The Plot “Bigger than 9/11” Causes Transatlantic Tensions

Posted: September 23, 2009 in HSToday
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My latest for HSToday, this one looking specifically at the transatlantic tensions between the UK and U.S. as a result of the conclusion of the recent trial against the group who were plotting to bring down a series of planes flying from the UK to North America. This is not to overplay the tensions, but this was the specific angle being explored here, and there has been a great deal of coverage about the trial more generally.

The Plot ‘Bigger Than 9/11’ Causes Transatlantic Tensions

by Raffaello Pantucci
Tuesday, 22 September 2009

IEDs would have been enough to blow hole in hulls of pressurized passenger jets
Coinciding with the commemoration of the 8th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, a jury at Woolwich Crown Court in London found three British Muslims guilty of plotting to simultaneously bring down seven passenger planes on transatlantic routes.
However, while the British government has been keen to highlight success of the trial as a victory in the fight against international terrorism, tensions have been exposed in the transatlantic partnership against Al Qaeda.

The three men found guilty of the plot, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28 (the apparent ringleader); Assad Sarwar, 29 (described as the quartermaster for the plot); and Tanvir Hussain, 28 (Ali’s number 2), had all been found guilty during the first trial which ended in September 2008 with the lesser clear charge of “plotting to kill persons unknown.”
After the unsatisfactory conclusion of that trial, the British Crown Prosecution Service decided to pursue a second trial in which they proved to a jury that the men were in fact plotting to carry out a terrorist attack that was described by former US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte during congressional testimony in 2007 as having been “on par [with], or something similar to 9/11.”
In addition to the three men who were convicted, a Muslim convert, Umar Islam, 31, was also found guilty of the charge of “conspiracy to murder.” It’s been asserted that he may have been trying to attempt a test run of the explosive devices to be used in the larger plot. The jury was unable to come to a decision on the culpability or innocence of three other men. Another man, a white convert, was cleared of all charges.
The plotters planned to fashion small explosive devices out of concentrated hydrogen peroxide with small amounts of hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) planted in hollowed out batteries, with a detonator fashioned from a disposable camera.
The IEDs, while small, would have been enough to blow a hole in the hulls of the pressurized passenger jets, thereby causing a potentially catastrophic event that could have caused the planes to crash, killing thousands of transatlantic travelers.
All of the materials involved in constructing the liquid explosives would have been undetectable to airport security screening and are the reason for the current restrictions on carrying liquids onboard commercial jetliners.
According to the prosecution – and elaborated through off-the-record conversations with the press – these ingenious devices were the brainchild of Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, Al Qaeda’s master bomb maker, who allegedly died in early 2008 of natural causes.
Rashid Rauf, a young Pakistani-Brit, has attracted the most attention in the case as the alleged coordinator between the British cell and their handlers in Pakistan. Various press reports and official information appears to show that Rauf and his co-conspirators were behind a network of jihadists targeting the United Kingdom, which included the July 7, 2005 bombings.
Rauf has become a terrorist figurehead in the public imagination on a par with Osama bin Laden. A baker’s son from Birmingham, Rauf fled to Pakistan in 2002 after allegedly being involved in an uncle’s murder. Once in Pakistan, he married into the family of Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Kashmiri insurgent group that in 2001 attacked the Indian parliament and nearly instigated a war between India and Pakistan.
Rauf was abruptly incarcerated by Pakistani forces in August 2006, apparently at the behest of Washington. The arrest precipitated action by Britain’s security services, which promptly moved to seize 24 other suspected terrorists.
Former Assistant Commissioner of Special Operations Andy Hayman told the Times of London that “we believed the Americans had demanded the arrest and we were angry we had not been informed. We were being forced to take action, to arrest a number of suspects, which normally would have required days of planning and briefing.”
While this may have been too early for Britain to move against the suspected terrorist cell, according to American sources it was feared that Rauf was about to go into an inaccessible part of Pakistan. Additionally, tensions worsened in the weeks before the arrests following a transatlantic flight having had to be turned back when a passenger’s name was found to be on the No-Fly list. While the fear turned out to be unwarranted, the fears that a plot “larger than 9/11” might be underway was enough to scare security officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whatever the case, Rauf’s arrest become the focal point of a rather one-sided transatlantic spat about counterterrorism strategy. Led most vocally by Andy Hayman, the former most senior policeman in charge of the UK’s counter terrorism policy and operations, and American political color by author and journalist Ron Suskind, the narrative is that American forces “bottled it” (got scared) and pushed the Pakistani’s too early.
Suskind wrote that the root of the issue was a desire by former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to ensure that terrorism became a large issue on the agenda of the 2006 mid-term elections. From a British perspective, the suspicion is that these early arrests may have been part of the reason that two expensive trials were required – at a total cost to British taxpayers of about £35 million for two trials that have still not concluded on the innocence or guilt of three men.
These tensions have been further exacerbated by Rauf’s mysterious escape from Pakistani custody (he wandered off after Pakistani forces transferring between court and prison allowed him to stop and pray in a mosque) – an escape that his family and lawyers claimed was highly improbable, a not unrealistic supposition given the alleged importance that’s been attributed to him. At the time, his lawyer in Pakistan stated that it was highly likely he would be declared dead in the not too distant future – something that appeared to come to pass when he was alleged to have been killed by a US Predator strike in Waziristan in late 2008. The picture since then has become even murkier, with a new set of leaks from the Intelligence Community apparently pointing to the fact that he may still be alive.
The salience towards transatlantic tensions in all this comes from the fact that it has now emerged that Rauf’s escape was in fact a very convenient conclusion to the situation. In a forthcoming Human Rights Watch report, intelligence officials claim Rauf was tortured so badly in Pakistani custody that his extradition to the UK to stand charges would have been impossible. The unspoken sense is that this was all part of the former administration’s approach to countering terrorism – in which torture was acceptable – and which dragged the United Kingdom into wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
As British police launch enquiries into MI6’s complicity in torture and British actions in what is seen as an increasingly intractable situation in Afghanistan are brought under ever closer scrutiny (against the backdrop of a weakened Labour government on a whole host of other domestic issues), the fundamental problem becomes how long is the British government going to be able to maintain its level of support for American actions around the world in Afghanistan or countering terrorism overall.
In its annual temperature taking of the transatlantic relationship, the German Marshall Fund bluntly stated that, “overall, the Obama presidency has not yet lived up to expectations for a post-Bush America.”
For Britons, this is seen most clearly in the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, with this trial merely reminding everyone of the US’s central role in the war against Al Qaeda and her affiliates internationally.

  1. davidbfpo says:

    Good summary and without too much speculation. Rashid Rauf’s alleged role should not obscure readers to the eventual success of the trial process in the UK. What is missing is any explanation why so many were not convicted by a jury, an explanation by the prosecution etc.

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