Britain notched up its biggest success yet in its efforts to crush a home-grown jihadi terrorist network when five British men with links to Al Qaeda were convicted Monday of a plot to replicate the carnage and destruction of 9/11 on British soil.
But satisfaction was tempered when it emerged from the trial that police had come across two of the 7/7 bombers during the operation – but let the men slip off the radar.
Analysts say the trial was not only the longest terrorism trial in British history, but also concerned the most ambitious terrorist plot yet thwarted. The five men had stored 600 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to make bombs, and discussed plans to detonate them in a nightclub, a British Airways plane, the London Underground, and the country's largest shopping center.
"This is the longest ever terrorism trial in [Britain], and probably the biggest in terms of the explosives and the atrocities [the terrorists] intended to cause," says M. J. Gohel, a terrorism expert with the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based intelligence think tank.
The planned attack was foiled in March 2004 by intercepted chatroom conversations, surveillance, and the discovery of the fertilizer in a west London depot. At that point, prosecutors said the men had the bomb capability and had only to decide on a target.
The five men convicted were Omar Khyam, Waheed Mahmood, Anthony Garcia, Jawad Akbar, and Salahuddin Amin. They were sentenced to life in prison. "You have betrayed this country that has given you every opportunity," said the judge, Sir Michael Astill.
Peter Clarke, the Metropolitan police's top counterterrorism officer, described the gang as "trained, dedicated, ruthless terrorists who were obviously probably planning to carry out an attack against the British public. "We heard them praising the attacks in Madrid, saying that there were no such things as innocent victims. They had to be stopped."
A key prosecution witness was Mohammed Babar, a Pakistan-born American who said he was an accomplice and had helped get materials to make the bombs. The men also had a Canadian accomplice, Mohammad Momin Khawaja. The jury deliberated for 27 days, a record in British criminal history
As with 7/7, the links to Pakistan and al Qaeda are irresistible.
Several of the men traveled to Pakistan after 9/11 for training. Omar Khyam, the ringleader, boasted that he took orders from Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, reputedly Al Qaeda's No. 3 who was recently arrested by the CIA and turned over to Guantánamo Bay last week.
"Five dangerous terrorists are now behind bars thanks to the hard work of our police and security services," said the Home Secretary, John Reid. But he added that despite big increases in resources for security services in recent years, "It is important to remember that 100 percent commitment can never guarantee 100 percent success. Today's case reminds us all that the terrorist threat we face is real and severe."
Transcripts from police surveillance record startling conversations between the groups members. At one point, Mr. Akbar says he wants to bomb a nightclub. "A big nightclub in central London, no one can put their hands up and say they are innocent – those slags dancing around," he said. Omar Khyam remarked: "If you get a job in a bar, yeah, or a club, say the Ministry of Sound [a popular club with a capacity for 1,800 people], what are you planning to do there then?" Akbar replied: "Blow the whole thing up."
Despite the culmination of the £50 million ($100 million) investigation and trial, opposition politicians noted that during the surveillance operation, police had come across two of the four suicide bombers that killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005, but failed to close the net on them. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, the perpetrators were said to be "clean skins," unknown to the police.
"The information revealed in this trial will spark widespread public concern and debate about the operational capabilities of the security service, and the reliability of Government information in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings," said Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
But MI5, the police, and some analysts said the security services could not be blamed. MI5, Britain's domestic security agency, says it has almost 2,000 individuals believed to be actively involved in terrorist plots to keep tabs on. As many as 30 major plots have been identified. "You can't follow everybody," said Lord Stevens, a former Metropolitan police chief. "You just don't have the resources for that," he told the BBC.
"The security services have improved their game enormously, but they say it's a constant learning process," says Mr. Gohel. "New cells are springing up all the time."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.