COVER STORY: by John MillerNews Weekly
Too terrible to contemplate
, April 26, 2008
In 2006, Islamic fanatics planned to set off a series of coordinated and deadly explosions aboard seven aircraft flying between London and North America, sending terrified passengers and crew plummeting to their deaths. Their plot, however, was successfully foiled, just before it was due to be carried out.Now, eight suspected accomplices have appeared before a London court, charged with planning these atrocities. Former senior intelligence officer John Miller reports.Eight Islamic fundamentalists are on trial in London for conspiring to organise suicide missions to blow up seven transatlantic jets bound for North America. Had the plot been successful, the ensuing disaster would certainly have rivalled the 9/11 attack on the United States in terms of loss of innocent life.
To date, coverage of this case in the Australian media has been scant. It is as though the matter is not newsworthy, or that the authorities want to keep the Australian people relaxed and unconcerned.
By contrast, the Director of Homeland Security in the US, Michael Chertoff, has seen fit to warn the American public about the significance of the London terrorist trial.Terrorist plots
In an extraordinary article a few days ago he said: "I recommend following this story in the newspapers over the next few weeks (if you can find it). The evidence is powerful proof of the reason that we work 24/7 to avert terrorist plots by devoting time, money and energy to security." (Michael Chertoff, "In case you missed it", Leadership Journal
, US Dept of Homeland Security, April 4, 2008). URL: www.dhs.gov/ journal/ leadership/ 2008/ 04/ in- case- you- missed- it.html
Chertoff is clearly concerned about public apathy in the US because the authorities have managed to forestall a number of attacks on US soil, which, if successfully carried out, could have been catastrophic.
Over a period of years now, I have written many articles on terrorism. This is not my preferred option. However, whether we like it or not, the terrorist threat is by far the most important issue confronting Australia today.
I very much regret having to reiterate that I do not
believe the majority of Australian people take terrorism seriously, and will not do so until they see on the television news the grisly spectacle of body parts being collected and blood being hosed down from walls.
Australia, as the late Donald Horne famously said, is the "lucky country"; but to use an analogy from gambling — an activity I personally deplore — you can't keep rolling sevens with dice. The people of the US, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, India, Russia and others have all been forced to confront the realities of politically motivated bloody violence. Fortunately, to date, Australia has been spared an attack on its home soil.
It is not my intention to reiterate details of cases that have appeared before Australian courts. Rather, it is to draw News Weekly
readers' urgent attention to the significance of the current terrorist trial in London.
My sources for what follows are all drawn from the public record, and I claim no special knowledge or briefings from former colleagues.
Appearing before Woolwich Court, London, on April 3, 2008, were eight terrorist suspects who had been arrested on August 9, 2006, thanks to an undercover security operation involving shared intelligence among the UK, US and Pakistan. A further 13 people were arrested at the same time and, to date, there has been little information on whether they will be charged. However, it is known that the mastermind of those charged, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, hoped to recruit up to 18 suicide-bombers. Six of those charged left farewell videos — the hallmark of Islamic suicide-bombers — in which blame for all the ills of the world is laid at the door of the West, including Israel.
The eight men in court are all between 25 and 29 — an age at which people can be considered mature but also impressionable if led astray. They are described as British Muslims, but as yet no information is to hand regarding the circumstances of their arrival in the UK. What is known is that several of them travelled to Pakistan for terrorist-training. Needless to say, all pleaded not guilty.
Before this trial is over, there will be claims that these are "home-grown" terrorists; but it is far more likely that they never felt any loyalty towards the UK, its laws and traditions. One of the 21 arrested has served a short sentence on account of his youth; very little publicity was given to his case. Among those yet to be charged are wives and other acquaintances of the accused.
Crown prosecutor Peter Wright QC described those charged as men possessing "the cold-eyed certainty of the fanatic", prepared to board an aircraft with the necessary ingredients and equipment to construct improvised explosive devices that would bring about "quite catastrophic consequences for passengers, crew and, indeed, anyone who happened to be in the path of a stricken or disintegrating aircraft...".
