Page last updated at 06:58 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008 07:58 UK

Liquid bomb plot: What happened

Images from the investigation and trial of the airline plotters

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

An unprecedented surveillance operation with hundreds of police officers, and a plot that prosecutors said was unparalleled in its terrible ambition.

The jury at Woolwich Crown Court could not agree on whether plotters were planning a mass suicide attack against airliners with home-made liquid bombs - but three men are now facing very long sentences after being found guilty nevertheless of a conspiracy to murder.

Prosecutors had told the court that the bombs were intended for planes - the bombs were ingeniously small and the ringleader had a record of scheduled flights to the US.

But the bombs were never fully constructed - and tickets had neither been bought nor plans to travel made. And in the case of four of the accused - men who recorded alleged "martyrdom videos" - the jury could not reach a verdict, making a retrial highly likely.

The race to bring the men to justice took place over a matter of weeks.

The story of what the police call Operation Overt begins in the aftermath of al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on America.

Feb 2003: Pakistan refugee work
Jan 2004: Pilgrimage to Mecca
Aug 2004: Pakistan refugee work
(In Pakistan at the same time as the 7/7 and 21/7 ringleaders)
Jan 2005: Returns to UK
June 2005: Back to Pakistan
May 2006: Final visit on family business

The trial heard how the Islamic Medical Association, a charity shop in Clapton, east London, raised money and collected equipment to send to refugee camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Most of those who donated to the shop only ever saw what was happening around the world on their television screens.

But some of the defendants in this trial believed passionately in aiding fellow Muslims and undertook voluntary work at the charity's Chatsworth Road base.

Four of them went on to deliver aid - and their experiences in those camps radically altered their worldview.

The camps existed before 2001 but grew in the wake of the US-led invasion in Afghanistan.

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the ringleader, told the trial he had been shocked by "appalling" conditions in the camps. His anger was compounded by the failure of the 2003 mass protest against the Iraq war.

The anger felt by men like Ahmed Ali accelerated the political and theological debate among hard-line Islamists over whether the UK was a legitimate target for attacks.

And as the security services watched individuals moving in these circles, Ahmed Ali and his friends became of interest.

MI5 officers twice approached Arafat Khan - Ahmed Ali's old school friend and one of those who may be tried again - the court heard.

Baggage opened

And when Ahmed Ali himself returned from Pakistan in June 2006, investigators secretly opened his baggage. Inside they found a strange powdered soft drink, Tang, and a large number of batteries.

It was enough to raise suspicions and in the following weeks, the police mounted the UK's largest surveillance operation, calling on an additional 220 officers from other forces.

Assad Sarwar buying a suitcase in Woolworths
Shopping trips: Sarwar bought suitcase to store bomb parts in woods

Assad Sarwar, the High Wycombe man convicted as the quartermaster of the plot, was seen busily buying items that did not fit with his daily needs - and more importantly had a potentially deadly context.

On one occasion, surveillance officers even saw him dispose of empty hydrogen peroxide bottles at a recycling centre. Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical used legitimately as a hair bleach but also useful for bomb-making.

Sarwar and Ahmed Ali were seen meeting in an east London park rather than indoors. It smacked of a counter-surveillance ploy.

When MI5 secretly broke into a flat being used by Ahmed Ali, what they found alarmed them further - it appeared to be a possible bomb factory.

They left behind a camera and microphone, and on 3 August Ahmed Ali and Tanvir Husain were seen constructing devices out of drink bottles.

Infographic showing plot to make bombs
The images show the theory behind the bomb construction - but precise details shown to jurors have been omitted.

And here was the puzzling thing - if these were bombs, why were they so small?

During one bugged conversation in the bomb factory, the security services heard some of the men reviewing the plans and talking of "18 or 19".

We do not know if that means 19 devices, 19 targets or 19 conspirators - the same number as those who hijacked planes on 11 September 2001.

The alleged bomb factory in Forest Road, Walthamstow
Bomb factory: Ordinary flat in East London

According to the evidence heard in court, on 6 August 2006 surveillance officers watched Ahmed Ali spend two hours in an internet cafe researching flight timetables.

Prosecutors alleged that the bombs did not need to be big because they were designed to blow a small hole in the fuselage.

In 2001 Richard Reid tried to bring down a jet with a small explosive device in his shoe.

Saajid Badat, his accomplice who backed out of boarding another flight, revealed they had learned their skills in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Counter-terrorism chiefs had been expecting jihadists to try again - and this appeared to be it.

But after 50 hours of deliberations, the jury simply could not decide. The defendants argued in court that they had never intended to attack planes.

Ahmed Ali told the court his idea stopped at letting off a small device at Heathrow to frighten people as part of a political statement.

Deep links

This was not a plot developed in isolation, seemingly out of nowhere - and BBC News can also reveal deeper links between some of these defendants and other men convicted of terrorist offences.

Clockwise from top: Sidique Khan, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Muktar Ibrahim
Clockwise from top: Mohammad Sidique Khan, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Muktar Ibrahim

Mohammed Hamid is another east London man who helped out at the same charity shop as some of the convicted defendants. He took seven containers of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in early 2002.

In 2008 he was convicted of organising terrorism training camps in the UK. One of his camps in the Lake District included the 21 July 2005 London bomb plotters.

The ringleader of that plot, Muktar Ibrahim, was in phone contact with Ahmed Ali, according to mobile records recovered by detectives. Contact between their phones stopped when both men went to Pakistan in late 2004.

Detectives believe the 21 July ringleader received bomb-making training in a secret camp during this period - as did a third man - Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7 July London suicide bombers.

What happened in Pakistan, and who these plotters met, remains a mystery for now.

The real common factor in the lives of all those so far convicted, in all the trials we have seen during the past three years is far easier to identify: a simple and seething anger over British and American foreign policy and an overwhelming belief that Muslims are its victims.

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