GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: News Weekly
Landmark terrorist trials in Melbourne and London
, September 27, 2008
At what point should you intervene to head off a planned terrorist attack? Intervene too early and you will lack evidence to secure a conviction. Intervene a moment too late and you will have a catastrophe.Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika and five of his followers have been found guilty of belonging to a terrorist cell that was plotting bombing attacks on Melbourne that could have killed thousands.
A Victoria Supreme Court jury of nine women and three men deliberated for a record 21 days before bringing down their verdict on September 15, at the end of Australia's largest terrorist trial, which lasted more than six months.
The court heard audio-recordings of Benbrika inquiring how to make ammonium nitrate bombs and bragging about his plans to blow up large buildings and kill Australians.
Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland welcomed the trial outcome, describing it as "the most successful terrorist prosecution that this country has even seen". Four of the co-accused, however, were acquitted and walked free.
The trial was the culmination of a joint Australian Federal Police-ASIO covert effort which resulted in November 2005 with the arrests of suspected terrorists in Melbourne and Sydney.Transatlantic airline plot
On the other side of the world, in London, another landmark terrorist trial was recently concluded in which eight young British Muslim men were charged with plotting in 2006 to blow up seven transatlantic airliners bound for North America and Canada.
The trial lasted five months and cost British taxpayers UK£10 million. However, on September 8, the British jury surprisingly convicted only three of the eight of conspiracy to murder. Furthermore, the jury failed to reach verdicts on the most serious charges, of a conspiracy to organise suicide-bombings to destroy the airliners. Had such a plot been successful, the ensuing death toll could have been in the thousands.
The verdict was greeted with dismay and outrage by many in Britain, including especially the police and intelligence services. The latter had every reason to believe that they had a compelling case for convicting the suspected terrorists.
Seven of the accused admitted making or possessing videos threatening suicide attacks, but their legal defence rested on their admissions of guilt and also on the proposition that their objective was to make a public and very noisy demonstration directed against the US-led global war on terror.
There will be a retrial at a date yet to be fixed.
Across the Atlantic, American intelligence and security authorities have expressed their deep concern about the result of the London trial and are openly questioning the efficacy of British justice and whether Britain can be relied upon as an ally in the struggle against terrorism.
Some leading American commentators, including former FBI officers, are describing Britain as a weak link in the conflict and a home-base for terrorism directed against the United States - an extremely serious charge.
Considerable criticism has been directed at the judge and the jury, especially when the latter was given a two-week holiday at the climax of the trial. Furthermore, according to media reports, the jury was deeply divided and returned what some have described as a seemingly perverse verdict.
Conversely, some in the intelligence community would blame the Americans for demanding that the British arrest the suspected terrorists before sufficient evidence had been collected to convict them.
When, in 2006, the then British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair advised President George W. Bush of British surveillance of the suspected transatlantic airline plot, Bush specifically asked that the British security and intelligence services swiftly wind up their covert operation and arrest the ringleader, Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani recruiter for Al Qaeda.
In August of that year, the Pakistani authorities cooperated by arresting Rauf, one day before the British made a number of related arrests in the UK. (In 2007, Rauf mysteriously escaped from his Pakistani jail).
Of course, any security and intelligence would feel justifiably frustrated and angry at being forced to terminate such an important operation at this stage.
By then it was obvious to the intelligence communities of both countries, that trans-Atlantic flights were the terror suspects' ultimate target. However, intelligence is just that and is not necessarily incontestable evidence. The British jury weighed the evidence and found it wanting.
There is very little point in allocating blame in this affair. The Americans, having suffered 9/11, had every right to want any planned repeat of that attack nipped in the bud.
It is an acutely difficult task for our decision-makers to know when to intervene. Intervene too early and all you have is intelligence, but not necessarily satisfactory evidence. Intervene a moment too late and you have a catastrophe.