– Jury fails to find suspects guilty of planning to attack the aircraft
– Evidence highlights early, pre-planning stages of massive plot
– Surveillance intercepts suggest London terror plots connected to al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan
A London jury recently found three Britons guilty of conspiracy to commit murder in the alleged 2006 trans-Atlantic plot to bomb commercial airplanes, the largest and most ambitious terror plot since the attacks on September 11, 2001. While three of the suspects are to face possible life sentences, the jury was unable to agree that the men sought to bring down the aircrafts in suicide martyrdom missions. Further, the jury remained undecided on four other suspects and acquitted an eighth suspect.
The Crown Prosecution Service will now ask for a second trial for the seven alleged cell members, which will center on accusations that each defendant conspired to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the trans-Atlantic aircraft. Legal officials are expected to review the case and decide whether the evidence could yield further convictions, but the case will not likely be heard until 2009.
While the trial did not produce definitive convictions, the investigation highlights Britain’s daunting task of undermining Islamic extremism as it is currently monitoring thousands of possible terror suspects. Furthermore, gathered communication intercepts abroad, which are not allowed for use in a British court, underline a broader connection to other high profile British terror plots and suggests that al-Qaeda remains determined to wage a long-term campaign against Britain and the West.
Evidence Falls Short
Operation Overt, the largest surveillance operation involving officers from MI5, the Metropolitan Police and other agencies around the United Kingdom (UK), formed what appeared to be a powerful case against the alleged extremists.
• In 2006, investigators found that the men had stockpiled enough hydrogen peroxide to create 20 liquid bombs. The men allegedly planned to add food dye to the liquid explosives to mimic the color of soft drinks, thus prompting the new airline security precautions that restricted the quantity of liquids in passenger luggage.
• Video and audio recordings of the suspects’ flat in East London showed the plotters rehearsing how to turn plastic bottles into bombs.
• The alleged ringleader had a computer memory stick with details of flights from Heathrow Airport to Chicago, New York, Boston, Denver, Miami and Montreal.
• Six of the men also recorded alleged “Martyrdom videos” that denounced the West and urged Muslims to fight.
Additionally, police recently admitted that five would-be airline bombers who were allegedly recruited for the operation may still be at large.
However, the investigation faltered after the United States allegedly pressured Pakistani security services to detain Rashid Rauf, the group’s al-Qaeda contact. British officials worry that Rauf’s arrest alarmed the group, causing them to panic and possibly destroy evidence. Rauf remains at large after escaping from Pakistani custody in late 2007. Additionally, the fact that the men never actually assembled viable bombs nor did they decide on specific flights to target hindered prosecutors’ efforts.
Plots Connected to al-Qaeda Leadership in Pakistan
Newly disclosed intelligence suggests that the airline plot was part of a much larger campaign against the West. According to British anti-terrorism officials, intercepts and other evidence from abroad suggested the airline plot was linked to the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London Underground and the failed follow-up attack two weeks later on July 21, 2005. The evidence reportedly indicates that Muktar Said Ibrahim, the convicted leader of the failed July 21st attack, had been in phone contact with the central figure of the airline plot, Abdullah Ahmed Ali. Additionally, the two leaders were allegedly in Pakistan during the same period that the July 7, 2005 plot leader visited Pakistan. Officials claim the individuals were trained by Abu Ubaida al-Masri, who was head of al-Qaeda operations.
Despite the prosecution’s inability to secure definitive convictions, the investigation is indicative of the current threat that Western nations face in combating Islamic extremists in the long-term. Additionally, the alleged links of al-Qaeda leaders preparing potentially devastating plots in Pakistan is concerning as the country is increasingly losing ground against extremists who have found sanctuary in its Tribal areas. Moreover, British counterterrorism officials claim that eight out of the top ten priority terrorist investigations in the UK have a connection to Pakistan.
The 2004 train bombings in Madrid, terror attacks and plots in London and Glasgow, and the recent anti-terror investigations in France, Denmark and Germany suggest that al-Qaeda-led and inspired terror plots will present serious challenges for Europe’s intelligence officials in the long-term.