NYT : Key questions in bomb-plot trial

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Key questions in bomb-plot trial

By ELAINE SCIOLINO | The New York Times | July 15, 2008

LONDON — When Scotland Yard disrupted what it called a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives in August 2006, officials in Britain and the United States said the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11 had been averted.

Air traffic on two continents was paralyzed, and passengers around the world were permanently barred from carrying most liquids onto planes. Terrorism alert levels in both countries were raised. There were claims by U.S. officials that the suspected scheme resembled the work of al-Qaida.

Now, as the three-month trial of eight defendants draws to a close, prosecutors have presented evidence of meticulous planning, with experiments on a new kind of bomb, research into plane schedules, videos threatening martyrdom, an apartment purchased for more than $270,000 in cash and a mysterious outsider with strong ties to Pakistan.

But the testimony has shown little evidence the suspects were prepared to strike immediately or of any link to al-Qaida — potential vulnerabilities in the case that several defendants have tried to capitalize on in court.

Three defendants pleaded guilty to intent to cause explosions, the judge announced Monday, in an apparent attempt to convince the jury their intention was not to commit mass murder, as prosecutors alleged. Instead, they said they planned a series of small, nonfatal blasts — "publicity stunts," one defendant claims — to protest British and U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The three men, and two others, also pleaded guilty to conspiring to cause a public nuisance by publishing videos threatening suicide-bomb attacks.

Britain does not allow plea bargaining, and the defendants — all British Muslim men, ages 24 to 30, six with family roots in Pakistan — still face more serious charges. They include conspiracy to murder passengers on airplanes.

Peter Wright, the chief prosecutor, urged jurors not to be swayed. "This was for real," he said. "Human beings ready, able and willing to commit carnage for the sake of Islam."

Still, the question of imminent threat and the sophistication of the alleged plot has hung over the trial.

At one point, after a videotape of a simulated liquid-bomb explosion was shown in court, the judge, David Calvert-Smith, reminded jurors that there was no evidence the suspects had fabricated a bomb.

"We need to deal with the fact that this is an allegation of conspiracy rather than the actually causing of explosion or murder," he said.

In building the case that the men were getting close to an actual attack, prosecutors have used evidence from several months of human police surveillance; thousands of items seized in 69 searches; DNA and chemical analyses; phone taps; Internet, e-mail and other audio and video monitoring; travel records; and the defendants' own words.

Surveillance inside their London apartment, notes, bomb-making materials and the suspects' testimony indicate they were trying to make an ingenious liquid bomb.

Bombs in a drink

Using a sealed 17-ounce sports drink, the men planned to drain the plastic bottle through a tiny hole in the bottom and then inject an explosive mix of concentrated hydrogen-peroxide, along with food coloring to make it look like the original beverage. Super Glue would seal it shut. AA batteries filled with the explosive HMTD would serve as the detonator; a disposable camera would serve as the trigger.

Prosecutors said the men planned to carry the components onto seven trans-Atlantic planes, assemble them and then explode them in midair.

The jury was shown a videotape of an explosion of a bomb built by government scientists to be identical to those the defendants are accused of trying to make. Thick panels of reinforced plastic were blown to the floor as the device exploded.

In cross-examining Keith Ritchie, the government scientist who testified about the simulated explosion, however, defense lawyer Malcolm Bishop said, "Such a plot was unattainable and really amounts to no more than prosecution fantasy."

The strongest evidence is against Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, a husband and father who studied computer-systems engineering and has been described by the prosecution as the ringleader.

A computer memory stick found in his pocket when arrested highlighted timetables of seven daily flights to cities in the United States and Canada. It also contained baggage information, security guidance about what could be carried as hand luggage and information about Heathrow Airport.

In a conversation recorded by the police, Ali discussed "locations in the U.S.A." and the desire to find the most popular destinations for British travelers, the prosecution said.

Ali's address book included handwritten notes that prosecutors called a plot "blueprint": "Clean batteries, perfect disguise, drink bottles," and, "Check time to fill each bottle." He also wrote, "Select date. Five days before. All link up, prepare." Prosecutors described the second key operative as Assad Sarwar, 28, who bought and stockpiled bomb-making materials and was responsible for experimenting with hydrogen peroxide and HMTD.

