Regina – v – AOK & Others – Woolwich Crown Court
Operation Overt was the codename given to the surveillance operation mounted by police and intelligence services around the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot where a group of terrorists planned to detonate liquid explosives, carried on board airliners travelling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada, disguised as soft drinks. The plot was discovered by British police during an extensive surveillance operation.
The investigation started in earnest when Ahmed Ali, who was under police surveillance, returned from Pakistan in June 2006 and investigators covertly opened his baggage. Inside they found a powdered soft drink—Tang—and a large number of batteries, which raised suspicions. In the following weeks the police mounted the UK's largest surveillance operation, calling on an additional 220 officers from other forces.
Other suspects were quickly identified through their connections with Ali. Assad Sarwar (from High Wycombe) was seen buying items that did not appear to fit with his daily needs. On one occasion surveillance officers watched him dispose of empty hydrogen peroxide bottles at a recycling centre. Sarwar and Ali were seen meeting in an east London park, positioning themselves in the middle of the field so that they could not be over heard speaking. When MI5 covertly entered a flat being used by Ali in Walthamstow, they found what appeared to be a bomb factory. They installed a camera and microphone and on 3 August Ali and Tanvir Husain were filmed constructing devices out of drink bottles. Surveillance officers later watched Ali spend two hours in an Internet cafe researching flight timetables.
On 9 August 2006, the decision was made to take urgent action in order to disrupt what was believed was being planned and British police arrested 24 people for questioning. The arrests were made in London, Birmingham, and High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in an overnight operation. Two of the arrests were made in the Birmingham area and five were made in High Wycombe. The key suspects were British-born Muslims, some of Pakistani descent. Three of the suspects were recent converts to Islam
Eight of the suspects were later charged with conspiracy to murder and commit acts of terrorism a further three with failing to disclose information about acts of terrorism and one youth with possession of articles related to a terrorist act. British authorities carried out a total of 69 searches of residences, businesses, vehicles and open spaces, which netted possible bomb-making equipment and chemicals including hydrogen peroxide, more than 400 computers, 200 mobile telephones and 8,000 items of removable storage media such as memory sticks, CDs, DVDs as well as a ‘hide’ in a forest in High Wycombe where a suitcase buried in the ground was recovered which contained the components of the explosive HMTD. Also recovered where mixing vessels and glass thermometers. Assad Sarwar’s fingerprint is found on a funnel in the suitcase. Arafat Khan’s fingerprint was also found on a flask at the scene. Police also found a list of flights on a memory stick belonging to Mr. Ali following his arrest. The memory stick listed scheduled flights from three carriers – American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada, believed to be the targets for the plot.
Interestingly, there was reported disagreement between the United States and the United Kingdom over when to make the arrests with British official’s being of the opinion that an attack was not imminent, noting that the suspects had not yet purchased airline tickets and some did not even have passports. Presumably, under pressure from the US, a decision was made to carry out the arrests. At the same time the suspected ringleader Rashid Rauf in Pakistan was arrested by the Pakistani police/security services. It was the Crown’s case that the plotters planned to use peroxide-based liquid explosives, acetone peroxide, (TATP), which is sensitive to heat, shock, and friction, and can be initiated with fire or an electrical charge, and can also be used to produce improvised detonators.
During the trial of the conspirators the prosecution stated that each bomber would board a plane with the "necessary ingredients and equipment". They would then construct the devices mid-flight and detonate them. The hydrogen peroxide would be placed in 500 ml plastic bottles of the Oasis and Lucozade soft drinks. A sugary drink powder, Tang, would be mixed with the hydrogen peroxide to colour it to resemble a normal soft drink. Hydrogen peroxide is widely available for use as hair bleach and along with the other ingredients can become explosive if mixed to a specific strength. The mixture would be injected into the bottles with a syringe. The bottle's cap would not have been removed and the hole would have been resealed, thereby allowing the device to resemble a normal, unopened drink bottle when screened by airport security. The use of liquid explosives with dissolved powder is similar to the composition used in the 21 July 2005 London bombings, using hydrogen peroxide and chapatti flour, activated by a detonator.
A second substance, a type of high explosive, would be hidden within an AA battery casing; this small explosive charge would detonate the main bomb. The charge would be detonated by linking the bottle of explosives to a light bulb and a disposable camera. The charge from the camera's flash unit would trigger the explosion.
