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Profile: Sean O’Neill
Sean O’Neill was a participant or observer in the following events:
Abu Hamza al-Masri, a future leader of the Islamist movement in Britain (see March 1997) who will have a long relationship with Britain’s security services (see Early 1997) and will be convicted on terrorism charges (see January 11-February 7, 2006), fraudulently obtains British citizenship and swears allegiance to the Queen. However, according to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, “he could have been deported from Britain as an illegal immigrant and a fraudster long before he caused the trouble that he went on to stir up.” For example:
When he first arrived in Britain in July 1979, he found a job in contravention of his one-month visitor’s visa. He also breached the terms of subsequent visas by working;
He stopped renewing his visa and became an illegal immigrant, doing casual work for cash-in-hand;
When he married Valerie Traverso, a pregnant single mother of three, in May 1980, she was still married to her first husband and the marriage to Abu Hamza was therefore bigamous;
When Traverso gave birth to a child fathered by her real, but estranged, husband four months later, Abu Hamza falsely registered himself as the father.
Abu Hamza was able to obtain leave to stay in Britain based on the illegal marriage and fraudulent birth certificate, even though he was arrested in a raid on the porn cinema where he worked as a bouncer and identified as an illegal immigrant. The leave to stay is later made indefinite, and he obtains citizenship seven years after arriving in Britain. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 4-13]
Abu Hamza. [Source: Ian Waldie / Reuters / Corbis]London-based imam Abu Hamza al-Masri starts working with two branches of the British security services, the police’s Special Branch and MI5, the domestic counterintelligence service. The relationships continue for several years and there are at least seven meetings between Abu Hamza and MI5 between 1997 and 2000 (see October 1, 1997, November 20, 1997, and September 1998). Based on records of the meetings, authors Daniel O’Neill and Sean McGrory will describe the relationship as “respectful, polite, and often cooperative.”
Rhetoric - One theme in the meetings, which take place at Abu Hamza’s home and a mosque he runs in Finsbury Park, is that the security services tell Abu Hamza that they do not want any trouble and ask him to tone down some of his more inflammatory comments. Abu Hamza listens politely, but always replies he is committed to jihad. However, over this period Abu Hamza’s rhetoric changes subtly, and he begins attacking “Zionists,” rather than simply “Jews.” Abu Hamza will later say that he asks security officers if his sermons are inappropriate, and they reply, “No, freedom of speech, you don’t have to worry unless we see blood on the streets.”
Information - Abu Hamza provides the security services with information about the ideology of various extremist factions, as well as “tidbits” of information about others, although in one case he provides specific intelligence that leads to the detention of two terrorist suspects. He also likes to “tell tales” about one of his rival preachers, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, and his Al-Muhajiroun organization.
Favors - Sometimes Abu Hamza asks for favors from his handlers. For example, on one occasion he requests the release of some associates after promising that they are not a threat in Britain.
Beyond the Reach of British Law - Abu Hamza will tell his aides that he is “beyond the reach of British law,” and will neglect to pay the mosque’s electricity and water bills. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “Increasingly, Abu Hamza acted as if Finsbury Park had divorced itself from Britain and was operating as an independent Muslim state. He contacted extremist groups, offering his services as an ambassador for them in [Britain] and presenting the mosque as a place of guaranteed asylum.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 96-97, 143-5]
The radical Finsbury Park mosque becomes what one informer will call “an al-Qaeda guest house in London.” The informer, Reda Hassaine, works for two British intelligence services (see (November 11, 1998) and (May 1999)), and one of his tasks is to monitor the mosque’s leader Abu Hamza al-Masri, himself an informer for the British (see Early 1997).
Experienced Fighters - Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later write: “For some visitors, the mosque was a secure retreat for rest and recreation after a tour of duty in the holy war. Such was Finsbury Park’s reputation that an international brigade of Islamic militants used it as a safe haven for a spot of leave before they returned to the jihad front line and undertook terror operations.”
