UK authorities end long legal saga last sentenced in plan to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners

By Jennifer Quinn, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Legal saga ends over plot that changed air travel

LONDON — Four years after a plot to bring down trans-Atlantic airliners triggered tight new security restrictions for travelers worldwide, British authorities closed a lengthy legal chapter Monday when each of the final suspects were jailed for a minimum of 20 years.

Ibrahim Savant, 29, Arafat Waheed Khan, 29, and Waheed Zaman, 26, were each sentenced in the marathon case that began after the plot — directed by al-Qaida — was thwarted in 2006.

A total of nine British Muslims have been convicted of involvement in the plan to blow up at least seven trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives.

A series of trials began in 2007. The plot’s ringleader Abdulla Ahmed Ali was jailed for a minimum of 40 years — one of the longest sentences ever handed out by a British court.

Both British and U.S. authorities said the plan was guided by senior Islamic militants in Pakistan and designed to be the deadliest terrorist strike since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Discovery of the plot prompted tight new restrictions for air passengers, including limits on the amount of liquids and gels travelers are able to carry into airliner cabins.

Prosecutors involved in the trials explained how plotters had planned to assemble bombs in airplane toilets using hydrogen peroxide-based explosives injected into soda bottles drained of their original contents, adding food dye to make the mixtures resemble the original drinks.

Authorities estimate that, had the plan succeeded, 2,000 passengers would have died and hundreds more could have been killed on the ground.

Flights chosen as targets were services from London’s Heathrow airport to New York, Washington, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal and Chicago.

Police said they believe the plotters were just days away from mounting the attacks when officers rounded up 25 people in 2006. The arrests led to travel chaos across the United States and Europe.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate in 2007 the plot “would have been on a par, or something similar to, 9/11.”

British and U.S. authorities insisted the liquid explosive devices were viable, though defense lawyers claimed government scientists needed almost 60 attempts over six months to create a working bomb to the same specification.

Police believe a test run had been planned for the weekend of August 12, 2006, when one plotter would have attempted to smuggle a liquid bomb kit on to an airliner. If successful, the actual attacks were likely to have taken place during the week of August 14, 2006, police say.

Evidence showed that six of the plotters recorded so-called “martyrdom” videos at a house in London. “The time has come for you to be destroyed,” Ali said in one film.

The complexity of the case made it impractical to put all the defendants on trial at the same time, meaning prosecutors broke the plot into a series of related trials. Those alleged to have carried out a supporting role in the plot, but not to have been directly involved in planning, were dealt with in separate hearings.

In April 2008, a group of eight men accused of the most serious offenses stood trial together. A jury acquitted one suspect on all charges and could not decide if any of the others had deliberately planned to detonate bombs onboard aircraft.

A year-and-a-half later, a jury at a retrial convicted Ali and two other men — Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain — of planning to down airliners with liquid explosive bombs. However, as in the 2008 trial, the jurors could not decide whether Savant, Khan and Zaman were also guilty of the charge.

Britain’s director of public prosecutions ordered the three men to be tried a third time — leading to their conviction Friday on a charge of conspiracy to murder persons unknown. A judge sentenced them Monday.

Also jailed following trials over the plot were Umar Islam for a minimum of 22 years; Adam Khatib for a minimum of 18 years and Nabeel Hussain for eight years.

Police said three men arrested during the plot were later jailed for other unrelated terrorism offenses. Four people, including Ali’s wife Cossor Ali, were acquitted.

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