The stunning collapse of the case against a group of British citizens charged with plotting to blow up a number of passenger planes out of the sky has sent shock waves through counterterrorism and security services in both the UK and the United States. After a two-year trial and a ₤2 million investigation, British prosecutors must now seek a retrial.
In August 2006, British police announced they had foiled a major plot to detonate an unspecified number of bombs on airlines travelling from the UK to the United States. The plot, codenamed Operation Overt by the police, finally came to trial earlier this year with eight defendants being brought before the court on dual charges of conspiring “with other persons to murder other persons” and “committing acts of terrorism” in which they aimed to “smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble and detonate them on board” (Crown Prosecution Service, cps.gov.uk, 21 August, 2006).
The eight men charged in this trial were Abdullah Ahmed Ali, a.k.a. Ahmed Ali Khan, 27, of Walthamstow; Assad Sarwar, 24, of High Wycombe; Tanvir Hussain, 27, of no fixed address; Mohammed Gulzar, 26, of Barking; Ibrahim Savant, 27, of Walthamstow; Arafat Waheed Khan, 26, of Walthamstow; Waheed Zaman, 23, of Walthamstow; and Umar Islam, a.k.a. Brian Young, 29, of High Wycombe (BBC, September 8). The men were part of a larger group of some 15 people who were charged in connection with Overt (BBC, November 1, 2006). Most of the seven others remain detained to face trial at a later time. The composition of the group is depressingly similar to the many other plots that have been foiled in the United Kingdom – young (17-30) Muslim men and women of South Asian descent with British passports (though the group also has at least three converts in it).
The trial got under way at Woolwich Crown Court in London in early April 2008, with the jury being warned to expect a “long and high profile” case (BBC, April 2). During the course of the trial, the world finally learned the details of the plot, in which the group was alleged to be planning to fashion explosives out of soft drink bottles filled with hydrogen peroxide. These would later be set off by a detonator fashioned out of explosives hidden in a battery with a disposal flash camera acting as the spark. Six of the men had recorded martyrdom videos which were shown in court, in which they said their intention was to “punish and humiliate the kuffar [infidels]” with “floods of martyr operations.” As leader Abdullah Ahmed Ali put it, “Sheikh Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed and now the time has come for you to be destroyed” (BBC, April 4).
The alleged conspiracy appeared to have ties with earlier terrorist attacks in the UK, including the July 7, 2005 (7/7) bombings that killed 52 commuters and wounded 700, and the botched July 21, 2005 (21/7) bombing attempts. It was later revealed that airline plot ringleader Ali had been in telephone contact with 21/7 “Emir” Muktar Said Ibrahim, and was also in Pakistan at around the same time as both Ibrahim and two of the 7/7 plotters – ringleader Mohammed Siddique Khan and his number two, Shehzad Tanweer (Independent, September 9). In the wake of this visit, all four men returned to carry out plots in the UK based around bombs made from hydrogen peroxide, devices never seen before in Britain. It was also revealed that Ali and Sarwar had worked at the same charity shop in East London as Mohammed Hamid, aka “Osama bin London,” who was convicted earlier this year of being a top terror recruiter (BBC, March 7).
However, in the face of what seemed like overwhelming evidence in the public domain, the jury in the case was unable to reach a definitive conclusion on the suspects’ guilt. In the end, they chose to convict Ali, Sarwar and Hussain on the first charge of planning to murder persons unknown, cleared Mohammed Gulzar of any charges relating to the plot, but were unable to reach any verdict on the other four defendants. All of the men aside from Gulzar had previously pled guilty to conspiring to commit a public nuisance, as part of a plot in which they claimed to be carrying out some fake explosions to protest the war in Iraq. The defense claimed the martyrdom videos were part of a fake documentary they planned to release online at the same time. The Crown Prosecution Service has since decided to attempt to re-try seven of the men on both charges, while Gulzar remains detained on unrelated charges (cps.gov.uk, September 10).
There were signs during the jury’s deliberations that things were not going to be as clear-cut as might be expected. In late August, Justice David Calvert-Smith indicated to the jurors that a majority verdict would be acceptable, something that is usually indicative of an undecided jury (BBC, August 26). Subsequently, it was also been revealed that there were a number of issues impeding the jury, which in the end deliberated for a total of 11 days over a five week period. A two-week holiday was granted in the middle of deliberations and at various points, jurors demanded time off to go to hospital, doctors’ appointments, and training courses (The Times, September 10).
Questions have also been asked about the prosecution’s case. While airplanes were the alleged targets, no tickets had been purchased and two of the men convicted did not even have their passports yet. The only tangible evidence pointing to aircraft was a series of airline timetables which Ali had downloaded off the internet and stored on a memory stick in his possession. Wiretaps and bugs in the bomb factory seemed to pick up conversations relating to targeting aircraft, but this evidence is not admissible in British courts. A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service attempted to put the result in a better light; “The jury found there was a conspiracy to murder involving at least three men but failed to reach a verdict on whether the ambit of the conspiracy to murder included the allegation that they intended to detonate IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on transatlantic airliners in relation to seven of the men. It is therefore incorrect to say that the jury rejected the airline bomb plot” (The Times, September 9).
Some have blamed the prosecutions’ apparently thin case on the fact that police were obliged to roll up the cell earlier than they had wanted to – something that occurred as a result of events in Pakistan, where police arrested the alleged mastermind of the plot, Rachid Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani descent. In his recent book The Way of the World, American investigative journalist Ron Suskind appears to place the blame for the premature arrests on the Bush administration, who instructed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to arrest Rauf (who has since escaped from custody), since they were eager for the plot to be brought to conclusion rapidly for political reasons. Other commentators have highlighted the fact that, while the British police prefer to watch plotters until the absolute last minute, the preference of American forces is to disrupt plots earlier (BBC, September 9). British authorities have refused to be drawn into this debate.
Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the jury was unable to reach a definitive conclusion based on the prosecution’s case. The current workload of British courts is such that it is now unlikely that the four other related cases will be heard before early next year. On September 10, British director of public prosecution, Sir Ken Macdonald, announced: “I have today concluded that the prosecution should apply to retry each of these [seven] defendants on every count that the recently discharged jury failed to agree upon” (Guardian, September 10).