Raw Recruits - Hassaine will say the mosque was especially important to al-Qaeda because the experienced fighters on leave could mix with potential recruits: “The mosque was secure. It offered money, tickets, and names of people to meet in Pakistan. It was an al-Qaeda guest house in London. The boys could come back from the jihad and find a place to stay, to talk about war, to be with their own kind of people, to make plans and to recruit other people. These people, if they thought you were willing to do the jihad, they paid special attention to you. If they thought you were willing, that is when Abu Hamza would step in to do the brainwashing. Once he started, you wouldn’t recover. You would become a ‘special guest’ of the mosque until they could measure your level of commitment and they could organize your trip to Afghanistan.”
Numbers - O’Neill and McGrory will say that the exact number of recruits who pass through Finsbury Park and the Afghan camps is unclear, although “hundreds and hundreds of suspects” from around the world are linked to the mosque. London Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens will say two thousand recruits from the mosque undergo terror training, whereas one of his successors, Sir Ian Blair, will say it was closer to a tenth of that number. O’Neill and McGrory will add: “MI5 has never revealed its tally. However many it was, not a single recruit who attended these camps was ever arrested when he got home.” The CIA will later be surprised by the “sizable number” of al-Qaeda recruits who both train in the camps in Afghanistan and attend Finsbury Park. After the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the FBI will find questionnaires completed by the recruits, and some of these will specify Abu Hamza as the person who referred them to the camps, also giving “jihad” as their ambition after completing their training. O’Neill and McGrory will point out, “Such was Abu Hamza’s stature that having his name as a reference would guarantee his nominees acceptance at Khaldan,” an al-Qaeda camp.
'The World Capital of Political Islam' - O’Neill and McGrory will conclude, “The result of Abu Hamza’s recruitment regime—and that pursued by the other fundamentalist groups which had made London the world capital of political Islam—was that more young men from Britain embarked on suicide missions than from all the other countries of Europe combined.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 86, 97-98, 101-102]
When asked why militant Islamic groups based in London never attack in Britain, leading imam Omar Bakri Mohammed says that he has a deal with the British government: “I work here in accordance with the covenant of peace which I made with the British government when I got [political] asylum.… We respect the terms of this bond as Allah orders us to do.” [Terrorism Monitor, 7/7/2005] Bakri will confirm this in a later interview: “The British government knows who we are. MI5 has interrogated us many times. I think now we have something called public immunity.” [MEMRI, 10/24/2001] Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will point out that other London imams, such as Abu Hamza al-Masri (see Early 1997) and Abu Qatada (see June 1996-February 1997), had a similar arrangement: “The [imams] all claimed that Islamist radicals felt safe in London as they were protected by what they called the ‘covenant of security.’ This, they explained, was a deal whereby if extremist groups pledged not to stage attacks or cause disruption in [Britain], the police and intelligence agencies left them alone. British government ministers were appalled at the suggestion that they had entered into such a pact. But other countries were left to wonder aloud why [the British government] continued to ignore warnings that radical organizations were using London as a safe haven, and allowing these extremists to behave as if they were immune from prosecution.… To European eyes, these men seemed to do as they pleased.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 108]
A group of recruits at the radical Finsbury Park mosque in London, which is run by British intelligence informer and radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri (see Early 1997), starts to be groomed as suicide bombers. The group includes shoe bomber Richard Reid (see December 22, 2001) and Saajid Badat, one of his accomplices (see (December 14, 2001)). Some of the suicide squad live in Brixton, south London, with Zacarias Moussaoui. Salam Abdullah, a radical who attends the mosque at this time, will later say, “You could tell from the way they were treated by Abu Hamza and his aides that they were marked for something special, but we didn’t know it was for suicide attacks.” Other mosque-goers do not discuss the group, and the men do not talk about their mission, but periodically disappear, presumably to go abroad for training. Some of them are foreigners, who are known only by their nicknames, and are sent to Finsbury Park from other militant centers around Britain and Europe. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “It was in north London that the suicide bombers were provided with money, documents, and the names of the contacts who would steer them to the intended targets in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the cities of Europe.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 89-93] In addition to being an informer for the British, Abu Hamza is himself under surveillance by numerous intelligence services, including the same British ones he works for (see Summer 1996-August 1998, (November 11, 1998), and February 1999). What the British authorities know of this squad, and whether they attempt to do anything about it is unknown.
