On September 8, a jury at Woolwich Crown Court found three Muslim men, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain, guilty of conspiracy to murder using home-made bombs. Four of their co-defendants, Arafat Khan, Waheed Zaman, Ibrahim Savant and Umar Islam, had earlier pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance. An eighth man, Mohammad Gulzar, was acquitted of all charges. All eight were on trial for what became popularly known as the “transatlantic bomb plot” – a sinister plot to bring down transatlantic airliners with home-made liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks. However, after more than 50 hours of deliberation, the jury were unable to find any of the defendants guilty of conspiring to detonate explosives on an aircraft, the key element of the prosecution case.
The verdicts came after two years of intensive scaremongering by both politicians and the media that a plot, which would have had far more devastating casualties than the attacks on 11 September 2001, had been foiled by the security services, and that further anti-terrorism laws were urgently needed to assist counter-terrorism efforts. From the moment the men were arrested in August 2006, senior politicians and police officers had already publicly declared the men’s guilt. Then Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson made a public statement that there had been a plot to bomb airliners that “was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale”. A “security source” told the Daily Mirror: “Make no mistake - if this plot had succeeded it would have been bigger than 9/11 in terms of body count. This is very, very significant.” A “British government source” told the Guardian of an “intercepted message from Pakistan telling the bombers to ‘go now’” - a message we have never heard of again. John Reid, the then home secretary, added that if the bombers had been successful, it would have caused death on an “unprecedented scale”. The police were confident, he added, “that the main players have been accounted for”. Interestingly, only hours before the arrests, Reid had given a speech to the think-tank Demos hinting at introducing new anti-terrorism legislation and claiming that Britain was facing “probably the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of the second world war”.
Such comments only legitimised the subsequent media onslaught, which convicted all the men arrested of the plot that ultimately never existed. The Daily Mail warned that “but for the grace of God and a truly remarkable performance by police and the security services, the destruction could have been unimaginable: an act of indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of Britons in the skies above America”. The Mirror reported that “The al-Qaeda fanatics planned to board the planes at UK airports then blow them up three at a time as they flew over eightUS cities”. The Daily Telegraph headlined a simpler yet more xenophobic message: “Muslims in plot to bomb jets.”
During the trial, prosecutors said that the ringleader, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, had created home-made liquid explosives which were designed to evade airport security. He and five of the others – Savant, Islam, Zaman, Hussain and Khan – had recorded what the prosecution alleged were “martyrdom videos” denouncing the West and urging Muslims to fight. Prosecutors said that the bombers would then have completed and detonated the devices during their flights once all the targeted planes had taken off.
The defence case was that the men had only planned to cause a political spectacle in protest over foreign policy and not to kill anyone at all. It would have included fake suicide videos and devices that would frighten rather than kill the public. All three, along with Savant, Islam, Khan, and Zaman, also admitted conspiring to cause a public nuisance by making videos threatening bombings.
The jury’s confusion was apparent in their verdict. Although it found three of the men guilty of conspiracy to murder persons unknown, the jurors could not agree whether the plotters were planning to target the airliners or, for that matter, any other target. The bombs were never fully constructed and tickets had not been bought nor plans to travel made by any of the defendants. But in that case, the inevitable question arises: how the jury could come to a verdict that only three of the men were guilty of a conspiracy to murder persons unknown when the primary and indeed only prosecution case was that all eight men were involved in a conspiracy to target airliners. Surely, either there was a plot to murder or there was not. The jurors seemed to want to eat their cake and have it. It seems that they felt pressurised to find the men guilty of something, because their guilt had already been publicly declared for the previous two years by the police, politicians and the press.
But finding three of the men guilty of conspiracy to murder was not enough for the authorities. The jury had come back with the incorrect verdict. The men should have been convicted of a plot to actually explode bombs on board airliners thousands of miles in the air, for that is what Britons had been led to believe by the authorities for two years. And if these twelve men and women establish that the evidence produced did not suggest any plot to target the transatlantic airliners, then a number of questions will need to be answered: why has the public been subjected to the politics of fear of the most aggressive kind? For what reason have millions of passengers in airports all over the world been prohibited from bringing liquids on board their flights? Why has all non-essential hand-luggage been banned from airplanes? Who decided that the threat was so grave as to justify security measures of the most draconian nature at ports of entry and exit?
In a broader sense, the nature of intelligence and evidence being used to arrest and detain suspects without charge in the UK must also be questioned. Scores of terror suspects are currently being held either in prisons or under house arrest with draconian bail conditions in the UK. These men have never seen the evidence against them and many have not been told the reasons for their being subjected to such sanctions. None have been offered their day in court before a jury of their peers. In the “transatlantic bomb plot”, the government believed its evidence was so strong that it was prepared to test it in a court of law before such a jury. The jury didn’t buy it and found no evidence of any such plot. If this was the government’s strongest evidence of specific terrorist plots, one can only speculate about the flimsiness of the evidence being used to justify the indefinite detention without charge of suspects like Khalid al-Fawaaz, Mahmoud Abu-Rideh and Amar Makhlulif.
The issues raised by the verdict are too numerous and complex for the authorities to deal with. Consequently, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would reject this jury’s verdict and seek a retrial of seven of the defendants, in the hope that a new jury will reach the ‘correct’ verdict, as dictated by politicians and the media. It is noteworthy that the decision to seek a retrial came on the eve of the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, attacks we are told targeted our cherished values of freedom and democracy. The CPS’s attack on the system of trial by jury seven years later has caused more damage to those values than any terrorist could ever hope to achieve.