Chapter 53: 'Liquid Bombers' On Trial

Ahmed Abdullah Ali:
guilty, 40 years to life
Holmes had asked me to pay attention to information pertaining to the surveillance, arrest, and prosecution of the "Liquid Bombers." It was a long and complicated story.

The surveillance was extraordinary. Reportedly the plotters were under surveillance for nearly a year before they were arrested. Police had a installed a covert camera in the "Bomb Factory." The Crown introduced as evidence photos of the plotters shopping for bomb-making supplies.

MI5 had intercepted email that the plotters had sent, and some of this email was also introduced as evidence.

Undercover officers from all over Britain had reportedly been brought in to follow the plotters around. One sat across from a conspirator at an Internet cafe and watched him download information that could have been used in planning the attack.

Some of the initial reports said the police had arrested 25 people during the night of August 9-10, 2006, and some reports mentioned that one of them had been released immediately. Later reports put the number of people arrested at 24.

Assad Sarwar:
guilty, 36 years to life
I wondered whether the discrepancy in the numbers represented Amjad Sarwar, the man who was awarded a six-figure settlement after several newspapers reported that he had been arrested when in fact he had not.

Several more people were arrested in Pakistan, at the same time or somewhat earlier. The numbers and dates were never made clear.

Of the 24 (or 25) men arrested in England, all but 12 were released within two weeks.

Under English anti-terror law, suspects may be held without charge for up to 28 days. But after the first week, the detention must be extended, a week at a time, by a judge, based on police having expectations of finding evidence.

So the police can arrest a suspect, hold him for a week, and then release him without charge. Or they can wait a week and then apply to a judge, who will say, at worst, "Come back in another week with something, or else charge or release him."

Tanvir Hussain:
guilty, 32 years to life
If police release suspects after two weeks, without a second appeal for extension, that is an admission that they have nothing on the suspects.

One of those released without charge after two weeks was Rashid Rauf's brother, Tayib Rauf.

Releasing the alleged mastermind's brother so soon seemed to imply that police were not even willing to go to a judge and say, "We think we have the brother of the mastermind, and if we squeeze him a bit, we may find out a great deal more." Of course, it could have indicated something less or more sinister.

There were two primary stories about how the English arrests came about. Both appeared to hinge on the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf.

One account said that when Rashid Rauf was arrested, he sent a message to the plotters in Britain saying, "Go! Go!" According to this story, the police intercepted this message, tracked down the recipients, and arrested them.

The other story said that Rashid Rauf was arrested several days ahead of the others, that he was tortured and interrogated, and that he gave police the names of the plotters, who were then arrested.

Arafat Waheed Khan:
guilty, 20 years to life
But it was difficult for me to see either account as sensible. If Rashid Rauf was arrested, how did he send a text message? Did he send the message before he was arrested? How did he know he was going to be arrested? Did the Pakistani police give him a 5-minute warning? Or did he send the message after he was arrested? Or maybe he sent the message while he was being arrested?

Or maybe he didn't send a text message at all, but he was arrested and tortured, during the course of which he spilled the names of the people who just happened to have been been under surveillance for almost a year.

Allegedly it was Rashid Rauf who told investigators the targets of the plot were transatlantic airliners. The plotters claimed they were planning to create a disturbance to highlight a political protest about the role of the UK in American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they denied they were planning to make their disturbance aboard an airplane. Their lack of tickets and passports would seem to have borne out this statement.

There were three trials.

Eight men (Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, Tanvir Hussain, Umar Islam, Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, Waheed Zaman, and Mohammed Gulzar) stood in the dock in the first trial in 2008.

Ibrahim Savant:
guilty, 20 years to life
Seven of the eight (Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, Tanvir Hussain, Umar Islam, Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, and Waheed Zaman) pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to cause a public nuisance" in having made martyrdom videos. Mohammad Gulzar, the alleged ringleader, had not made a martyrdom video, reportedly because he was so valuable to al-Q'aeda that he was being saved to coordinate future suicide missions.

Three of the eight (Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause explosions.

All eight were charged with conspiracy to murder persons unknown. On this charge, the three who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause explosions (Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain) were found guilty, one (Mohammed Gulzar) was found not guilty, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict against the other four (Umar Islam, Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, and Waheed Zaman).

All eight were charged with conspiracy to target aircraft. On this charge, Mohammed Gulzar was found not guilty, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict with respect to the other seven defendants.

Umar Islam:
guilty, 22 years to life
British officials were reportedly "astonished" at the verdicts, thinking they had presented a strong case against the men. Most surprising, perhaps, was the exoneration of Mohammed Gulzar, who had been described as the ringleader of the plot.

In view of the embarrassing facts -- only three convicted of charges more serious than making martyrdom videos, and none convicted for plotting to attack airplanes -- another trial was hastily arranged.

At the second trial, in 2009, there were five defendants. Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain, who were "only" found guilty of "conspiracy to murder" in the first trial, were found guilty of "conspiracy to murder involving liquid bombs," a conspiracy deemed to have targeted airline passengers.

Umar Islam was convicted of conspiracy to murder but the jury did not reach a verdict on the charge of "conspiracy to murder involving liquid bombs."

Waheed Zaman:
guilty, 20 years to life
Donald Stewart-White, who was not tried in the first trial, was charged with "conspiracy to murder" and "conspiracy to murder involving liquid bombs" and found not guilty on all counts.

The second trial required two juries. The first jury was dismissed, reportedly "for legal reasons," a second jury was sworn in, and the trial resumed. There was no media coverage following the stories that said the first jury had been dismissed, until the verdicts were announced.

The third trial featured only three defendants. All three (Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, and Waheed Zaman) were found guilty of conspiracy to murder.

In the third trial, two juries were dismissed. No reason was given. There was no media coverage until the day the verdicts were announced.

In all three trials, the jury was reportedly offered the majority option, which they reportedly used. In other words, the verdicts were not required to be unanimous; eleven-to-one or even ten-to-two decisions were considered acceptable.

Having drawn together all this information, I couldn't resist the urge to do a final round of maths.

Donald Stewart-Whyte:
not guilty of all charges.
Of the twenty-four people who were arrested, nine were tried, seven more than once, in a four-year legal process involving three trials and six juries.

These trials resulted in seven convictions for conspiracy to murder, and three convictions for conspiracy to murder using liquid explosives.

Sherlock Holmes had asked why it took so much time and effort to put them away.

His question was one of many which I couldn't answer, but I had new questions of my own.

Why was there so little media coverage of the trials?

The arrest of the "Liquid Bombers" was supposed to be the most significant success ever on the home front in the war against the terrorists. The trial should have occasioned high-profile, daily coverage. But something quite different had occurred: the press covered the prosecution during the first trial but fell silent when the defence attorneys took the floor. News reports sneered at the judge and the jury when the verdicts were announced, and trumpeted intentions to proceed with a second trial.

Alleged ringleader Mohammed Gulzar:
not guilty of all charges.
The papers covered the second trial sparsely from the beginning until the first jury was dismissed, at which point they fell silent until the conclusion. And nothing of any significance was reported about the third trial until it was over.

So what had happened? It was supposed to be a very big show. But when it came off, it was almost invisible.

The fire was fading and so was I. Thursday had been a long day, with no sign of Holmes. But he and Dr. Terry Hewitt were both due to arrive late Friday afternoon, which left me several more hours to find what I could about Rashid Rauf and the email Gareth Williams had been reading -- if I could find anything at all.

Of one thing I was certain. My eyes were closing so often that I wasn't going to find anything Holmes could use, unless I found my bed first.

And the longer I sat and stared at the papers, the more difficult it would become.

Next: Breakable