Leading British imam Abu Hamza al-Masri is arrested for his part in the kidnapping and murder of Western tourists in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998). A demonstration outside the police station where Abu Hamza is held attracts sixty people. Abu Hamza tells the police he has just been repeating what is written in the Koran and is released. Evidence seized from his home includes 750 video and audio tapes of his sermons and an eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Afghani Jihad, which are later returned to him (see December 1999). Reda Hassaine, an informer for the British security services (see March 1997-April 2000), is disappointed and notes cynically that “the British might consider the arrest operation successful, believing that it would ward off the danger of Abu Hamza or his followers carrying out any operations too close to home.” Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will comment, “Hassaine’s assessment was not far off the mark.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 140-3]
British authorities return items they previously confiscated from leading cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri over his involvement in the murder of Western tourists in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998).
Tapes - The material is returned after Britain decides not to prosecute Abu Hamza for his part in the murders, and includes video and audio tapes “packed with the usual messages of intolerance and hatred, and culminating in exhortations to kill the enemies of Islam.” The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deemed the evidence gathered by the police “insufficient” for a prosecution, although it will later be found that three of the tapes show Abu Hamza committing the offense of “soliciting to murder.” Apparently, detectives only watched one of the tapes, as they were not the focus of their inquiries, and the police report to the CPS did not mention them. Abu Hamza will later say that he takes their return as proof nothing he says in his sermons is illegal.
Encyclopedia of Jihad - He is also given back his encyclopedia of Afghan jihad, which contains “hundreds of pages of instructions and diagrams on making bombs, organizing ambushes, laying landmines and selecting targets—among them Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.” The encyclopedia has been known to investigators in Europe for some time (see March 1995 and 1998-December 11, 1999). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will note ironically that the authorities apparently believe that the encyclopedia is “a legitimate thing for an advocate of eternal Holy War to have in his library.” The encyclopedia will later be described at a “terrorist manual” in a court case against Abu Hamza, where it will be a key piece of evidence against him.
Passport - However, the police do retain his passport, preventing Abu Hamza, an informer for Britain’s security services (see Early 1997), from traveling abroad. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 146, 289-290]
Police in Leicester, England, investigate a terrorist fundraising ring based in that city and eventually wrap it up eleven days after 9/11. The men are connected to groups of Islamists in France (see March 15, 2005) and Spain (see September 26, 2001), as well as Finsbury Park mosque in London and leading radical Djamel Beghal, who has attended the mosque and whose arrest in the summer of 2001 (see July 24 or 28, 2001) apparently spurs the arrests in Britain.
The Cell - The two cell leaders live frugal lives in Leicester, claiming social security benefits under their real names, but work under false French documents. When police search a car belonging to one of the men, they find skimming machines used to steal details from credit cards, as well as boxes of unembossed cards from Visa and Mastercard. The cards are used to purchase goods in southern Spain, and the group is estimated to raise at least £800,000 (about US$1,200,000). The group is also involved in arranging forged visas for those traveling to training camps in Afghanistan. Eighteen arrests are made in total, and the two ringleaders are sentenced to eleven years each.
Extremists Raise Millions in Britain - Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later write that this was part of a larger pattern (see 1995-April 21, 2000): “British counterterrorist agencies now accept that in the years preceding the post-9/11 crackdown on militant Islamist networks in [Britain], millions of pounds were raised to finance violent groups operating in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, Yemen, and other jihad battlefields. Most of that money was raised through organized crime, ranging from sophisticated international credit card counterfeiting to benefit fraud and shoplifting gangs.” They add that “[r]acketeering was vital to the jihad” as Osama bin Laden lost most of his money in the early-to-mid 1990s: “The mujaheddin groups and terrorist cells around the world that allied themselves to the al-Qaeda ideology were largely autonomous and self-financing. Britain was a key source of that finance.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 68-69]
In a Friday sermon one day after the USS Cole was bombed with the loss of 17 lives (see October 12, 2000), leading radical imam and British intelligence informer (see Early 1997) Abu Hamza al-Masri encourages his followers to wage a global jihad (holy war). The sermon is nominally about the Palestinian intifada, which is in the headlines at this time, but Abu Hamza does not confine himself to this topic.
