 and 2006, according to trial testimony. Something about a trip he made there in the spring of 2006 – officials will not disclose exactly what – heightened their suspicion. According to the Daily Telegraph, when Ali arrived in London on June 24, 2006, British agents “were waiting at Heathrow to secretly open his baggage in a back room.” Two days later, according to new evidence introduced at the retrial, Ali sent an email to Pakistan: “Hi, yeah I’m cool. Got back from holiday. Everything went fine. Didn't get any problems at all. I'm just getting settled, take a few days, then I’ll start trading.”

At the same time, the probe became “red hot,” former Assistant Police Commissioner Hayman said. “This was, at that time, the only show in town.” Investigators began round-the-clock surveillance. Counterterrorism investigators say that following Ali led them to the others he was recruiting, which led to more surveillance.

Most of the dozen men eventually charged in relation to the plot were either school friends of Ali or people he got to know at the London and Pakistan offices of the medical charity. Courtroom testimony suggested that Ali’s charismatic appeal helped him persuade some of them to sign up for the operation.

British counterterrorism investigators say that it eventually became the biggest operation of its kind. At its peak, they say the investigation involved as many as a thousand intelligence and police officers, including surveillance teams that kept tabs on Ali, Sarwar, and the other suspected cell members. At trial, prosecutors introduced evidence of meetings in restaurants, parks, over games of tennis, and even by a Muslim cemetery. Security camera footage showed the operatives on a veritable shopping spree for what authorities alleged were parts to make the explosives.

While the plotters had not yet assembled a complete device, prosecutors stated that they had acquired all the constituent parts for the three key components: the liquid explosive, the detonator, and the trigger – enough to produce at least 20 bombs.

Their purchases included more than 40 liters of hydrogen peroxide, the main ingredient for the liquid explosive, which they bought from health food and hydroponics suppliers in Britain. Ali had brought some of the materials back from Pakistan, including packets of the sugar-based powdered drink Tang and AA batteries. Authorities alleged that the Tang would function as fuel for the hydrogen peroxide-based explosive; the AA batteries would conceal the chemical compound hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) for the detonator. Sarwar purchased the key chemicals for that compound at local pharmacies.

Their bomb design, which has been widely reported, had striking similarities to explosives used in previous terrorist plots, authorities say. Hydrogen peroxide was the main ingredient in the explosives used in both the July 7 and July 21 plots, while HMTD was also used as the detonator in the July 7 attack, which killed 52 people in addition to the four suicide bombers.

In late July 2006, Ali set up shop in an east London apartment his brother had just purchased as an investment. Ali testified that he told his brother he would help fix it up for resale. According to further court testimony, Ali and one of his associates went to work experimenting with the bomb components. They drilled holes in the sports drink bottles to drain them; the plan was to refill them with the explosive mixture and reseal the bottles with superglue. Ali also figured out how to remove the AA battery contents in order to insert the HMTD. Beyond that, they were working on the trigger, for which they planned to use a disposable camera wired to the detonator.

Every move being watched
The men involved in the plot were unaware that by early August, the British secret service MI5 had broken into the apartment and installed video and audio probes to record their every move. On Aug. 3, 2006, investigators watched as two of the plotters made an apparent breakthrough in their bomb design. “That’s the boom,” one said, followed later by this phrase, “We’ve got our virgins.” In court, prosecutors said the comment referred to the rewards the men hoped to receive in the afterlife for carrying out their impending suicide mission.

During the same session, the men appeared to count a total of eighteen recruits for the operation. “Phew, think of it, yeah” one of them said when they counted up to eighteen, according to court testimony. The defense argued that background noise and the type of language used in the conversation made it difficult to decipher what was being said with certainty.

John Reid, who oversaw the investigation as U.K. Home Secretary in 2006, says he had no doubt that the bomb could have worked. “They had the components. And they had them cunningly, very sophisticated, but very simply made as everyday commodities that you might take onto a plane with you.”

Dateline, in conjunction with the British broadcaster ITN, commissioned a demonstration by an explosives expert.  It showed that a device similar to the one described in the court case – a half-liter hydrogen peroxide explosive with an HMTD detonator – could blow a hole in the side of an aircraft fuselage.

U.S. and British officials agree that the potential threat of the alleged airline plot drove them to new levels of transatlantic cooperation. According to the senior Bush administration official, it also prompted “a new paradigm of counterterrorism intelligence sharing” among U.S. agencies, including CIA, NSA, FBI, DHS, and TSA, all of which played significant roles. The former official declined to offer specifics, but made it clear that the CIA and NSA, for instance, gathered intelligence for the investigation “in real time” using “the intelligence tools available.”

