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No strangers to the police

British authorities were familiar with at least some of the suspects in a failed bomb plot involving subways.

January 20, 2007|Kim Murphy and Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — The black-and-white images are jerky and hard to make out, but a man can be seen standing on the Northern Line subway as it heads toward central London. He is carrying a large backpack and wearing a hooded shirt with the words "New York" written across the front.

Minutes later, the man turns so that his pack is wedged next to a young mother and her baby carriage. He lurches forward, and suddenly the screen is filled with passengers leaping from their seats and plunging to the other side of the car. The man is left standing, arms outstretched, swaying. His backpack lies in a heap on the floor, oozing a yellow, foamy substance.

From these public video camera images, several witnesses were able to identify Ramzi Mohammed, a 25-year-old resident of West London. So, it turns out, were the police.

Authorities believe Mohammed was part of a group that tried -- unsuccessfully -- to blow up subway cars and a bus in July 2005, two weeks after the July 7 transport bombings that had killed 52 commuters and terrorized London.

The grainy CCTV pictures of Mohammed and some of his codefendants matched surveillance photos police had shot a year earlier at a campsite in the scenic Lake District of northern England. Those photos show Mohammed and the others in a larger group, alternately running while carrying backpacks and gathering in a semicircle to pray.

A police officer at Heathrow Airport, it emerged, had spent four hours questioning codefendant Muktar Said Ibrahim on his way to Pakistan, nine months before he tried to blow up a bus. Ibrahim, 28, had come into contact with police two months earlier, while distributing allegedly "inflammatory" Islamic literature outside a department store on Oxford Street.

The trial of six men accused of plotting to detonate a total of five bombs in London, which concluded its first week Friday, has shown the extent to which police already were familiar with at least some of the suspects -- and yet had no apparent inkling that, as prosecutors believe, they were planning a massive transport system attack that could have been just as deadly as the July 7 bombings.

The failure to connect the obscure dots, experts say, reflects the large number of terrorism suspects being monitored in Britain, as the nation faces a terrorist threat that law enforcement officials say is unprecedented and nearly unmanageable.

Public plea

The head of MI5, Britain's equivalent of the FBI, said in a rare public plea in November that the agency had identified 30 "major" terrorist plots being planned in Britain, and was watching more than 1,600 suspects who were actively promoting attacks in Britain and abroad.

"It is just not possible to put all these characters under 24-hour surveillance. So they tend to go for priorities. Because of that, sometimes the terrorist can slip through under the radar, and this is unfortunately what happened in this case," said M.J. Gohel, head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, an independent terrorism, intelligence and security think tank in London.

"This trial once again reiterates that we are now facing a new generation of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, individuals born or brought up in the West, solid middle-class background, normally no criminal record, possessing all the Western social skills, and crucially, valid Western passports for ease of travel, making these individuals almost impossible to profile," he said.

"Whilst we are sealing borders and watching airports, Al Qaeda is recruiting individuals from within [our own] nations," he said.

One of the six defendants, who are mainly of African origin but residents of Britain, told police the bomb plot was a "hoax" and the explosives were never intended to go off.

But in his opening address to jurors, prosecutor Nigel Sweeney said each of the accused bombers carried an accurately wired, genuine bomb that would have exploded with devastating force had the hydrogen peroxide used to make it been distilled to a slightly higher concentration.

No explosions

As it was, four of the five accused bombers boarded the transport system and connected the detonators, which went off with a bang, but apparently not with sufficient force to ignite the main explosive charge. (The fifth apparently lost his nerve and never boarded a train, while a sixth was involved in the plot but not the operation on July 21.)

Some of the defendants were lifted into the air or knocked off their feet. Their skin, in some cases, was covered with acid. Passengers ran screaming in all directions. The perpetrators waded out through the pandemonium and eluded police for several days.

"Whether it was problems with manufacture ... with decomposition of the mixtures, with the hot weather on the 21st of July affecting the chemicals or the like, we say that the failure of these bombs to explode owed nothing to the intention of these defendants," Sweeney said. "Rather, it was simply the good fortune of the traveling public that day that they were spared."

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