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British bomb plotters get life in prison

The three men, British-born of Pakistani descent, were convicted last week of planning to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.

September 15, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — In a victory for the most extensive counter-terrorism investigation in British history, three men who plotted to blow up transatlantic airliners in a massive attack were sentenced Monday to life in prison.

The maximum terms were handed down at London's Woolwich Crown Court a week after the men were found guilty of conspiring to smuggle liquid-based explosives onto several North American-bound jets. The plot, which authorities said was close to fruition, could have killed hundreds of people, and it ended up sparking new security measures at airports worldwide.

"The intention was to perpetrate a terrorist outrage that would stand alongside the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in history," Justice Richard Henriques told the court.

He called it "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction."

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Assad Sarwar, 29, and Tanvir Hussain, 28, are all British-born men of Pakistani descent. Under Britain's judicial system, the men will eventually be eligible for parole, but not before serving minimum terms -- 40 years for Ali, the ringleader; 36 years for Sarwar; and 32 years for Hussain.

Their plot, uncovered in 2006, entailed smuggling volatile hydrogen-peroxide solutions, injected into plastic sports-drink bottles, onto seven planes bound from London to cities such as San Francisco, Toronto and New York. Once over the Atlantic, the men and their co-conspirators were to assemble and detonate the bombs to blow up the jetliners.

The convictions and stiff sentences were seen as vindication not just of Britain's counter-terrorism efforts but also of the costly new security measures airports adopted afterward, limiting the amount of liquid that passengers are allowed to bring on board. The men's first trial last year ended in guilty verdicts of conspiracy to murder but without the specific element of trying to blow up aircraft.

The retrial lasted six months and offered new evidence in the form of e-mails that the three men had sent among themselves and their alleged Al Qaeda "handler" in Pakistan. The e-mails used code words to talk about recruiting other attackers and making a trial run.

Henriques said that the plot had "reached an advanced stage in its development" and "would have succeeded but for the intervention of the police and the security service."

Defense lawyers had argued that their clients were not plotting mass slaughter but rather political stunts to draw attention to the plight of suffering Muslims, using small explosions designed only to frighten people at airports.

Last week's convictions were a mixed victory for the prosecution, however. A fourth defendant was convicted only of conspiracy to murder, without the aircraft charge, and three others had hung verdicts. An eighth man was acquitted.

Prosecutors say they will seek a third trial, which is highly unusual, for the three men on whom the jury deadlocked -- Ibrahim Savant, 28, Arafat Waheed Khan, 28, and Waheed Zaman, 25. A judge is expected to rule on that request Oct. 5.

The case shocked Britain because the main conspirators were young men born and raised here who embraced violent Islamic extremism. Several of them had traveled to Pakistan and received training in Al Qaeda camps, authorities said.

In a "martyrdom video" found by police, Ali said that the coming attack would teach the West "a lesson they will never forget. . . . You have persisted in trying to humiliate us and kill us and destroy us."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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