NYT : Second Trial Begins in U.K. Airliner Bomb Plot

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Second Trial Begins in U.K. Airliner Bomb Plot

By JOHN F. BURNS | February 17, 2009

LONDON — Prosecutors began a second trial of eight men accused of a plot in 2006 to blow up several trans-Atlantic airliners with explosives hidden in soft-drink bottles by telling a jury on Tuesday that the accused planned to cause deaths on an “unprecedented scale” and to strike “a blow that would reverberate across the world.”

The trial, which prosecutors expect to last several months, is widely viewed among counterterrorist officials on both sides of the Atlantic as the most important to be held in Britain since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. The charges center on a suspected plot to simultaneously attack seven airliners flying from London’s Heathrow Airport to the United States and Canada, causing many hundreds of deaths.

A first trial ended last September with the jury failing to reach verdicts on the plane-bombing charges. But prosecutors announced almost immediately that they planned a new trial. No case here in years has drawn the same degree of attention from Washington, and officials say there has been close cooperation in preparing the case between intelligence and law enforcement officials in London and Washington.

The setting for both trials is a heavily guarded courthouse in Woolwich, in south London, which was chosen, officials say, because it presented fewer security challenges than better-known courthouses like the Old Bailey, in central London. The prosecution says the bombing plot had its origins in Pakistan and involved Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda.

The accused in the case are all British residents from the London area, ages 22 to 30.

The seven flights that allegedly were their targets involved American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada, with Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto the destinations. A feature of the prosecution’s case is a computer memory stick, with the seven flights highlighted on pages downloaded from an online flight guide, which the authorities say was found on a man accused of being a ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, when he was arrested in August 2006.

At the previous trial, Mr. Ali denied there had been a plot to bomb aircraft and said the plan had been to protest British and American policies in Afghanistan and Iraq by setting off minor blasts to “stir alarm,” not kill people, outside the offices of American Airlines operating out of Heathrow. He said that an earlier version of the plan had involved bombing the houses of Parliament at Westminster in central London, but that security there had proved too tight.

The chief prosecutor, Peter Wright, told the court Tuesday that the attacks were to have been carried out by means of bombs whose assembly would have been completed in midflight, with the bombers mating soft-drink bottles filled with a liquid explosive, based on hydrogen peroxide, with homemade detonators. The arrests of the men now on trial set off a worldwide tightening of airline carry-on restrictions that remains in force, including a ban on carrying most liquids in hand luggage.

Mr. Wright told the jury that the defendants were part of a wider terrorist network directed from Pakistan and dependent for its success on “young, radicalized Muslims prepared to lose their lives in a global act of jihad.” He added, “These men were indifferent to the carnage that was likely to ensue.”