The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes: Channel 4

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes is a TV documentary that was broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 on Thursday 26 April. For UK viewers it can be viewed online from the 4OD service until 26 May. It appears to also be available from  National Geographic’s website; no geographical or time restrictions are mentioned.

Channel 4’s website (link in previous paragraph) describes the programme as follows:

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes examines in minute detail an invidious home-grown terrorist plot to blow up airplanes flying out of Heathrow Airport, and reconstructs in candid, gripping detail the inside story of the UK’s largest and most dangerous surveillance operation.

British airport security has been rigorously tightened and increasingly stringent restrictions have been imposed on what we can carry onto airliners. Anyone who travels by plane is well aware of the ban on drinks bottles in hand luggage; but few people know exactly why.

The reason dates back to 2006 when a group of young British men from Walthamstow, East London, planned to blow up multiple airliners, departing from Heathrow, simultaneously in mid-flight, with explosives disguised as soft drinks.

If successful, it would have potentially killed over 2000 people and crippled the world aviation industry. But, unbeknown to the terrorists, MI5 was watching.

Over the summer of 2006, with the investigation spreading from the streets of East London to al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, the British authorities faced a nerve-shredding race trying to gather enough evidence to make arrests before the terrorists could launch their devastating attacks.

The film reveals the behind-the-scenes friction between the US and UK authorities and how American intervention forced the hand of their British partners into making premature arrests, which threw the planned operation into jeopardy.

The programme features unprecedented access to members of Counter Terror Command involved in the biggest surveillance operation since the Second World War, who have given interviews and forensic detail about the planned terror attack, plus members of the British government, including the then Home Secretary Lord Reid, Andy Hayman (Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police Service 2005 to 2008) and Peter Clarke (National Co-ordinator of Terrorist Investigations, Metropolitan Police Service 2002 to 2008), as well as Michael Chertoff, former US Homeland Security Secretary and General Michael Hayden, ex-CIA Head.

This is a comprehensive and riveting account of a race-against-time investigation to stop a major terrorist attack on Britain.

This was the biggest terror plot since 9/11 and was planned to take place just over a year after the 7/7 attacks on public transport in London, which killed 52 people, not including the four suicide bombers, and injured 770. Although the comment above mentions MI5, the British security personnel interviewed were all counter-terrorism police officers. The identities of all but the most senior were concealed.

Ahmed Ali Khan, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the leader of the plot to destroy airliners, was well educated. He was already known to the security services as a fund raiser for extremist groups. He made one of several visits to Pakistan in May 2006, where he was believed to have attended a terrorist training camp and met Rashid Rauf,  a suspected member of Al-Qaeda. Rauf had dual British-Pakistani nationality; he fled Britain for Pakistan in 2002 after police wanted to question him about the murder of his uncle.

Ali was put under 24/7 surveillance. A surveillance team requires 8-14 people, who must be able to mix into the general community. Re-enactments of the surveillance showed a young woman, talking constantly into her mobile phone, who actually had the police control room rather than her boyfriend on the other end of her lengthy call.

The selection of the terror cell was described as being ‘scientific.’ Tanvir Hussain was Ali’s deputy and another member was Umar Islam, who was 28, a little older than the others, and a convert to Islam. Assad Sarwar was described as being the quartermaster. They were ordinary with families and responsibilities and did not have criminal records. Ali and Sarwar had clearly had counter-surveillance training. Rauf was their middleman from Al-Qaeda.

Sarwar purchased large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, mostly used by hairdressers, but also a potential part of an improvised explosive device.

General Hayden, head of the CIA at the time, stated that the US regarded a domestic terror threat in the UK as being as serious as one in the USA because of the close links between the countries.

Members of the cell were observed visiting shops and paying close attention to the seals of soft drink bottles. They made numerous visits to pharmacists, buying citric acids and large syringes. They rented a flat in the Walthamstow district of London and were observed taking their rubbish some distance to dispose of it in a bin in a park rather than putting it out normally for collection. The rubbish was retrieved and it showed that the flat was a bomb factory.