According to several counterterrorism sources, the CIA provided critical help in identifying and tracking people involved in Pakistan. “The Brits gave us a number or a name,” said one U.S. counterterrorism source speaking on condition of anonymity, “and we came back and said, ‘Here are these email addresses, these phone numbers, and more names.’”

An email introduced at the retrial is another indication of how closely the plot was being supervised from Pakistan. On Aug. 3, 2006, Ali wrote to Rashid Rauf, according to the Telegraph: “By the way, I've set up my mobile shop now. Now I only need to sort out an opening time.” Rauf replied from Pakistan: “Do your opening timetable. Give your girlies a big up from me.”

On Aug. 6, authorities grew increasingly concerned when they monitored Ali, the cell leader, looking up timetables for transatlantic flights departing between August and October 2006. Adding to their worry: several of the plotters were seeking new British passports. “They were trying to create a kind of clean identity for themselves,” said Scotland Yard counterterrorism chief John McDowall in an interview with Dateline. “Clearly the absence or otherwise of passport stamps to places like Pakistan they felt would be an advantage.”

The passports had not been issued, but expedited applications were pending. Several of the men also had applied for loans they allegedly never intended to repay, a tactic used by previous terrorist cells.

The next day, Aug. 7, according to officials at the Department of Homeland Security, there was a tense moment when they feared an attack might be underway. Authorities discovered that a person on board an American Airlines flight from Heathrow to Boston was on the No Fly list. Former homeland security secretary Chertoff said, “The first concern that we had was, have we either missed something, or has someone decided on their own they are going to accelerate an element of the plot and we therefore, we are perhaps a little bit late?” The airliner was sent back mid-flight to London; it turned out to be a false alarm.

On Aug. 8, 2006, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush was briefed on the case. Chertoff would not disclose the President’s specific comments, but told Dateline, “Generally, the president's concerns were, first and foremost, ‘Let's make sure no lives get lost.’”

Counterterrorism sources said that, by that time, U.S. intelligence services were tracking the movements of Rashid Rauf, the suspected al-Qaida point man in Pakistan, and officials saw indications that Rauf might be heading into the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they feared he could evade capture.

According to counterterrorism investigators, the situation created some friction. U.S. officials did not want to risk losing Rauf and pressed the Pakistani authorities to arrest him immediately. British officials preferred to wait a few more days to gather more intelligence and evidence. The Pakistanis found themselves in the middle, said a former senior Pakistani official with knowledge of the investigation, who described the pressure from the U.S. as “enormous.”

On Aug. 9, the case reached critical mass: bugs planted in the terrorist safe house picked up audio of one of the men recording a suicide video, one of six such videos investigators eventually recovered. The bug also picked up one of the plotters asking Ali, the cell’s ringleader “What’s the time frame?... How long we got to go?” Ali’s reply: “A couple of weeks.”

That evening, British police learned that Pakistani authorities had arrested Rauf.

British officials feared that if the plotters found out about Rauf’s arrest, it could serve as a “go signal” to trigger an attack. “Given how high the stakes were, you couldn't second guess,” said Andy Hayman. According to investigators, Rashid Rauf had been in touch several times with the UK plotters on the day of his arrest and had been in near constant communication with the UK ringleaders — by phone, email and text — in the weeks before the plot was broken up, an indication of his central role in the plot.

Overnight, British police arrested more than two dozen suspects, including the eight whose trial just concluded. Of those, twelve were charged with conspiracy to murder and blow up airplanes. In addition to the nine who have been tried so far, three defendants have yet to stand trial on these charges: Nabeel Hussain, 25, Osman Adam Khatib, 22, and Mohammed Uddin, 38. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, their trial is expected to start in October.

Two other individuals were charged in relation with the plot. Mohammed Usman Saddique, 27 was charged with engaging in conduct in preparation for an act of terrorism with intent to carry out such an act, a charge also made against Nabeel Hussain.  And Ali’s wife, Cossar, was charged with failure to disclose information about the plot.  Trials for Saddique and Cossar Ali are expected to take place in early 2010. As for the man acquitted in the first trial, Gulzar, counterterrorism sources say that since his acquittal, he has been subject to a control order, a legal provision strictly limiting his movement and communications.

On the witness stand, the defendants claimed that they never intended to kill anyone, only to set off a bomb inside an airline terminal as a publicity stunt, and then release those suicide tapes as propaganda to draw attention to “the plight of Muslims.” They also said they considered other targets in Britain, including the Parliament. But they were hard-pressed to explain several contradictions. For one, they claimed to disavow al-Qaida’s techniques; at the same time as they said they wanted the explosive to bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida, so they would be taken seriously.

