The Al Qaeda style martyrdom videos were ominous. One young male wearing a checkered keffiyeh, with a black and white flag bearing the shahada as a backdrop spoke angrily in perfect English, “Now the time has come for you to be destroyed… You have nothing to expect but floods of martyrdom operations. I only wish that I could come back again and again until people come to their senses and realize – don’t mess with the Muslims.”
In 2006, British authorities had begun a complex counterterrorism surveillance operation on the streets of London. Tensions were high. One year earlier London had experienced the 7/7 attacks on their local transportation system that killed 56 people. Authorities knew what they were watching unfurl was serious, what they didn’t know was that the largest terrorism plot since 9/11 was well underway. Radical Islamists with UK passports were plotting to smuggle liquid explosives aboard flights and blow up seven commercial aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean, in route to the US and Canada.
Abdulla Ahmed Ali, also known as, Ahmed Ali Khan, the leader of the plot was on the intelligence service radar through his interaction with other known extremists and frequent travel to Pakistani Tribal Areas. His association overseas with known Al Qaeda operative Rashid Rauf, was of great concern to the intelligence community. Rauf, a Kashmiri Briton, left the UK after the attacks of 9/11 to connect with extremist networks in Pakistan. He had another reason for fleeing his adopted home, police wanted to question him about the brutal stabbing death of his uncle.
As the 24/7 surveillance unit observed Khan, one by one members of the plot were identified. Tanvir Hussain was a part time post man and devout Muslim after entering into an arranged marriage in 2005. Umar Islam, the oldest of the group at 31 was a convert to Islam from Rastafarianism. One member of the plot had recently returned from Pakistan, Assad Sarwar. He was recorded meeting with Khan in a park. The two laid in the center of the field face to face and had a conversation, far from the prying eyes of observers. The group frequently employed similar counter-surveillance techniques. Their tradecraft had all of the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda trained cell.
As the surveillance net widened, Sarwar was observed at a store buying hydrogen peroxide: a precursor to liquid explosives, also used in the 7/7 bombing. Khan was seen examining caps and seals on plastic drink bottles in a local grocery. Investigators searching through their trash were able to find hollowed out batteries thrown away by the plotters.
Forest Road Bomb Factory
Nestled in a quiet working-class neighborhood in East London, sits 386A Forest Road, a foreclosed property purchased by the plotters. It was there that the subjects were spotted entering and exiting at all hours. The property up to that point was unknown to authorities, but soon became the central piece of the puzzle to uncover the plot in its entirety. There investigators set up covert cameras and listening devices. The cameras revealed that the plotters were drilling holes into the bottom of plastic drink bottles and using syringes to draw out the fluid and injecting liquid explosives. Once the bottles were complete, they used glue to seal the drilled holes.
Observing the small amounts of explosives being injected left investigators puzzled. The small amounts of explosives and the effort to make the bottle appear unopened lead authorities to a startling conclusion, these bottles were designed to circumvent security screening. This was further solidified when the group speaking in code at their flat talked about their targets as destinations that they wanted to vacation in the United States. “Miami, Philadelphia, definitely Washington DC, California, Texas.” The flat was also the location where the martyrdom videos were recorded. Throughout the process Khan was in contact with individuals in Pakistan. He reported, “The bat and the bottles are ready; only need the juice.” The group were a mere two weeks away from carrying out their attack.
In the early morning hours of August 9, 2006, in a series of coordinated arrests and search warrant executions, police arrested 24 people in connection with the plot. In the Forest St flat, officers found: miniature light bulbs, latex gloves, syringes, measuring cylinders, and ‘Oasis” and ‘Lucozade’ bottles with holes drilled in the bottoms. At Sarwar’s home, in High Wycombe, police discovered 38 liters of hydrogen peroxide.
Hours after the arrests screening lines snaked through airports as security and the traveling public adjusted to new rules and regulations designed to eliminate the risk of liquid explosives. British Authorities banned all carry-on items except for wallets and eyeglasses. In the U. S., liquids, gels, and creams were banned from carry-on luggage. Over time the rules have relaxed, but liquids exceeding 3.4 ounces in one container are still not allowed in carry-ons.
Prosecution and Payback
At Woolrich Crown Court, Judge Richard Henriques, called the plot, “The most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction.” He handed down the following sentences to the main targets of the investigation:
• Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, minimum 40-year term.
• Assad Sarwar, 29, minimum 36-year term.
• Tanvir Hussain, 28, minimum 32-year term.
• Umar Islam, 31, minimum 22-year term.
While in the UK long prison stretches were imposed, internationally justice was delivered via unmanned predator drone. Rashid Rauf was the main connection between the UK terrorist cell and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. After the arrests in the UK, Rauf was arrested and imprisoned by Pakistani authorities, but later “escaped.” But Rauf was unable to escape justice for long. On November 22, 2008, Rauf was killed in a U. S. missile strike in Waziristan.
A multi-national intelligence operation eliminated the threat and saved countless lives, but the 2006 liquid explosive threat has changed security screening the world over. The greatest terrorism plot since 9/11 proves that those that wish us harm always have an eye for aviation when they seek to do the most harm possible.