This led the security services to covertly enter the flat and install cameras and listening devices. The terrorists were using the syringes to extract the contents of soft drink bottles and replace them with liquid explosives without tampering with the seals of the bottles. This indicated that their target was either a well guarded building or aircraft.

The terrorists were heard talking about the most common US holiday destinations for UK tourists. The bombs were small but would be devastating in the pressurised cabin of an aircraft. They talked of having 19 bombers, the same number as on 9/11. This meant that most had not been identified.

The police now had a dilemma: if they arrested the suspects now, the evidence might not be enough to convict them and they could be released and re-start their plot. If they were not arrested, then they might carry out their attack. There was a dispute between the UK and the USA about how long to let the plot run.

The largest and one of the most difficult surveillance operations ever mounted in the UK was undertaken, using 28 teams. One of the conspirators was followed to an internet cafe on, where he carried out a web search for seven UK to North America flights, all of which would be over the Atlantic at the same time. The plotters were overheard talking of taking their wives and children on the flights, and were making suicide videos. The Americans regarded this as an intention to carry out an act of war against them.

It was now Sunday 6 August 2006. The bombers had not yet been given the go-ahead from Pakistan to launch their operation, so the British police believed that they could wait until Friday 11 August before making their arrests.

General Hayden then paid a visit to Pakistan, which the British did not know about. On Wednesday 9 August Rauf was arrested. Hayden denied in the programme that this was an attempt to blackmail Britain into arresting the suspects but said that he ‘wasn’t unhappy at the arrest.’ Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police described this as a ‘breaking of trust.’

The British now feared that the conspirators could flee, explode their bombs in crowded places or attempt to board flights. There was a fear that they might have an insider at a UK airport. This led to a ban on liquids being taken on board airliners.

The police prepared to act, calling in 300 officers. Sarwar travelled to Walthamstow to meet Ali. It was decided that they had to be arrested immediately, meaning that the surveillance team had to make the arrests, something that is not normally done. The arrest team arrived shortly afterwards. None of the police officers were armed.

All the suspects were arrested. Significant evidence was found, including suicide videos. The programme stated that 12 men were convicted of terror related offences, eight of whom were directly linked to the liquid bomb plot. The main culprits received life sentences, with the minimum periods served to be 22 years for Umar Islam, 32 years for Tanvir Hussain, 36 years for Assad Sarwar and 40 years for Ahmed Ali Khan.

It didn’t mention that two trials were required; the first jury convicted them of conspiracy to murder but could not reach a verdict on the charge of conspiring to blow up aircraft. Umar Islam was convicted of only conspiracy to murder. Some other defendants were acquitted. See the websites of the Daily Telegraph (Conservative broadsheet), Guardian (Labour broadsheet), Daily Mail (Conservative tabloid), Daily Mirror (Labour tabloid) and BBC (accused by both sides of being biased towards the other).

Rauf escaped in circumstances that suggested either collusion or incompetence by the Pakistani police. The US believe that he was allowed to escape. He returned to the tribal areas, where he was reportedly killed in a drone strike. Andy Hayman suggested that he night be alive and being tortured.

A very interesting programme about the threat of this plot and the techniques of both the terrorists and the security services. There was tension between the Americans and the British over how early to make arrests. The British were annoyed that the arrest of Rauf forced them to move a little more quickly than they wanted to, but they ultimately proved to have enough evidence to convict. As usual for this type of programme, the caveat is that we are told what the security services want to tell us.

Some further information on this subject comes from CNN, which has obtained an Al-Qaeda document, thought to have been written by Rashid Rauf showing the origins of the plot. It is one of over 100 documents discovered by German cryptologists embedded inside a pornographic movie on a memory disk belonging to a suspected al Qaeda operative arrested in Berlin last year.

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