A college dropout who studied earth sciences, he first met Ali on a trip to Pakistan with an organization called the Islamic Medical Association in 2002.

During cross-examination, Sarwar explained in detail how to concentrate hydrogen peroxide to bomb-making levels, rattling off the difficult formula with chilling accuracy. He was also watched buying a suitcase and walking in a wooded area where the police later found a partially buried suitcase filled with bomb-making materials to make HMTD, hexamethylene triperoxide diamine.

Ali, Sarwar and a third suspect, Tanvir Hussain, have admitted they were making explosives but deny they wanted to blow up airplanes or kill anyone. The goal, they said, was simply to cause alarm and panic with small blasts to protest U.S. and British policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Ali described their plan as a "publicity stunt."

Last Thursday, in closed court, Ali, Sarwar and Hussain pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause an explosion. In addition, the three men and two others, Ibrahim Savant, 27, and Umar Islam, 30, pleaded guilty to conspiring to cause a public nuisance by publishing videos threatening suicide attacks.

Threat of martyrdom

Four of the suspects were foot soldiers who made videos threatening martyrdom. They include Savant, a convert to Islam with Anglo-Indian roots who worked in his British mother's bookkeeping business; Islam, a convert and former Rastafarian of Caribbean origin; Arafat Waheed Khan, 27, a newly engaged former cellphone shop employee; and Waheed Zaman, 24, a former biomedical college student who once headed his university's Islamic organization.

All four denied any knowledge of a bomb plot or intention to commit suicide, insisting their videos were to be part of a documentary.

The most tantalizing foreign link is the role played by Mohammed Gulzar, 26, a defendant who was on the run from a serious crime committed in Britain in 2002 and who prosecutors call a "shadowy figure" and an "international terrorist." He moved to South Africa two years later.

He turned up again in Britain with false documents posing as a honeymooner, met the two main defendants and communicated with them from phone booths using phone cards. He was also in regular phone contact with Pakistan and in possession of the same type of Toshiba batteries manufactured for sale in Pakistan as the ones used by the bomb makers.

Wright, the prosecutor, described Gulzar as a "sleeper" terrorist who was waiting for instructions from his "superiors in Pakistan" to strike.

In the immediate aftermath of the arrests in 2006, U.S. officials were quick to suggest links to al-Qaida. Since then, both U.S. and British authorities say they were convinced the scheme was the work of al-Qaida.

In congressional testimony in early 2007, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described the group as "an al-Qaida cell, directed by al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan, that planned to bomb nearly a dozen U.S. airliners bound for the U.S. in midair." He stands by that testimony today, his office said.

In a telephone interview, Michael Chertoff, the U.S. Homeland Security secretary, said, "If you look objectively at the nature of the plot, the multiple planes, its sophistication and high consequences, it certainly resembles plotting we've seen with al-Qaida."

British investigators said they were convinced the size, scope, cost, secrecy and ingenuity of the plot bear al-Qaida's signature; they said they believe the cell learned to make the liquid explosive device from al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing British rules on confidentiality regarding criminal prosecutions.

During the trial, Sarwar admitted that during a trip to Pakistan between mid-June and early July 2006, a friend told him how to make the explosive HMTD.

He said the friend, whom he identified as Jameel Shah, was a Kashmiri freedom fighter. "He told me what I needed to do," Sarwar said.

Gulzar denied the charges, claiming he was a missionary for a Muslim revivalist movement.

Wright, the prosecutor, also insisted the plotters were "almost ready" to spring into action, but he admitted there was no evidence that a date had been chosen.

The group had not yet made the HMTD explosive or refined the hydrogen peroxide to the correct concentration. Some of the suspects did not yet have new passports. Some stumbled or smiled during their videos, giving them an amateurish quality. No plane tickets had been purchased.

Ali testified that he thought they were being watched and had put the plan on hold.

In cross-examination, Ritchie, the government scientist, testified that making the liquid bomb required lengthy research, and that the preparation and transport of liquid explosive materials would be extremely hazardous.

Asked whether the suspects could have successfully completed the attacks, Chertoff was circumspect, saying, "The amount of damage and consequences depend on a lot of things: how skillful the operation is, where the bomb is detonated, and how competent the operation is."

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