LONDON - According to British authorities, it was a plot to chill the marrow of
air passengers everywhere; if successful it could have even eclipsed the
September 11, 2001, attacks in terms of callous savagery.
In August 2006, British authorities announced they had foiled a spectacular
terrorist conspiracy. They had disrupted an attempt by British Islamist
extremists to launch simultaneous suicide attacks - using liquid explosives
smuggled on board - against seven transatlantic flights departing out of
London's Heathrow airport. Police promptly committed a group of eight British
nationals - whom they had been monitoring for months - to trial.
The effect of the arrests was dramatic and immediate. Airport security -
particularly at London Heathrow - was dramatically
ramped up. International travel chaos ensued for weeks; international air
travel growth slumped from 5.8% in 2005 to just 1.3% in August 2006 (UK Civil
Aviation Authority figures) and draconian new security measures were brought
Ever since, international airports have brought in tight restrictions on
liquids carried onto aircraft; an international ban on liquids in hand luggage
plus a restriction of no more than one tenth of a liter permitted as a carry-on
item. Air passengers were told that such restrictions - even including
moisturizers, lipsticks and deodorants - were necessary irritants given the
evidence and nature of the current terrorist threat.
This week the alleged airline plotters were called to account after what
British counter-terrorism authorities say was the largest domestic surveillance
operation in British criminal history.
Following a trial lasting five months and costing US$20 million, a London court
convicted seven British-born Islamist extremists of conspiring to cause
explosions. Three men - Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, Assad Sarwar, 28, and Tanvir
Hussain, 27 all of Walthamstow, East London - were additionally found guilty of
conspiracy to murder in terrorist attacks; four others admitted conspiracy to
cause "public nuisance"; one was cleared of all charges. Ali, Sarwar and
Hussain had pleaded guilty earlier this year to planning to cause explosions.
The court ruled that this trio - all from Walthamstow, East London - had been
inspired directly by al-Qaeda and planned to target a range of British domestic
targets. British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith went further - she stated that the
men's conviction "had saved countless lives".
Unfortunately, the convictions cannot be said to be an unalloyed British
victory in the difficult campaign against enemies within. Critically, the jury
could not agree that the men actually intended to bomb airliners. Simply put,
the prosecution did not prove its case - in court it emerged that none of the
men had purchased flight tickets. At the same time a row has broken out in
government and intelligence circles - according to various British media
reports – over whether British security services moved against the cell too
early after pressure from US counterparts. According to the BBC the verdict has
now left senior British intelligence and police officials "dismayed and
So this is a case whose outcome remains fluid. Either way, the British
government is not happy and is set to call for a retrial by the end of
The case dates to a period when Britain's counter-terrorism resources were
being stretched to their limit. After the events of 7/7 in London of July 2005,
British intelligence was confronted by a myriad of potential Islamist extremist
threats, which it struggled to dimension and interpret.
But their efforts bore fruit early with the Walthamstow cell. In 2006, the
group was placed under intensive MI5 and police surveillance - codenamed
Operation Overt. The suspects fitted the current profile of Islamist extremism
in Britain; young, British-born and educated and with strong links to Pakistan.
The court heard that they were inspired directly by - perhaps also controlled
by - the al-Qaeda nexus operating out of the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Several had visited refugee camps in Pakistan and most likely liaised with
al-Qaeda operatives. Several members also had links to the 7/7/2005 and failed
21/7/2005 bomb attack plotters in London. The group's commander was Abdulla
Amed Ali, and Assad Sarwar was the quartermaster and chemist; the remainder
were foot soldiers. All cited British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan
and the treatment of Muslims by the West in the Middle East as their prime
MI5 quickly discovered that their Walthamstow address had been turned into a
veritable bomb factory for home-made devices. The cell was monitored for months
by hidden cameras as they researched and assembled improvised bombs and
recorded "martyrdom" video statements. Police subsequently arrested eight men
and searched woods in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. There they discovered a
suitcase containing explosive ingredients and nearby large bottles of hydrogen
peroxide, a key liquid bomb-making chemical.
British prosecutors must have felt they had accrued all the necessary evidence.
They argued that the three Londoners had clearly targeted trans-Atlantic
airliners heading from the UK to US airports because of their choice of liquid
explosives. The court heard that the group had assembled the components
specifically for a liquid-based attack.
Their liquid bombs consisted of holes drilled in soft drinks bottles, the
contents replaced by a mixture of hydrogen peroxide - a bargain basement bomb
maker's favorite - drink powder and food colorant. These were then attached to
detonators hidden in disposable cameras. Prosecutors claimed the devices were
intended to pass as innocuous items in luggage through Heathrow's airport X-ray
scanners. British scientists subsequently conducted a test which showed the
devastating potential of the devices; proving they were indeed powerful enough
to bring down an airliner in flight.
But this did not convince the British jury. The case festers.
At a stretch, the latest convictions could be counted as a victory by
terrorists in that the actions of the London cell disrupted international
airline travel massively in 2006. But this argument does not bear much
inspection. Growth in international air travel had rebounded to 5.5% by August
2007 (UK Civil Aviation figures).
The airline industry's current woes have more to do with the high price of
aviation fuel rather than the burdens imposed by increased security against
international terrorism. And even if the current restrictions will not be
relaxed any time soon, technology designed to counter the threat of explosive
liquids to aircraft has also advanced since 2006.
The seven major British airports for instance have ordered 180 new Advanced
Threat Identification X-Ray (ATIX) systems designed to differentiate explosive
liquids by their density. Other aspects of trans-Atlantic airline security have
also been given a boost as a direct result of the Walthamstow arrests and
trial. Passengers intending to travel to the US from the UK must now submit
details online at least 24 hours before departure and their data be entered on
US screening databases. So the latest attempts by domestic British Islamist
extremists could not only be said to have been disrupted, but the fight against
them also powerfully reinforced.
Yet the fight is not over, as al-Qaeda could still inspire young disaffected
British Muslims such as those of the Walthamstow cell and who can operate
through proxies in the UK. Although the key protagonists in this latest case
are safely behind bars and now likely awaiting a retrial, they remain part of a
British-born network estimated by the British security services to number
several hundred dedicated individuals each nursing similar grievances against