The UK and US press were unanimous that the plot was in the final hours before its execution.
The aim of the alleged terrorists was breathtakingly simple. They targeted seven transatlantic flights from the UK to the US and Canada. The aircraft concerned were US and Canadian Boeing 767 and 777 jetliners, each carrying between 240 and 285 passengers and crew.Rapid decompression
The flights were headed for destinations which included New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto and Montréal. The method was also extremely simple: the explosive devices used would be detonated by suicide-bombers at maximum altitude, causing rapid decompression and. almost inevitably, destruction of the aircraft.
If it could be called sophistication, the alleged plotters planned the explosions to be carried out in sequence, when the aircraft were flying over the mid-Atlantic Ocean, thus enhancing the prospect of maximum casualties and minimising any chance of miraculous rescue. The domino effect of such a sequence can only be imagined in terms of horror, especially as it was planned for the height of the British holiday season. Once airborne, there would be little that the flight crew could do to identify the bombers and disarm them.
It would be irresponsible to give the precise details of the components of the bombs to be used in this terrorist attack. Suffice to say they could be obtained anywhere and involved everyday substances. It was because of this fact that airlines and governments have insisted that certain material not be taken onto aircraft, including soft drinks, toothpaste and other personal items. This has been much derided by some in the press, and indeed by airlines; but as this case unfolds it will be seen as a justifiable precaution.
The plotters also used so-called decoy material which was designed to deflect the attention of customs officers' searches from their bomb-making equipment. The decoy material included, somewhat ironically, condoms and pornographic material — forbidden under Islam. The governing idea behind this step was "to avoid looking like Muslims". The bombs would be assembled in mid-air and detonated according to a preordained timetable.
Not surprisingly, as the case is in its early stages, very little information has been revealed on the methods used by the UK authorities in detecting the activities of this group over several months. Surveillance and other forms of coverage of 21 suspects are a massive undertaking, but there is no doubt that the successful outcome justified the cost.
It speaks volumes for US, UK and Pakistani cooperation that the alleged plotters were stopped before the atrocities were committed. Indeed, Pakistani cooperation has been much maligned in the past, but certainly rose to the occasion in this instance.
A considerable amount of prosecution evidence in this trial includes computer memory-sticks, video and intercept material.
So far, the court has sat for only two days, and surprisingly little publicity has been generated. Virtually nothing has appeared in the Australian media. However, it is in the highest public interest that this trial should be widely publicised.
Furthermore, it should be noted that leaders and high-profile identities in Britain's Muslim community first tried to deride the case as a fabrication, or offered pious platitudes in defence of the political motives of the plotters, especially their opposition to US and allied actions in Iraq.
Particularly horrifying is the fact that the plotters were even prepared to take their children and perhaps wives on these lethal flights, in the name of Allah the Wise and the Merciful — an extraordinarily callous deed by those who claim Islam is a religion of peace.
Lastly, one of the plotters, Assad Sarwar, did not after all intend to board a flight. Instead, he was to stay behind and recruit more suicide-bombers for future missions.
Other planned terrorist outrages, apart from the bombing of these particular airliners, included attacks on UK nuclear facilities, railways, the gas pipeline between Belgium and Britain, Canary Wharf in the London Docklands, the control tower at Heathrow Airport, and airline flights to other destinations than those given above, including Boston, Denver and Miami.
We would do well to ponder the words of the crown prosecutor Peter Wright QC, who said at the current London trial that the 2006 terrorist plot was intended to be "a violent and deadly statement of intent which would have a truly global impact" and was designed to inflict "heavy casualties upon an unwitting civilian population, all in the name of Islam".
Civil libertarians and lawyers in Australia would be hard put to refute any such claim. That is why we must heed what these terrorists are threatening and take their stated intentions seriously.