'If It Is Killing, Do It' - He says: “You must increase your action, you must increase your jihad, because when you wake up you wake the scholars up and when you and the scholars are woken up the tyrants are shaking… It’s time for you and me and everybody to sacrifice, it’s a time to prove that we are not here in the West just for the honey pot, just to take and not to give anything.” He adds: “My dear brothers, if you can go [on jihad] then go. If you can’t go, sponsor. If you can’t sponsor, speak. If you can’t do all of this, do all of that. If you can send your children, send them, you must help, you must have a stand. You must have a stand with your heart, with your tongue, with your money, with your sword, with your Kalashnikov, anything you think will help… don’t ask ‘Shall I do this, shall I do that?’ Just do it. Anything that will help the intifada, just do it. If it is killing, do it. If it is paying, pay, if it is ambushing, ambush, if it is poisoning, poison.”
'They Are All Kuffar' - Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will comment: “Stop, rewind a second, and listen again. Abu Hamza was not just talking Palestine or the old jihad battlefields of the past. This was eleven months before the World Trade Center would be demolished and three thousand people killed in the worst terrorist atrocity the world had ever seen, and here was one of al-Qaeda’s most potent mouthpieces telling a congregation at Friday prayers in London to help their oppressed brothers, ‘in any way you like and anywhere you like. They are all kuffar [non-believers], and can all be killed. Killing a kuffar who is fighting you is OK. Killing a kuffar for any reason, you can say it is OK, even if there is no reason for it.’” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 55-57]
Britain passes the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, a controversial piece of legislation whose provisions include a ban on sending another person abroad to undergo terrorist training and instruction. The measure was introduced in response to information indicating there were networks in Britain that sent radical Muslims to foreign camps, such as those in Afghanistan. One of the leaders of such a network was extremist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, an informer for British security services (see Early 1997). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will comment, “Yet even after the new laws were introduced, Abu Hamza’s followers continued to disappear off to camps run by outlawed groups, and still nobody in authority laid a finger on him.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 291]
Richard Reid’s shoe bomb.
[Source: NEFA Foundation]British citizen Richard Reid is arrested for trying to blow up a Miami-bound jet using explosives hidden in his shoe. [Associated Press, 8/19/2002] Reid fails in his attempt to destroy the American Airlines jet because he is unable to detonate the explosives—he cannot get the fuse to light using matches, despite using up six of them before he is overpowered by the stewards and passengers. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will comment, “Had Reid used a cheap disposable plastic cigarette lighter to ignite the fuse of his bomb, rather than a match that did not burn for long enough, forensic experts are sure there was enough plastic explosive in his boot to puncture the fuselage of Flight 63 and bring down the aircraft.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 215-217, 236] The attack is supposed to be one of two simultaneous attacks, but Reid’s partner, Saajit Badat, backs out shortly before the bombing (see (December 14, 2001)). Reid will later plead guilty to all charges, and declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden. [CBS News, 10/4/2002] He may have ties to Pakistan. [Washington Post, 3/31/2002] It is later believed that Reid and others in the shoe bomb plot reported directly to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). [CNN, 1/30/2003] It has been suggested that KSM has ties to the ISI, and that Reid is a follower of Ali Gilani, a religious leader believed to be working with the ISI (see January 6, 2002).
Some British politicians are unhappy over the arrest of leading Islamist radical Abu Hamza al-Masri (see May 27, 2004), for various reasons. The US is clearly aware that Abu Hamza is a very significant Islamist militant, and, according to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory: “[T]he question that hung uncomfortably in the air in Whitehall that afternoon was why [the British] government and its agencies had not appreciated the danger he posed, and done something about it. The unpalatable answer was that Britain had missed, or had chosen not to take, at least a dozen opportunities to act against Abu Hamza.” The arrest of Abu Hamza, who informed for two of Britain’s security services (see Early 1997), causes “considerable unease” in the cabinet; some ministers think Britain should be grateful to the FBI for “doing Britain’s dirty work,” whereas others think “Britain came out of the affair looking like America’s poodle.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 284]
The US indicts leading radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, shortly after his arrest in Britian (see May 27, 2004). Abu Hamza is indicted on eleven counts, covering his part in a kidnapping scheme in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998), the recruitment of a radical named Feroz Abbasi to attend a training camp in Afghanistan (see December 2000-December 2001), and a conspiracy to open a jihad training camp in Oregon (see November 1999-Early 2000).
