Chapter 54: Breakable

I could see that it was breakable.
Friday dawned warmer and drier than its immediate predecessors, for which my shoulder was grateful. On my way to breakfast, I looked in on our counter top experiment. The surfaces were dry and all except the darkest looked clean. But I dragged a fingertip across them, and it came up white. The residue was powdery and slightly sticky, and it took a bit of effort to wash it off my hands.

If the object of our experiment were to find out whether a white powdery residue could have been left behind, possibly accidentally, after an almost-thorough cleaning with a common household product, then the answer was obvious. I left the counter tops undisturbed so that Holmes could see them for himself.

After breakfast, I spent some time looking through Holmes' files in search of articles about the coded emails that had passed between the plotters and Rashid Rauf.

I found a piece in the Independent called "Police watched the plot unfold, then pounced" which said
The email sent by Assad Sarwar from an internet cafe in High Wycombe to an account in Pakistan in the summer of 2006 was meant to sound innocuous. With its reference to "Calvin Klein aftershave" costing "80 quid," its contents were crafted to meld seamlessly into the blizzard of data sent across cyberspace without attracting undue attention.

In reality, what looked like email trivia was one of dozens of coded updates sent by Sarwar, a restaurant delivery driver and the quartermaster of the liquid bombs plot, to the overseas jihadist masterminds of the conspiracy to cause carnage on an "unprecedented scale" in the skies above North America and the mid-Atlantic.

The "Calvin Klein aftershave" was far from being a business opportunity. It was code for hydrogen peroxide hair bleach, bought by Sarwar from a Welsh hairdressing supplies wholesaler, which had been concentrated by Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the charismatic ringleader of the British cell, to the 80 per cent purity required to turn it into the key explosive to be used in the attempt to simultaneously destroy at least seven airliners.
The rest of the article contained details I hadn't seen (or hadn't noticed) the previous day, including an explanation for the timing of the arrests which made much more sense than either of the previously floated stories. According to this account, the British shared information about their ongoing surveillance with the Americans, who decided -- for security and/or political reasons -- to force the issue. They pressured the Pakistanis into arresting Rashid Rauf, and the British police claimed that when they learned of this development, they were forced to arrest the plotters as soon as possible, lest they learn of Rauf's arrest and do something dangerous.

The most detailed information I could find about the coded emails was published by the BBC and entitled "Airlines bomb plot: The e-mails."

It quoted seemingly nonsensical passages from the email conversations and explained what each passage was understood by prosecutors to mean.
The trial heard that ... Abdullah Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar used coded e-mails to contact jihadist leaders in Pakistan. One of Ahmed Ali's contacts is thought to have been a British man, Rashid Rauf, who helped plan plots for al-Qaeda.
4 July 2006: Abdulla Ahmed Ali to Pakistan

Listen dude, when is your mate gonna bring the projectors and the taxis to me? I got all my bits and bobs. Tell your mate to make sure the projectors and taxis are fully ready and proper I don't want my presentation messing up.
Prosecutors said that projectors and taxis were code for knowledge and equipment because Ahmed Ali still needed some guidance. The word "presentation" could mean attack.
12 July 2006: Assad Sarwar to Pakistan

I spoke to my friend and he will soon sort the prices for the telephones… Everything is going good here. Will need to send you some CDs and DVDs over to you soon. Don't forget to call me.
Over the coming weeks, surveillance officers see Sarwar, Ahmed Ali and Tanvir Hussain buying bomb parts. The prosecution alleges that CDs and DVDs is a reference to martyrdom videos they expect to send out to Pakistan.
13 July 2006: Pakistan to Ahmed Ali

Hi gorgeous. Well nice to hear from you… Your friend can go for his rapping concert rehearsal... But somewhere popular would be good… make sure he goes on the bus service which is most common over there.
This was said to mean that their aides in Pakistan had given the go ahead for a dummy run to test airport security. The prosecution alleged "bus service" meant domestic American carrier, such as United, or American Airlines.
18 July 2006: Ahmed Ali to Pakistan

There are a few lads who wanna join up. I have about four lads.
The BBC made no comment about this passage. Presumably it was a reference to the four plotters at the "second level" of the plot -- the men convicted in the third trial (Arafat Waheed Khan, Ibrahim Savant, Umar Islam, and Waheed Zaman). I recalled reading that the judge who conducted their trial had said they were guilty of conspiring to kill, even though they may not have known what the targets were. And I wondered how much they really knew about the group they were so eager to "join up" with.

The BBC piece continued:
19 July 2006: Sarwar to Pakistan

Hi [smiley emoticon]. Got some good news that will bring a big smile to your face… I have some nice files you will love. It will give you wet dreams after you see it ha ha ha. I have 15 suppliers to give Calvin Klein aftershave. One box of 50 is only £175.
21 July 2006: Pakistan to Sarwar

Regarding the aftershave bottles, you need 40x100ml bottles. I have orders for those already so I need those asap. I need to know when you can get me those asap. You know the price is always the same … but I need you to get another 30 bottles on top of the 40. The order for those should go through too. I don't want to wait around … I don't want to lose these customers.
Pakistan emphasises precise quantities and finished concentrations of chemicals (omitted from this transcript). At face value, Sarwar is under pressure to come up with a big order of aftershave. But surveillance officers see him buying hydrogen peroxide. Over the coming days, Tanvir Hussain and Ahmed Ali record martyrdom videos. Assad Sarwar buys more parts.
31 July 2006: Pakistan to Ahmed Ali

How is the skin infection you were telling me about? Has it got worse or is the cream working?
3 August 2006: Ahmed Ali to Pakistan

Listen, it's confirmed, I have fever. Sometimes when I go out in the sun to meet people, I feel hot… by the way I set up my music shop now. I only need to sort out the opening time. I need stock…
4 August 2006: Pakistan to Ahmed Ali

Do you think you can still open the shop with this skin problem? Is it only minor or can you still sort an opening time without the skin problem worsening?
The men suspect they are being watched. Skin infection, the jury heard, meant surveillance. In fact, they are all being watched in the UK's largest-ever surveillance operation, involving scores of officers working around the clock.
6 August 2006: Ahmed Ali to Pakistan

I will still open the shop. I don't think it's so bad that I can't work. But if I feel really ill, I'll let you know. I also have to arrange for the printers to be picked up and stored… I have done all my prep, all I have to do is sort out opening timetable and bookings.
The clock is ticking and Ahmed Ali wants to finish the bombs - described here as "printers". During 9 August, the men are arrested. In Ahmed Ali's pocket, there is a USB drive with the details of transatlantic flights.
So ended the BBC account. I continued to look through the files but could find no more on the subject. And for the first time in nearly forty-eight hours I had nothing to read, and no incentive to look through any more files.

Something about the style of code used by the terrorists reminded me of the one-time cipher Holmes had arranged with Slate. Certain words and phrases stood for other words and phrases -- this was "the key" -- and according to Holmes the code was unbreakable, provided it was only used once. With no context, eavesdroppers could do no better than guess as to the meaning.

But the terrorists had used the same keys again and again -- in the series of emails about their "skin problem," in the exchanges about "aftershave," and most likely in many other conversations which were not used in court, or which the BBC did not see fit to publish.

I could see that their code was very breakable. And I could see how a gifted logician such as Gareth Williams might have helped to break it. But I could not see that we had come any closer to understanding why, or by whom, the young man was killed.

Had I overlooked something important? Had I failed to appreciate the significance of some detail or another? If so, it wouldn't be the first time.

I was eager for my friend to return.