Star Tribune : 3 Britons convicted in plot to bomb jets

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

3 Britons convicted in plot to bomb jets

The jury failed to reach verdicts on the central charge that led to restrictions on liquids in carry-on luggage: that the eight planned to set off liquid explosives on flights.

By JOHN F. BURNS and ELAINE SCIOLINO New York Times == September 8, 2008

LONDON - A lengthy trial centering on what Scotland Yard called a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners ended on Monday with the jury convicting three of eight defendants of conspiracy to commit murder.

But the jury failed to reach verdicts on the more serious charge of a conspiracy to have suicide bombers detonate soft-drink bottles filled with liquid explosives aboard seven airliners headed for the United States and Canada.

The failure to obtain convictions on the plane-bombing charge was a blow to counterterrorism officials in London and Washington, who had described the scheme as potentially the most devastating act of terrorism since 9/11. Experts had said that the plot had all the signs of an Al-Qaida operation and that it had been conceived and organized in Pakistan.

The arrest in 2006 of two dozen suspects, including the eight put on trial, set off a worldwide alarm in the airline industry, and led to a tightening of airport security, including time-consuming restrictions on passengers carrying liquids and creams in their carry-on luggage that remain in force at most airports around the globe.

But the case was hampered, prosecutors said, by an investigation that was cut short, the conflicting demands of intelligence agencies and problems with introducing evidence in the courtroom.

The arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani descent who U.S., British and Pakistani officials said was a liaison to Al-Qaida, set off a series of events that forced British police to roll up the London-based cell far earlier than they intended. The arrest led to the roundup of the others. Scotland Yard hoped to grill Rauf in London, but he escaped from Pakistani police under mysterious circumstances shortly before his expected extradition last fall.

The haste in making arrests made it hard for prosecutors to persuade the jury that the bomb plot had reached the stage where an actual attack on airliners was imminent.

Partly as a result, prosecutors never convinced the jury that the accused plotters were prepared to strike immediately, or even that they had chosen planes as their target.

In a statement Monday evening, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith welcomed the guilty verdicts for Abdullah Ahmed Ali, 27; Assad Sarwar, 28, and Tanvir Hussain, 27, all Britons of Pakistani descent. She said authorities "saved countless lives" by disrupting the group, which was exposed by British, U.S. and Pakistani investigators.

Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said it may decide to call for a retrial.

By finding three of the men guilty of plotting murder, but not of an airliner bombing conspiracy, the jury appeared to concluded that they had the means and the intention of detonating bombs but that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that they planned to attack airliners.

British officials said a crucial role in the suspected plot was played by Mohammed Gulzar, 26, who declared his innocence throughout, and was the only defendant to be acquitted of all charges on Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report