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3 guilty in liquid bomb scheme

Plot in Britain changed airline carry-on rules

Abdullah Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain were convicted yesterday in London of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic flights with liquid explosives. Abdullah Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain were convicted yesterday in London of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic flights with liquid explosives. (Metropolitan Police via Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam
Washington Post / September 8, 2009

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LONDON - A British court yesterday convicted three men of plotting to kill more than 1,500 people by smuggling bombs made with flammable liquid aboard at least seven trans-Atlantic airliners, in a case that changed the way millions of air passengers travel worldwide.

The men were arrested in August 2006 after officials uncovered the plot targeting jets departing London’s Heathrow Airport and destined for cities in the United States and Canada. If successful, the plot would have caused the biggest loss of life in a terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, authorities said.

The failed plan involved bringing onboard homemade bombs filled with hydrogen peroxide disguised in soft drink bottles, and using parts of light bulbs and chemicals hidden in batteries to detonate them. Discovery of the plan snarled air travel for weeks and sparked sweeping new rules for bringing liquids onto commercial flights, which continue to cause security backups at airports worldwide.

The case was complex and often frustrating for prosecutors, law enforcement, and counterintelligence agencies in Britain and the United States. Last year, a jury had convicted the same three men of conspiracy to murder but failed to reach a decision on broader terrorism charges.

British prosecutors, using evidence supplied by the CIA and other US agencies, mounted another legal case against them to try to secure tougher sentences. After a six-month trial that the BBC estimated to have cost $65 million, their reward came in the form of convictions for Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Assad Sarwar, 29, and Tanvir Hussain, 28, on higher charges of conspiracy to murder by bombing aircraft in flight.

The jury found another defendant guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder and deadlocked on that charge for three other men. Prosecutors will decide whether to pursue another trial against them. An eighth alleged conspirator was acquitted of all charges.

In contrast to other home-grown terrorism plots in the United States and Britain, the three men found guilty yesterday were British nationals who were shown to have direct links to leading Al Qaeda operatives. Ali was said to have finalized the plot during a trip to Pakistan, and a martyrdom video showed him threatening the British with “floods of martyr operations.’’

Though US intelligence officials were involved from the early stages of the counterterrorism operation, sources familiar with the trial said the case had divided the British and Americans from the beginning. American intelligence agencies had pressed for quick arrests of the terrorist cell involved in the plot, while the British sought to wait to gather more evidence in the hopes of winning more convictions.

Nevertheless, the convictions of three out of eight men after what had become the biggest counterterrorism operation in British history were hailed by the government here as a triumph of justice.

“I am pleased that the jury has recognized that there was a plot to bomb transatlantic flights and that three people have been convicted of that plot,’’ British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said. “This case reaffirms that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism.’’

All eight men had pleaded not guilty to most of the charges, saying they were planning nothing more than a publicity stunt to raise awareness of Western policies in the Islamic world. The three men are due to be sentenced on Monday.

Though the plotters were foiled days before their planned attack, they “did achieve their goal of disruption, which is still going on three years later,’’ said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a counterterrorism research organization. Today, a “whole gamut of increased security is as a result of this plot.’’

The case also may spur new concerns over the US visa waiver program, which allows citizens of many European Union countries - including Britain - to fly to the United States without visas.

Prosecutors said the suspects had identified as targets seven flights from London’s Heathrow airport to New York, Washington, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, and two to Chicago.

Britain’s MI5 spy agency believes the group planned to strike as many as 18 jetliners in two waves of bombings, and to provoke further panic with attacks on UK power stations. Police say some potential second-wave suicide bombers have probably evaded arrest.

British and US security officials said the plan was directly linked to Al Qaeda and guided by senior Islamic militants in Pakistan.

Prosecutors identified defendant Ali as the leader of the plot. Investigators said they found a martyrdom video in which he denounced the West for occupying holy Muslim lands and said the airliner attack would “teach them a lesson they will never forget. . . . You have persisted in trying to humiliate us and kill us and destroy us.’’

Johnson said the plot would have brought “murder and mayhem on an unimaginable scale.’’ Authorities estimate that, if successful, at least 1,500 passengers would have died. Had the bombs been detonated over US and Canadian cities, hundreds more would have been killed on the ground.

Former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate in 2007 that if the plot had been carried out, the results “would have been on a par, or something similar to 9/11.’’

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.