Friday, December 19, 2008

Conviction in British Terror Plot


British Doctor Is Convicted in Failed 2007 Car Bombings

Published: December 16, 2008

LONDON — A terrorism trial centering on the use of a bomb-laden Jeep to crash into the main doors of Glasgow’s airport terminal on a Saturday afternoon in June 2007 ended on Tuesday with the conviction of a 29-year-old British doctor with family roots in Iraq who was one of the two men who mounted the attack.

Metropolitan Police, via European Pressphoto Agency

An undated photograph released by the London Metropolitan Police showing Bilal Abdulla with a gas canister in B&Q, a British home improvement store.

Metropolitan Police, via Associated Press

Bilal Abdulla

A jury found the man, Bilal Abdulla, a passenger in the Jeep Cherokee, guilty of two charges of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to cause explosions in a series of three bungled car bombings in Glasgow and London over a 24-hour period. The judge in the case, Sir Colin Crichton McKay, will sentence Dr. Abdulla on Wednesday. Both charges carry potential life sentences.

The Jeep driver, Kafeel Ahmed, a 28-year-old Indian-born doctoral candidate in engineering who assembled the bombs, died a month later of severe burns received in the airport attack, which failed when gasoline canisters did not ignite propane gas cylinders in the Jeep’s trunk.

The day before, Dr. Abdulla and Mr. Ahmed drove to London’s West End theater district in two Mercedes-Benz sedans, primed with bombs similarly constructed from gasoline canisters and propane cylinders, along with 2,000 nails to serve as shrapnel. The cars were left parked outside a nightclub and beside a busy bus stop, while the two attackers waited nearby with mobile phones used as electronic detonators.

But evidence at the trial said the two vehicles failed to explode despite repeated signals from the mobile phones because of faulty assembly of the so-called fuel air bombs involved. Prosecutors said that a laptop owned by Dr. Abdulla — found in the Jeep that crashed into the air terminal — showed that the two men had studied blueprints for the bombs that they found on extremists’ Web sites.

In lengthy testimony at the trial, Dr. Abdulla said he intended only to give people in Britain “a taste of fear” and a “scare” with the bombings, not to kill people. But the chief prosecutor, Jonathan Laidlaw, said the timing of the attacks, at the height of Friday night crowds in central London, and on Glasgow airport’s busiest day of the year, showed the attackers aimed at “committing murder on an indiscriminate and wholesale scale.”

A third man, Mohammed Asha, 28, a Jordanian-born trainee neurosurgeon who, like Dr. Abdulla, was employed in Britain’s National Health Service, was acquitted of all charges. Dr. Asha had been accused of providing cash and advice to Dr. Abdulla, but his defense counsel said that he was a “pacifist” who had been duped into cooperating with the two bombers and that it was Dr. Abdulla who loaded documents suggesting terrorist sympathies onto Dr. Asha’s laptop computer.

Dr. Abdulla, who left Britain with his parents at the age of five and earned his medical degree at a university in Baghdad, is likely to receive at least a 30-year prison sentence, according to legal experts. As the guilty verdicts were read, he shook Dr. Asha’s hand in the dock. The Jordanian now faces a battle to avoid deportation, though the judge told him he hoped he would be able to remain in Britain to continue his training.

The trial, at Woolwich Crown Court in London, was one of a series of sensational terrorism trials in the past two years that have combined to foster widespread public anxiety in Britain about the risk of a major terrorist attack succeeding. Only one such attack, the quadruple suicide bombings on London’s transit system in July 2005, succeeded, killing 56 people, including the four bombers. But Britain’s intelligence agencies have repeatedly warned that the country remains at high risk of new attacks.

A notable feature of the trial was that it did not directly involve Islamic militants with a history of family ties or training in Pakistan, in the pattern of many of recent terrorist trials in Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a weekend visit to the Indian subcontinent that three-quarters of all terrorist plots investigated by Britain’s intelligence and security agencies involved links to Pakistan, the ancestral homeland of about two-thirds of Britain’s Muslim population, which has been estimated at between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people.

The 2005 London transit bombings, as well as an alleged plot in 2006 to bomb at least seven trans-Atlantic airliners in midair with liquid bombs disguised in soft-drink bottles, involved extensive ties to Pakistan. The airliner bombing trial ended in September with a jury, also sitting at the Woolwich court, convicting three men of conspiring to commit mass murder through suicide bomb explosions, but failing to reach verdicts on charges that the men conspired to attack aircraft.

A new trial on those charges will begin early in 2009.

In the case of the Glasgow and London attacks, the plot had its origins in Iraq. Dr. Abdulla, identified by prosecutors as the plot’s mastermind, said he had deep affection for Britain, where his father, also a doctor, was working when he was born. But he said he resolved to strike out at Britain to draw attention to the suffering of Iraqis at the hands of coalition troops in Iraq, and what he described as the worldwide mistreatment of Muslims.

He said he became angry when, as a medical student, he experienced the sharp deterioration in hospital conditions in Baghdad under Western-supported economic sanctions in the 1990s, and later when he saw the suffering that allied bombing and occupying troops imposed on Iraqi civilians in the war that began in March 2003.

The prosecution said Dr. Abdulla had contacts with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that began shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and introduced as evidence entries in a diary he had kept during the period when he was planning the bombings. “The soldiers killed the young and the old,” he wrote, speaking of allied troops. “They do not discriminate between men and women, so why should we?”

Evidence at the trial showed that Britain’s intelligence services had warned the government about the risk that Sunni extremists in Iraq might seek to launch terrorist attacks in Britain. In 2004, a warning that some Iraqi militants “will come to the U.K.” to launch terror attacks was given by the Joint Intelligence Committee, a powerful coordinating body that reports to the prime minister.

At the trial, prosecutors noted that all three men implicated in the London and Glasgow bombings were middle class, with professional educations, and not from the poorer backgrounds common among many of the Islamic militants who have engaged in terrorist plots in Britain.

Jonathan Laidlaw, the chief prosecutor, told the jury that it might find it hard to believe that doctors dedicated to preventing suffering could become terrorists. “Frankly, who would have believed that doctors would involve themselves in this sort of murderous activity on the streets of this country?” he said.

Dr. Abdulla was a junior doctor at a state-run hospital in Paisley, a Glasgow suburb only a few miles from the airport at the time of the attack.

Mr. Ahmed was the son of two Indian doctors who migrated to Saudi Arabia, and was studying for a doctorate in computational fluid dynamics at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge at the time of the attacks. It was there that he met Dr. Abdulla, who had returned to Britain in 2004. Dr. Asha, found not guilty on Tuesday, was a trainee at a state-run hospital in Newcastle-under-Lyme in the British midlands.

“This case demonstrates, does it not,” Mr. Laidlaw told the jury, “that nothing can be taken for granted when you are dealing with extremists of this sort?”


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