Three British Muslims were convicted Monday of plotting to murder thousands by downing at least seven trans-Atlantic airliners in simultaneous attacks designed by al-Qaida to be the deadliest terrorist strike since Sept. 11, 2001.
Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Assad Sarwar, 29, and Tanvir Hussain, 28 were found guilty at Woolwich Crown Court in London of leading a plan to detonate bombs on aircraft bound for the United States and Canada, using liquid explosives hidden in soda bottles.
Four other men were acquitted of conspiring to bomb airliners, but admitted lesser charges — and in one case conspiracy to murder. An eighth man was cleared completely.
The case brought sweeping new restrictions for air passengers, including limits on the amount of liquids and gels they can take carry on board.
British and U.S. security officials said the plan was directly linked to al-Qaida and guided by senior Islamic militants in Pakistan.
‘Murder and mayhem on an unimaginable scale’
British authorities estimate that, if successful, around 2,000 passengers would have died. Had the bombs been detonated over U.S. and Canadian cities, hundreds more would have been killed on the ground. Britain's Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the plot would have brought "murder and mayhem on an unimaginable scale."
Other officials said the political repercussions would have been immense — likely destroying relations between London and Washington. The case may spur new concerns over the U.S. visa waiver program, which allows citizens of many European Union countries — including Britain_ to fly to the United States without visas.
Police officials said they believe the plotters were just days away from mounting their attacks when officers rounded up 25 people in 2006. The arrests led to travel chaos as hundreds of jetliners were grounded across Europe.
Prosecutors said the suspects had identified as targets seven flights from London's Heathrow airport to New York, Washington, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal and two to Chicago.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate in 2007 the plot "would have been on a par, or something similar to 9/11."
The plotters planned to assemble bombs in airplane toilets using hydrogen peroxide-based explosives injected into soda bottles, prosecutors said.
Two waves of bombings planned
Britain's MI5 spy agency believes the group planned to strike as many as 18 jetliners in two waves of bombings, and to provoke further panic with attacks on U.K. power stations. Police say some would-be second-wave suicide bombers have likely evaded arrest.
Investigations into the secondary plots — and hopes of gathering evidence to link the cell to specific terrorists in Pakistan — were curtailed as U.S. officials became increasingly nervous and ordered the arrest of one of the group's key accomplices in Pakistan.
Rashid Rauf, a British-born baker's son, is said by intelligence officials to have been the key link between the U.K. and militants in Pakistan. Rauf was arrested in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur in early August 2006.
Peter Clarke, head of British counterterrorism policing at the time, said Rauf's arrest was a surprise to London. Worried the plotters would rush forward their plans, police rounded up dozens of suspects in hasty dawn raids on August 10, 2006.
Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has denied there was any rift with London, but other U.S. officials acknowledge the White House was jittery.
"Given what happened on 9/11, and that this airliner plot was headed in our direction, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some here advocated taking action sooner rather than later," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Rauf escaped from custody in December 2007. He was the target of an American drone strike in November 2008 but intelligence officials in the U.S. and Britain say they remain unsure whether he is dead or alive.
‘Time has come for you to be destroyed’
In Britain, six plotters used a dank row house in eastern London to record "martyrdom" videos. "The time has come for you to be destroyed," Ali, the British organizer of the plot, said in one film, directing his anger at the American and British public.
The defendants argued in court that they were filming a documentary, and had also planned a stunt involving small explosions to expose supposed Western oppression of Muslims.
Jurors found Umar Islam, 31, guilty of conspiracy to murder, but could not decide if he was involved in targeting aircraft. They found three other men — Ibrahim Savant, 28, Arafat Waheed Khan, 28 and Waheed Zaman, 25 — not guilty of planning to blow up airliners, but could not reach verdicts on whether they were guilty of conspiracy to murder.
All four had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. An eighth man — Donald Stewart-Whyte, 23 — was cleared of all charges. His lawyers have called for a government apology.
The trial was the second in a case that has frustrated prosecutors. Last year, Ali, Sarwar and Hussain were convicted of conspiracy to murder, but the jury could not reach a verdict on whether they targeted aircraft.
Judge Richard Henriques said he would sentence the men on Sept. 14.
Test run planned
A test run was planned for the weekend of August 12, 2006, when one plotter planned to smuggle a liquid bomb kit on to an airliner, said a senior police official, who demanded anonymity to discuss details not presented to the court. He said the actual attacks were likely to have taken place the week of August 14, 2006.
Though police concede the group hadn't managed to produce a viable bomb at the time of their arrests, or purchased airline tickets security officials insist the group was ready to strike.
"We believe that they were days away, no more than a week" said the senior police official. He said the group was fine-tuning its explosives mix.
Sarwar flew to Islamabad in June 2006, likely to discuss final details with al-Qaida organizers, the police official said. Investigators believe Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, an Egyptian regarded by both U.S. and British intelligence as a senior al-Qaida figure in Pakistan, was the key organizer of the plot.
Al-Masri, who died of hepatitis in Pakistan in December 2007, is also suspected of a role in orchestrating the July 7, 2005 bombing attacks on London, which killed 52 subway and bus commuters.
Prosecutor Peter Wright told the court the plotters in Britain were "entirely under the control and direction of Pakistan."