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British Terrorism Case Parallels Others

Trial in a suspected plot to bomb a nightclub or mall in 2004 involves alleged home-grown Islamic radicals with ties to militants in Pakistan.

September 01, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Bent on bringing holy war to their native Britain, the young extremists journeyed to Pakistan, finding expertise at training camps and inspiration in sit-downs with Al Qaeda figures.

The group returned with a strategy for massive attacks. They stockpiled explosive materials, discussed targets and communicated with Pakistani planners as the plot gathered momentum. But security forces, which had been watching and listening for months, swooped in and rounded them up.

That sounds like the alleged plot in which nearly a dozen Britons are charged with conspiring to blow up U.S.-bound planes over the Atlantic. Instead, it describes the prosecution's case here in a trial of seven Britons charged with plotting to bomb a shopping mall or nightclub more than two years ago.

Testimony during the last five months has revealed parallels to the airline case as well as last year's London transit bombings and an alleged plot against U.S. financial institutions involving British suspects.

The trial grew out of Operation Crevice, the code name for a complex investigation stretching from North America to Britain to Pakistan. The 2004 case seems a template for a string of plots that teamed rapidly radicalized cells dominated by Pakistani Britons with hardened, Pakistani-based militants affiliated with Al Qaeda, experts and investigators say.

The idea of a series of plots contributes to debate about the nature of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, whose fugitive leadership is largely based in Pakistan. Current thinking says that the fragmented core of the network has been reduced to playing an inspirational role. But the emerging picture in the Operation Crevice trial and the other cases suggests more direct involvement by a network that regroups and tries again after failing, experts say.

"This causes a reappraisal of what Al Qaeda central is capable of doing," a British law enforcement official said. "The subway bombings raised questions ... and Operation Crevice raises similar questions. We had this idea that Al Qaeda had become less a network than an ideology.... But we are now asking significant questions about how much command and control Al Qaeda might still have."

The current trial could provide insight into the airline case because of similarities in the profiles of the suspects and because of alleged international connections.

Like the airline investigation, Operation Crevice was built on countless hours of surveillance. The jury at the Old Bailey courthouse has heard dramatic evidence from wiretaps in cars and homes. In a tape played in court in May, suspects talked in street slang about carrying out a massacre at a nightclub, the Ministry of Sound, contemptuously dismissing potential female victims as "slags."

"What about easy, easy stuff where you don't need no experience?" said Jawad Akbar, 22, a student whose dorm room was bugged by police. "You could get a job like this, for example, the biggest nightclub in central London where no one could ever turn around and say, 'Oh, they were innocent,' those slags dancing around. If you went for the social structure where every Tom, Dick and Harry goes on a Saturday night, yeah, that would be crazy, crazy thing, man."

"If you got a job in a bar, yeah, or club, say the Ministry of Sound, what are you planning to do there then?" asked Omar Khyam, 24, allegedly a central figure in the group.

"Blow the whole thing up," Akbar responded, according to the tape.

At the same time, the trial paints a portrait of fervent but somewhat improvisational extremists who rambled about hijackings, mass poisonings and other scenarios. They stored explosives and poison in a bedroom armoire in Pakistan. And Akbar said on tape that he was likely to "chicken out" of any suicide attack.

The likelihood of an attack may have been remote because of the omnipresent surveillance. Police covertly replaced a stash of 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate -- allegedly stockpiled for a vehicle bombing -- with dummy explosives.

But the suspects didn't think highly of the British security services. During another bugged conversation in Akbar's room, Khyam asked, "Do you think your room is monitored?"

"Nah, do you think that?" Akbar answered, according to the recording. "Do you know, I think we give them too much credit, bruv."

In a possible preview of a defense strategy in the airline case, defense lawyers accuse prosecutors of misrepresenting vague rage as a concrete plot. Moreover, the lawyers suggest that the star prosecution witness, Pakistani American Mohammed Junaid Babar, has exaggerated things to save his skin.

The 31-year-old Babar, who was arrested in New York and agreed to a plea bargain, is key to the case -- and to understanding the web of linkages to others. Babar figured in an alleged plot, revealed in 2004, to attack U.S. financial institutions on the East Coast. Babar was present in March of that year at a Pakistani "summit" of Al Qaeda operatives involved, British and U.S. authorities say.

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