During the investigation, seven martyrdom tapes made by six suspects were recovered. There was speculation in the UK that the militant Islamic organisation al-Qaeda could be behind the plot, which, it was claimed, was scheduled to take place only weeks after the group threatened to attack British aviation.
Following the raids, the UK terror alert level was raised resulting in no hand luggage being allowed on planes except for essentials such as travel documents and wallets. These of course have been relaxed to allow limited volumes of liquids to be carried into the cabin. However at the time, an estimated 400,000 passengers were affected because of the alerts. It has been estimated that the first day of delays cost the airlines over £175 million with thousands of flights being delayed or cancelled as a result. As many as 20,000 bags are believed to have been misplaced at Heathrow.
In 2008, eight men (Ahmed Abdullah Ali, Assad Sarwar, Tanvir Hussain, Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Khan, Waheed Zaman, Umar Islam, Mohammed Gulzar) were tried in connection with the plot. The trial began in April 2008, with the jury being shown the 'suicide videos' made by Ali, Hussain, Savant, Khan, Zaman, and Islam and with the allegation that the suspects had bought chemicals. Intercepted emails and phone calls were not allowed as evidence at the first trial.
In their defence, the seven men, six of whom had recorded videos denouncing Western foreign policy, said they had only planned to cause a political spectacle and not to kill anyone. Ali told the court that he intended to make a political statement by letting off a small device at Heathrow and scaring people, and that the plot did not involve attacking planes.All the accused, except for Gulzar, admitted plotting to cause a public nuisance. Ali, Sarwar and Hussein also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause explosions.
On 8 November 2008 after more than 50 hours of deliberations, the jury did not find any of the defendants guilty of conspiring to target aircraft. The jury found Ali, Sarwar and Hussein guilty of conspiracy to murder charges but were unable to reach verdicts on charges relating to the plot to blow up aircraft. Mohammad Gulzar was acquitted on all counts.
On 7 September 2009, a second jury at Woolwich Crown Court found Ali, Sarwar and Hussain guilty of "conspiracy to murder involving liquid bombs" and that the targets of the conspiracy were airline passengers. The plot was said at court to have been discovered by MI5 using covert listening devices in a flat in east London. The jurors were unable to reach verdicts on the charges against Savant, Khan, Zaman or Islam. Islam was however convicted on a separate charge of conspiracy to murder.
Ali, described as 'the ringleader', was sentenced to at least 40 years in prison, Sarwar was sentenced to at least 36 years, while Hussain was jailed for at least 32 years. Islam, convicted of the more general 'conspiracy to murder' charge, was given a sentence of a minimum of 22 years in prison.At the same 2009 Woolwich trial, Donald Stewart-Whyte, who had not been charged at the 2008 trial, pleaded guilty to possession of a loaded gun, but was cleared of all terrorism offences.
The defendant, AOK trial started on 5 October 2009 and lasted 43 days. He was described by the Crown as being one of Ali’s ‘Lieutenants’ having travelled to Pakistan with Ali to what the Crown suspected was a terrorist training camp. AOK was arrested at his home in Walthamstow. Items found at his address include a piece of paper detailing how to make RDX, PETN and tetrille, a USB pen containing information on how to make HMTD, a 200ml bottle of hydrogen peroxide (a component of the IED found in High Wycombe) and numerous disposable cameras. AOK was also alleged to have had substantial contact with Ahmed Ali both in person and using his mobile telephone (51 calls in the 2 months preceding his arrest). Intercepted emails were also introduced between AOK and an unknown person in Pakistan seemingly speaking in ‘code’ about the plot.
The case was denied by AOK who provided explanations for his friendship with Ali and the items recovered by the police. As part of his defence scepticism was raised over the allegations with it being highlighted that none of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket and many did not have passports. It was also suggested that suspected ringleader Rashid Rauf had invented the plot under torture in Pakistan.
Further more the defence explored the practicalities of producing TATP on board a plane from constituent liquids and concluded that, while theoretically possible, the chances of success would be extremely low. Indeed, the crowns experts were only able to replicate an explosion after many failed attempts using military detonators.
The case against AOK and the other defendants was of massive proportions and remains one of the biggest terrorism cases in British history. The evidence obtained against all defendants amounted to hundreds of thousands of pages which had to be considered in detail and instructions taken. A team of lawyers headed and supervised by Mr. Reveglia was engaged in preparing AOK defence for a case which took over 3 years to bring to trial.
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