U.K.: Airliner Bomb Plot "Unprecedented"

Plane Threat; bomb and world map
AP/CBS/iStockphoto
Eight British men planned to detonate homemade bombs aboard at least seven airliners bound for the U.S. and Canada, seeking to kill hundreds in a terrorist attack, a prosecutor said Thursday during the opening day of the trial.

The men plotted to strike United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada flights at the height of the summer vacation season in 2006, prosecutor Peter Wright said.

Details of seven specific daily flights from London's Heathrow airport to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Montreal were stored on a computer memory stick. The flights were intended to be the airliners attacked, Wright said.

He said the seven targeted flights would have all departed within three hours from London on any given afternoon and would have been in mid-air simultaneously. Each would have held between 240 and 285 people.

The group expressed hopes of recruiting as many as 18 suicide bombers and did not confine their ambitions to blowing up just seven airplanes, Wright argued.

He told jurors the suspects hoped to smuggle hydrogen peroxide-based explosives on board, disguised as soft drinks or mouthwash by using empty bottles and adding food dye to the mixture. The explosives would then be assembled and detonated in mid-flight.

"They were prepared to board an aircraft with the necessary ingredients and equipment to construct and detonate a device that would bring about not only the loss of their own lives but also all of those who happened by chance to be taking the same journey," he said.

Airlines imposed tough new limits on the amount of liquids and gels passengers can carry on to flights as a result of the alleged plot.

"The plan was designed to bring about what would have been a civilian death toll on an almost unprecedented scale," Wright said.

He said the plot was intended to be a "violent and deadly statement of intent" and designed to "inflict heavy casualties on an unwitting civilian population all in the name of Islam."

Law enforcement officials have not established whether the group planned to detonate the bombs while the flights were over the Atlantic Ocean, or over North American cities.

"They would have been completely at the mercy of the suicide bombers, who would have been on board with their deadly cargo," Wright said.

Following his arrest, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, was found to have a computer memory stick which stored vast amounts of detail on daily airliner services from London to North America.

The seven specific journeys were highlighted within the files, but Ali also logged details of other flights to Boston, Denver and Miami.

Wright said the men had not checked details of return journeys. "They didn't appear interested in flying back to the United Kingdom on a return flight," he said,

He said Ali, one of three ringleaders of the plot, drew up a blueprint for building the crude bombs. He suggested the mixture should be injected into bottles using a syringe, meaning they would remain factory sealed.

Ali also advised his cohorts to pack pornographic magazines, which would suggest they were not religiously devout and explain any nervousness if they were challenged by security guards.

Major disruption was caused to British airports and hundreds of flights were grounded when police arrested the suspects in August 2006

"The attack they contemplated was not long off," when police swept in, Wright said.

Discovery of the plot led to tight new restrictions on the items airline passengers can to take on board planes as carryon luggage.

All eight men, each of whom has ties to Pakistan, are accused of conspiracy to murder and a charge of planning an act of violence likely to endanger the safety of an aircraft. Both charges carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The men are: Ali, 27; Assad Sarwar, 27; Tanvir Hussain, 27; Mohammed Gulzar, 26; Ibrahim Savant, 27; Arafat Waheed Khan, 26; Waheed Zaman, 23 and Umar Islam, 29.

The trial is expected to last around six months.