How police and MI5 foiled 'Britain's 9/11'


From Times Online

April 30, 2007

How police and MI5 foiled 'Britain's 9/11'
The fertiliser bomb plot to blow up Bluewater shopping centre, the Ministry of Sound nightclub and utilities, which ended in the conviction of five men

Nicola Woolcock of The Times

John Stone, a salesman at Bodle Brothers agricultural merchants, was bemused by the bizarre request. The flashy young man who had arrived in a customised Audi, rap music blaring, had asked for 600kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser for his allotment.

It was winter, thought Mr Stone, and the order was enough to cover five football pitches. “What do you want all that for?” he asked sarcastically. “Are you planning a bomb attack?”

Unwittingly, he had hit on the truth. The fertiliser was to be used by a terrorist cell of mainly British-born Muslim men to build a huge bomb. The group had discussed attacking the Ministry of Sound nightclub, Bluewater shopping centre, a train, a pub and a list of synagogues.

Anthony Garcia was chosen to buy the fertiliser because he had paler skin than the others.

Months earlier, he had been among a group learning about weapons and explosives in Pakistan. Two accomplices learnt how to prepare ricin. Another arrived with digital scales for weighing ratios of ammonium nitrate to aluminium powder. Garcia had taught the others how to dismantle and reassemble weapons.

Under the leadership of Omar Khyam, a jihadi fanatic from Crawley, they wanted to put their training into practice. But their conversations were recorded by MI5. Operation Crevice involved every officer in the south of England and uncovered dozens of suspects across three continents.

Vigilant members of the public also played their part. The fertiliser was taken to Access Storage near Heathrow. Khyam refused to answer questions about why he was paying £207 a month to store £90 worth of fertiliser. Staff contacted police in February 2004, on the same day that Khyam collected an expert in detonators from Heathrow.

The pair were heard talking about remote-controlled devices. They went to a key meeting the next day in Crawley which officers believe was also attended by Mohammed Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7 bombers.

Five weeks passed before the gang were arrested. During this time they seemed “surveillance sensitive” — executing U-turns en route to meetings, using multiple names and code words, disposing of laptop computers and changing mobile phones.

Instead of sending emails, they saved draft messages and logged on with the same user names. They discussed targets, praised the Madrid train bombings and mentioned wanting to do something “sooner rather than later”.

Detectives acted when snippets of conversation convinced them that the plot was slipping beyond their control. One suspect was recorded asking whether something was “ready to go”.

On March 30, officers from five forces arrested the seven defendants and other alleged accomplices. Khyam, 25, his brother Shujah Mahmood, 20, their neighbours Jawad Akbar, 23, and Waheed Mahmood, 35, all from Crawley, Garcia, 25, from Ilford, East London and Nabeel Hussain, 20, a student from Horley, Surrey, were charged with conspiring to cause an explosion likely to endanger life. Khawaja was arrested in Canada and still awaits trial.

Detectives found aluminium powder in a biscuit tin behind the shed at Khyam’s family home. He and Shujah Mahmood were charged with possessing the substance for the purposes of terrorism. Khyam, Garcia and Hussain were charged with possessing the fertiliser for the same intent.

Both Shujah Mahmood and Nabeel Hussain were today found not guilty of the conspiracy charge. Shujah was also found not guilty of possession of aluminium powder for terrorism and Mr Hussain was cleared of possession of 600kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser for terrorism.

A week later, Mohammed Babar, an American al-Qaeda operative who trained with Khyam in Pakistan, was arrested in New York. He immediately “crumbled”, pleaded guilty to terrorist offences and agreed to gave evidence in return for immunity from prosecution for the fertiliser plot.

British officers flew to New York to interview Babar, who said he spent time in Pakistan preparing for jihad with 15 to 20 “brothers”, mostly from Britain. He organised the training camp and visited Khyam in Britain.

Babar told police the fertiliser gang had experimented with ammonium nitrate explosions in Pakistan. He made police aware that dozens of British Muslim men were involved in jihad.

The intelligence services struggled to keep track of the names uncovered by their investigations. They compiled a huge list of friends, relatives and contacts, many with multiple identities.

Accomplices included “AD”, who was sectioned under the Mental Health Act but escaped from hospital. He has been on the run since October. He attended a training camp in Pakistan alongside Khyam, turning up at the airport in his London Underground uniform. He was asked to carry out a suicide attack on the Tube but refused because he thought it would come to nothing.

Two men from Luton — one who can be identified only as Q and the other who uses the name Abu Munthir — played pivotal roles in recruiting the Khyam cell. Both reported directly to al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan.

Q, 40, worked as a taxi driver but was being monitored for undisclosed reasons. The surveillance operation on him led the authorities to Khyam.

The Old Bailey heard that in 2003 Amin was asked by Q to help transmit money and equipment to al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan. Q’s home was searched but he was never arrested.

Abu Munthir, now in custody in Pakistan, received vital supplies and wanted to meet everyone involved in the fertiliser plot. Khyam sought his advice. He recommended multiple bombings on one day and provided vital details of how to make explosives.

Some of the defendants and associates worked at Gatwick and discussed its levels of security, leading surveillance officers to fear that the airport could be attacked.

A security source said: “It was certainly something that crossed our minds. Some of the fringe players had airside passes.”

But it was not just the sheer scale of the operation that set it apart from previous terror investigations. Referring to the IRA, a senior police source said: “We were just beginning to understand the transition from the type of threat we’d faced for 30 years to what we were now facing. Early 2004 took us another stage further in our understanding. Operation Crevice confirmed what we had feared.”

As if!

As if!