US pressure faulted in airline case
British police say a rush to arrest limited evidence
LONDON - American worries about a suspected plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners in 2006 led to premature arrests and a weaker case at trial, British investigators said yesterday, a day after a London jury did not convict eight men of pursuing the alleged plan.
After hearing four months of evidence in Britain's most complex terrorism trial, the jury did not tie any members of the alleged Islamic militant cell to the purported plot to blow up several jetliners as they flew from Britain to the United States and Canada. Jurors did convict three defendants of conspiring to murder using homemade liquid explosive bombs - but that charge did not specifically involve airliners. The jury could not reach verdicts against four men, and it acquitted the eighth, the plotters' alleged link to Al Qaeda.
Investigators said a decision to arrest suspects in August 2006 was made after the United States pressed for an alleged accomplice to be arrested in Pakistan. Because Britain felt that would tip off the other suspects, police went ahead with arrests here before enough evidence was gathered, said a police official, who agreed to discuss the case if not quoted by name.
A US counterterrorism official in Washington, who also insisted on speaking anonymously, said American authorities didn't want to risk the purported plotters being able to elude surveillance and carry out the attacks.
One unanswerable question is whether the jury would have found suspects guilty if British investigators could have observed a planned dummy run of the plot, which police said would have involved a suspect trying to pass through airport security with an explosive-laden drink bottle.
The British police official said the suspects were arrested two days before the trial run was scheduled to take place, on Aug. 12, 2006.
Both police and Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence service had wanted to continue monitoring the plotters, said a British security official, who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Peter Clarke, the now retired former head of British counterterrorism policing who was in charge of the inquiry at the time, said the arrest in Pakistan prompted panic in London among investigators who felt they were close to delivering a solid case for the courts.
"This was not good news. We were at a critical point in building our case against them," Clarke wrote in The Times of London yesterday.
British authorities worried the Pakistan arrest of Rashid Rauf, a British-born alleged contact of the plotters, could send plotters into hiding - or trigger a desperate, quick attack.
"Clearly, the British security services had to take action more quickly than they wanted to," said Conservative Party lawmaker Patrick Mercer, a former military intelligence officer. "There wasn't as much evidence gathered as people would have wanted."
Another police official said as many as five other would-be suicide bombers, who would have been drafted into the plot in the final days, might have evaded arrest as a result of the early detentions.
The men allegedly planned to assemble their bombs in airliner toilets using liquid explosives injected into soda bottles and detonators hidden in disposable cameras. Announcement of the arrests in the alleged plot brought airports to a standstill in August 2006.
British police said US officials weren't prepared to take chances with the plot, a view of the case supported by the counterterrorism official in Washington.
"Given what happened on 9/11 and that this airliner plot was headed in our direction, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some here advocated taking action sooner rather than later," the official said.
However, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff insisted yesterday that the US and British governments were in agreement on the arrests.
"We were very much on the same page about the timing," he said in Washington.
"I understand that the prosecutors always feel that they want to wait and get as much evidence as they can. I've also seen cases, unfortunately, where waiting too long has resulted in a plot actually occurring and people dying," he added.
Chertoff said the arrests had headed off a plot with the potential of matching the death toll of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"It's easy, having averted the danger, now in retrospect to say, 'Oh, we could have cut it a little bit closer.' That may make for good entertainment television. It's a very irresponsible way to protect the citizens of both countries," he said.
In the trial, prosecutor Peter Wright acknowledged that the group hadn't produced a viable bomb - although experiments had been conducted at a London row house where shelves were packed with explosives, chemicals, and equipment.
Wright also conceded no specific date had been selected to carry out the attacks.
But British security officials and police - who were monitoring the group via surveillance, bugs, and wiretaps - insist the cell planned to strike within days of the arrests. A lack of evidence meant that allegation was never aired in court.
Bob Ayers, a former US intelligence officer, said a key problem for Britain is that wiretaps and intercepts are not used as evidence in court. Intelligence officials have long objected to using the material as evidence, fearing their methods could be compromised.