MSNBC : Inside the terror plot that 'rivaled 9/11'

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Inside the terror plot that 'rivaled 9/11'

What really happened in the case that led airlines to bans liquids and gels

By Richard Greenberg, Paul Cruickshank, and Chris Hansen | Dateline NBC | September 15, 2008

In one of the most significant terrorism cases since 9/11, a British jury last week convicted three British citizens, accused of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners, on a charge of conspiracy to murder. The plot, which disrupted air travel at the time, led authorities to impose permanent restrictions on liquids and gels on airplanes.

But in a decision that surprised many observers, the jury deadlocked on a second murder conspiracy charge that specifically alleged the men intended to detonate explosive devices on board a trans-Atlantic passenger aircraft. Prosecutors are seeking to retry the three men on that charge.

The five-month trial 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 say 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, 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 entire trial.

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 last year 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 last year, 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 adds, “I believe they would have been successful.”

The three convicted of murder conspiracy – Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, Assad Sarwar, 28, and Tanvir Hussain, 27 – were among eight who went on trial last April. One defendant, Mohammed Gulzar, 27, was acquitted of all charges. The jury could not reach a verdict on the two murder conspiracy charges against four other men: Ibrahim Savant, 27, Arafat Waheed Khan, 27, Waheed Zaman, 24, and Umar Islam, 30. The four, whom prosecutors described as foot soldiers in the plot, earlier pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and now face a possible retrial on both murder conspiracy charges.

At trial, prosecutors characterized Ali and Sarwar and the acquitted man, Gulzar, as lead figures in the conspiracy.

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. Authorities alleged that Gulzar “superintended” the plot, traveling into the U.K. on a fraudulent South African passport to oversee the final preparations for the attack.

Ali, Sarwar, and Gulzar all had significant links to Pakistan. Between 2002 and 2006, 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.

Gulzar, originally from Birmingham, England, fled to Pakistan in 2002 when, according to law enforcement sources, British police sought him for questioning in the murder of a friend’s uncle. That friend, Rashid Rauf, also fled to Pakistan around the same time and 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, Sarwar, and Gulzar all acknowledged being in frequent communication with men in Pakistan. Counterterrorism officials say that Gulzar’s main contact was his old friend Rauf. Ali and Sarwar 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.

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 in the same east London charity shop as Ali and Sarwar, the alleged airline plot leaders, and traveled to the same refugee camp in Pakistan. Earlier this year, the 50-year-old 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.
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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 refuses 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,” adds 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 trial, nor was the jury told that Mohammed Gulzar, the alleged airline plot supervisor, who was acquitted, met several times with Mohammed al Ghabra, 28, a British citizen, who has been designated an al-Qaida facilitator by the U.S. government. At the trial, al Ghabra was referred to only by a nickname, “Gabs, ” according to counterterrorism sources. Al Ghabra [...] 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 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.”

Al Ghabra is currently living openly in east London.

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.”

Soon after Ali’s return, the probe became “red hot,” former Assistant Police Commissioner Hayman says. “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.

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 plotters 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.

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 trans-Atlantic 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 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.”

Several counterterrorism sources say the CIA provided critical help in identifying and tracking people involved in Pakistan. “The Brits gave us a number or a name,” says 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.’”

On Aug. 6, 2006, 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, apparently so they would have no trace of prior travel to Pakistan, making it easier to board flights to the United States. 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. Secretary Chertoff says, “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 say 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, says 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. 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,” says Andy Hayman.

Overnight, British police arrested more than two dozen suspects, including the eight whose trial just concluded. Several were let go. Four other men are expected to face trial in the coming months on conspiracy murder charges. Ali’s wife, Cossar, was also charged with failure to disclose information about the plot. She is awaiting trial.

On the witness stand at the trial just ended, 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.

During the trial, all the defendants except Gulzar pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Three – Ali, Sarwar, and Hussain – pleaded guilty to an additional charge of conspiring to cause explosions. Those guilty pleas did not stop the jury from convicting the three men of murder conspiracy.

Jury's reaction came as a surprise to many

Still, many counterterrorism officials were surprised by the jury’s indecision, 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.

The mixed verdicts also have 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 speculate that given more time, authorities could have obtained more evidence.

But both U.S. and British officials insist that the investigation was a success because it broke up the plot. In a televised statement last week, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith thanked the police and security services for saving “countless lives.”

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 says, “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.

In Pakistan, it is a different story. The one suspect arrested in the case there, Rashid Rauf, escaped from custody last December. “Unfortunately, he is now no longer in the custody of Pakistan government,” Pakistan’s former interior minister Aftab Sherpao told Dateline.

A spokesman for Rauf’s wife’s family in Pakistan told Dateline they do not know where Rauf is and they insist he is innocent. “They say he's not involved in this.”

U.S. officials are circumspect. Asked about Rauf, Secretary Chertoff says: “There I think we're getting into an issue that I probably can't get into.”

As for others involved in training and orchestrating the alleged airline plot from Pakistan, another senior administration official says they have been identified. “They could be in Pakistan still. Some might be in other countries. There are efforts underway to capture them.”

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.
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