Britain's would-be liquid bombers were not the brightest sparks.
They bragged about their plans to blow up airliners headed to America, while police microphones were listening. On shopping expeditions to pick up the chemicals they would use to make up their bombs, they were followed by detectives. They had flight schedules on memory sticks, with the half dozen American-bound flights they targeted highlighted. On their home computers, they had stored their martyrdom videos, to be played after they died. Scotland Yard's Anti-terrorist Branch knew every detail of their plans, down to the bottles of sports liquid they would use. They planned to make a tiny hole in the bottoms, drain the drink and replace it with hydrogen peroxide, colored with food dye to match the original drink, and then reseal them with super glue. "The security services had these guys covered nine ways from Sunday," says Bob Ayers, a former intelligence officer and fellow at Chatham House, the London think tank.
Air travelers the world over know what happened next. Beginning in August 2006, stringent bans were put on carrying anything from bottled baby formula to shampoo aboard planes. Few of the plot's details were revealed because of Britain's tough judicial secrecy rules, until their trials were concluded this week in London. Now much of that information has come out--including some chilling martyrdom video footage. "Sheikh Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed," Abdulla Ali, one of the three convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, said in his video. "Now the time has come for you to be destroyed." But none of the eight British Muslims accused were convicted of the most serious charges: plotting to down the airliners with their liquid bombs. A jury acquitted one of them altogether; the seven others pleaded guilty to plotting to cause a public nuisance. But only three were found guilty of a general charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Some 12 other suspects are yet to face trial.
The would-be liquid bombers join a long list of terrorism suspects who have beaten the rap--or at least most of it. After the 9/11 attacks, Britain passed its tough Terrorism Act 2000, and has since arrested 1,165 suspects under that law. More than half have been released without charge, according to figures supplied by the Metropolitan Police in London. Only 132 were charged with terrorism, and of those only 41 have been convicted so far--although another 114 still await trial. (Another 195 were charged with nonterrorist offenses arising from terrorism investigations, leading to 183 convictions.)
The defendants apparently convinced their jury that they weren't really serious about the airline plot. They pleaded guilty to making the suicide videos, but claimed they just wanted to scare people by releasing them. They admitted planning to make bombs, but said they were only going to set them off harmlessly to draw attention to their views. It's a common problem in almost any terrorism case brought before any actual act of terrorism is committed: the difficulty of establishing a person's real intentions. "Convicting someone who has gone off and blown something up--that is pretty easy to prove," says Ayers. "Trying to prove intent is really hard."
Scotland Yard had intended to follow the conspirators until the last moment, but once they shared details of the plot with American officials, U.S. officials were alarmed and pressured Pakistan to arrest Rashid Rauf. Authorities believed that Rauf was the alleged link between the liquid bombers and the 7/7 and 7/21 suicide bombers in Britain, as well as with Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Once Rauf was arrested, British authorities rolled up their suspects. Rauf's arrest "was not good news," said Peter Clarke, who was then head of the antiterrorist unit, in an article in The Times of London on Sept. 8. "We were at a critical point in building our case against them. If they got to hear that he had been arrested, they might destroy evidence and scatter to the four winds. More worrying still, if they were tipped off to the arrest they might panic and mount a desperate attack."
Fortunately, though, the arrests themselves and searches of the accused men's homes scooped up much of the evidence police thought they needed--particularly the martyrdom videos and the memory sticks with flight information. Authorities feel they had such a strong case that the Crown Prosecution Service is planning to retry the seven on the most serious charges; British law sometimes allows defendants to be tried twice on the same charge, providing a judge permits it.
The British judicial system has some built-in disadvantages for police trying to prosecute terrorist suspects. British law prevents the admission of wiretap evidence, so what police apparently knew about the plot to bring down the planes could not have been admitted into evidence. And since plea-bargaining is also prohibited in Britain, authorities were unable to offer one of the less-involved suspects an incentive to turn state's evidence against the others.
None did in this case. And no one expects authorities to allow building a case to take precedence over protecting the public. The prohibition on carrying liquids on board flights won't be lifted as a result of this week's acquittals, retrials or not.
It's just the latest in a series of embarrassments for Britain's antiterrorism efforts. A suicide-bombing plot of a Manchester United game fizzled, with all ten accused released without charges. An innocent Brazilian was shot dead at point-blank range by police marksmen who mistook him for a would-be suicide bomber. And a much-publicized plot to use the deadly nerve toxin ricin on the London Underground led to a mere four convictions--for causing a public nuisance and possessing fake passports (though a police officer was stabbed to death by one of the suspects, who was convicted of his murder).
Officially, Scotland Yard hailed the prosecution as a victory in the effort to combat terrorism. The three terrorists convicted of conspiracy to commit murder already face life in prison for that crime. Since 2007, police pointed out, they've seen 74 persons convicted of terrorism or related offenses and sentenced to a total of 870 years in prison. And of course, the liquid-bomb plot never did result in any deaths. "I don't worry about gravity," says Ayers, "and I don't worry about the difficulty of arresting and convicting people for things they didn't do yet." Still, it is something to worry about when extremists know they can get away with plotting murder, even mass murder.