Britain's security services were facing a second setback in as many weeks Tuesday when the only men to have been tried in connection with the July 7, 2005, London attacks were acquitted of helping the bombers.
Prosecutors failed to convince a jury that three Britons known to have associated with the so-called 7/7 suicide bombers also abetted their mission by scoping out the capital for possible targets prior to the attack.
Two of the men, Waheed Ali and Mohammed Shakil, were convicted of a second charge of conspiracy to attend a place used for terrorist training. The third, Sadeer Saleem, walked free, proclaimed his innocence, and said the case against him had been nothing more than "guilt by association."
The prosecution's failure to link the trio to 7/7 means that almost four years after the deadliest terrorist attack on mainland Britain – it killed 52 people and injured 700 others – the atrocity still has gone unpunished. Relatives of victims renewed their call for a proper inquiry into the attacks Tuesday, while terrorism experts said that despite notable successes against other jihadi terror plotters in Britain, security services were frustrated by their inability to convict anyone of the one plot that succeeded.
"There was an overwhelming amount of evidence," says M. J. Gohel, a London-based terrorism expert. "The security services will be very disappointed that having finally found some suspects who they could put on trial and having collected what they regarded as substantial evidence, they did not secure convictions."
The investigation into the July 7 plot is the largest criminal investigation in British history. Over the course of tens of thousands of man-hours, officers have taken 18,450 statements and produced 37,000 exhibits and 19,400 documents.
But, Mr. Gohel says: "What we are seeing repeatedly now is that the threshold for quality and quantity of evidence acquired is set so high it is almost impossible to obtain successful prosecutions unless there is irrefutable evidence, including a smoking gun and dead bodies, and the perpetrators being filmed in the act."
Just enjoying a day in the city?
The troika that stood trial all were from the same district of northern England as three of the four 7/7 bombers. The jury heard that they were close associates of Mohammed Sidique Khan, the ringleader. Mr. Ali was a childhood friend of another of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer. Ali and Mr. Shakil both travelled with Mr. Khan to Pakistan to attend terrorist training camps.
An exhaustive police trawl through phone records and closed-circuit TV images found that they travelled to London with another of the bombers, Hasib Hussain to meet the fourth attacker, Jermaine Lindsey, in December 2004. They visited the London Eye, the Natural History Museum, and the London Aquarium. Rather than conducting a scouting mission, as prosecutors claim, the men said they were just enjoying a day in the city.
Police and security services strongly suspect that other figures were involved in 7/7. But they face the diminishing prospect of convicting anyone. They've failed to identify who recruited the quartet and who trained and financed them – the masterminds of the attack.
The investigation's echo in Pakistan
Andy Hayman, who was Britain's foremost antiterrorism police officer in 2005, expressed "a deep sense of emptiness" at the verdict.
"The acquittals of three men on charges of helping the July 7, 2005, suicide bombers leaves me with a sense of bitter disappointment," he wrote in an opinion piece in The Times. "It is a feeling that, I suspect, is shared by victims' families, the survivors, and the police investigation team.
"I have no doubt in my mind that Mohammad Sidique Khan and the other three bombers had significant assistance from other people in this country and overseas," he added.
Matters have been complicated by a sharp deterioration in relations with Pakistan, whose cooperation is considered vital in piecing together cases for prosecution. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last year that 75 percent of British terrorist plots start in Pakistan.
The two governments clashed over a recent case in which 11 Pakistani men were arrested with a Briton in connection with a suspected plot. Pakistani officials said they felt slighted by suggestions that their country was not doing enough to combat terrorists.
Last week, all 11 Pakistanis were freed without charge.