By Vikram Dodd | Three men were yesterday convicted of conspiring to commit mass murder through suicide bomb explosions, but a jury failed to reach a verdict on the allegation they were part of the biggest terrorist plot since the September 11 attacks.
The Crown had alleged that eight Britons planned to blow up at least seven airliners heading to North America with 1,500 people aboard, in attacks that would have had a global impact.
But yesterday a jury at Woolwich crown court failed to convict any of the defendants of conspiring to murder people by blowing up aircraft. After 56 hours of deliberations the jurors were hung on the central charge.
By majority verdicts, the jury convicted the three men of conspiracy to commit murder. They were the cell’s ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the bombmaker Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain.
They had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause explosions.
One defendant, Mohammed Gulzar, whom the Crown alleged flew into Britain from Pakistan to oversee the plot, was acquitted of all charges.
The jury failed to reach verdicts on four other defendants, who had earlier admitted conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by making al-Qaida style suicide videos.
The alleged airline plot was disrupted in August 2006 when the men were arrested. The discovery of the cell and what counter-terrorism officials say was an al-Qaida inspired suicide mission led to weeks of chaos at airports in Britain and the US.
The restrictions on liquids travellers can take in their hand luggage as a result of the allegations remain in force today. The additional security measures brought in since the arrests continue to cause disruption and delays at the UK’s busiest airports.
Last night the government was under pressure from the airlines and Britain’s largest airport owner to review its airport security regime in the light of the verdicts. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic and BAA said the government should consider lifting the ban on carrying large amounts of liquids in hand luggage.
Ali, Sarwar and Hussain will be sentenced on October 3, and the Crown Prosecution Service has until late this month to decide what it will do over the charges on which the jury failed to reach a verdicts.
The eight men – seven from London and one from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire – had denied the charges.
The Crown said the men planned to smuggle the parts of a liquid bomb on to passenger planes. These liquid components would be disguised in soft drinks bottles to bypass airport security. Once on board, the devices would be assembled.
Tests by government scientists, played to the jury, produced videos of the devices producing an explosion powerful enough to punch a hole in an aircraft fuselage.
The Crown believed it had overwhelming evidence. Six of the men recorded suicide videos making threats against the west, which the prosecution said would have been released after the planes were blown up in mid-air.
The security service MI5 had captured incriminating statements with covert listening and video devices planted in the east London flat which the cell used as a bomb factory.
US and UK intelligence believe the cell was directed by al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.
Liquid explosives were to have been hidden in Lucozade and other soft drinks bottles. Disposable cameras would have been used to help set off the devices which would also contain regular batteries, hollowed out to contain chemicals.
In their defence, Ali and Sarwar said they planned to record a documentary highlighting injustices against Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Ali said he considered exploding a small device at the Houses of Parliament or Heathrow’s terminal three as a publicity stunt to draw attention to the programme.
He claimed martyrdom videos recorded by six of the defendants were a hoax to be used as part of the internet documentary to make it more shocking.
In April while opening its case, the Crown played videos of Ali found after his arrest. In it he warned of “body parts … decorating the streets” if Muslims were not left alone, and said he had yearned to take part in violent jihad since he was a teenager. In the martyrdom video he is seen speaking against the backdrop of a black flag with Arabic writing on it. Last night the CPS said: “The prosecution is considering the request for a retrial in respect of the plot to blow up airliners against all seven men upon which the jury could not agree.”
The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said: “I am indebted to the police and security services who, by successfully disrupting this group, have saved countless lives. I would also thank the Crown Prosecution Service, which has worked tirelessly to ensure that these individuals have been brought to justice. I am sure they will now consider what to do where no verdict was reached.”
The trial judge, David Calvert-Smith, excused the jurors from any further service for the rest of their lives and offered his appreciation. “Depart this court with the full-hearted thanks of the community for your service to it, which is far beyond the duty for most jurors, and my personal thanks,” he told them.