Could bin Laden himself have signed off on the alleged airline plot?

Back in January 2006, bin Laden did warn Americans of major attacks in the works: “And you will witness them, in your own land, as soon as preparations are complete.” It is not clear if he was referring to the alleged airline plot, but counterterrorism experts believe that is a possibility.

“I can't tell you whether operationally it went up to bin Laden,” Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said, “but I think the links to the al-Qaida network are, in my mind, pretty clear.”

For now, British and U.S. authorities are satisfied they put all the main players out of action, at least in Britain.

As for others involved in training and orchestrating the alleged airline plot from Pakistan, a senior Bush administration official told Dateline last year that they had been identified. “They could be in Pakistan still. Some might be in other countries. There are efforts underway to capture them.”

As far as has been made public, the only overseas operative apprehended was Rashid Rauf.

In an interview with Dateline last year, Pakistan’s former interior minister Aftab Sherpao said about Rauf: “It seems he was the main player in this. And he was-giving direction to the people there in U.K.” As far as has been made public, the only overseas operative apprehended was Rashid Rauf.

Following his arrest in Pakistan in August 2006, Rauf was held in custody until December 2007, when he escaped while en route to a court hearing. His guards apparently allowed him to enter a mosque unaccompanied to pray, but he apparently fled out a back door.

While Rauf was on the run in the summer of 2008, Dateline interviewed a spokesman for his wife’s family in Pakistan. The spokesman, Mohamed Riyaz Jukhtiar, said: “According to his family, they say he's not involved in this. Nor is he involved in this organization.”

In November 2008, Rauf was reported killed in a U.S. “Predator” missile strike in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas. According to a former senior Bush administration official who was still in office at the time, the U.S. government was confident that Rauf had been killed. However, counterterrorism sources say neither his body, nor any of his DNA has been recovered from the scene of the strike, and his family reportedly remains unconvinced of his death, contributing to some doubt amongst Western counterterrorism officials that he was really killed.

The guilty verdicts at the retrial in London are seen by British authorities as vindicating their decision to hold a retrial. The initial prosecution, which concluded in September 2008, resulted in guilty verdicts for only three of the defendants – Ali, Tanvir Hussain, and Sarwar - on murder conspiracy charges, with the jury unable to reach a decision on a whether these three and four others – Savant, Khan, Zaman and Islam – specifically conspired to blow up airplanes. In the course of the first trial all seven also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, and three, Ali, Tanvir and Hussain pleaded guilty to the additional charge of conspiracy to cause explosions.

Verdicts in initial trial came as surprise to many
Many counterterrorism officials were surprised by the jury’s indecision at the first trial, given what they believed was one of the strongest terrorism cases to date. Some suggested that the case would have been even stronger if prosecutors had been able to introduce intercept evidence. Currently, wiretaps cannot be introduced in British courts. In February this year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he supports changing that law. A senior British counterterrorism source, privy to communication intercepts in the investigation told Dateline that they would not have provided much ammunition for the prosecution because of their coded nature.

The mixed verdicts at the initial trial prompted some finger pointing in Britain, with critics accusing the U.S. government of forcing British police to shut down the operation too soon. The critics speculated that given more time, authorities could have obtained more evidence. But at the time both U.S. and British officials insisted that the investigation was a success because it broke up the plot.

The retrial, which finally kicked off in April 2009, saw its share of delays caused by issues with several jurors, including illness, injury of a family member, and, in one instance, a potential conflict of interest. By and large, it was a replay of the original trial, but yielded a result closer to the one authorities had hoped for.

“I think what we're actually seeing is a complex investigation being tested by the jury,” said Andy Hayman, the former Scotland Yard senior official. “I draw the comparison I think with fraud investigations where people have to pour through lots of information, numbers, figures, transactions, journeys abroad. There is a real striking similarity with terrorism. People making phone calls, sending emails text messages travelling abroad you are asking the jury an awful lot to do there.”

Another panel of jurors may now have to go through it all over again. In a statement last week, the Crown Prosecution service announced that it is requesting a third trial for the defendants for whom the current jury reached no verdict. A judge is expected to rule on the request in October.

Richard Greenberg is Supervising Investigative Producer for NBC News, Paul Cruickshank is a Fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, and Chris Hansen is Correspondent for Dateline NBC.

NBC News Senior Investigative Producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report.

This report aired on Dateline on Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 at 10 p.m. ET.