Alleged Contact with High-Ranking al-Qaeda Terrorists - At the extradition hearing, the lawyer acting for the US describes Abu Hamza as having “engaged in a systematic pattern of terrorist activity since at least 1998….” The lawyer also points out: “He is no less than a supporter and facilitator of terrorism. He has been in contact with and provided support for terrorist groups and people associated with terrorist groups… He has had contact with high-ranking terrorists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” Abu Hamza declines to go to the US voluntarily and decides to fight the extradition request.
Indictment Is Media Event - The arrest and indictment is major news in the US and television programming is interrupted for a live press conference by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “The Americans were jubilant, so much so that they insisted that daytime soap operas were interrupted to carry live television coverage of a press conference hosted by John Ashcroft, then Attorney General in the Bush administration. Ashcroft was joined on the platform by a crowd of smiling deputies, federal prosecutors, FBI officials and police chiefs. Just in case the public did not grasp the message, there was a huge portrait of Abu Hamza alongside them, caught in mid-rant, his one eye glaring, the steel hook raised.” Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray calls Abu Hamza “a terrorist facilitator with a global reach,” and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says, “Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 282-5]
After London’s Finsbury Park Mosque is handed back to its trustees, associates of radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri attempt to take it back. The mosque had been controlled by Abu Hamza and his associates from 1997 (see March 1997), but it was closed following a police raid in 2003 (see January 20, 2003). As the trustees were the mosque’s original administrators, when it is allowed to reopen by the authorities, they are given theoretical control of it. However, when the trustees enter the building, they are greeted by what authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will call a “reception committee” of around 40 men, led by “one of Abu Hamza’s well-known thugs.” Abu Hamnza’s men say they are taking the mosque back, but are forced to retreat by superior numbers, shouting they would rather see the mosque burn down than allow it to fall into the hands of bad Muslims. The trustees then post guards around the mosque. O’Neill and McGrory will comment, “Not for the first time in the troubled history of Finsbury Park, the Muslim community was left to combat the menace of Abu Hamza and his forces on their own, and to wonder when the authorities would make good their threat to deal with the preacher of hate.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 279]
Radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri is put on trial in Britain. Before the jury was sworn in, the defense had tried to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Abu Hamza’s notoriety was such that no jury could possibly approach the evidently impartially. However, these arguments were dismissed by the judge, Sir Anthony Hughes.
Charges of Murder, Racial Incitement - The charges include nine counts of soliciting to murder; three for encouraging followers to murder Jews, and six for encouraging them to murder “a person or persons that did not believe in the Islamic faith.” Four other counts are for using “threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior with intent to stir up racial hatred.” These charges are based on videos confiscated from Abu Hamza in which, according to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, he rages “against the decadent West, the treacherousness of Jews, the waywardness of women, the accursedness of homosexuals, the corruption of Muslim rulers, and the idleness of ordinary Muslims who had not yet gone to wage war for Allah.” The other two charges deal with his possession of the tapes themselves, and of an 11-volume encyclopedia of jihad.
Encyclopaedia of Jihad - The charge sheet describes the encyclopedia as “a document which contained information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,” and the prosecutor describes it as “a manual, a blueprint for terrorism.… It contains anything anyone would ever need to know if they wanted to make home-made bombs or explosives.”
Disapproval of Court - Abu Hamza demonstrates his disapproval of the court in two ways: when he takes the witness stand he swears a secular oath, refusing to use the Koran in an infidel court; and he also refuses to stand at the end of each day as the judge departs. Even if he were to be acquitted, he would probably not be released, as deportation proceedings to the US have only been suspended because of the trial. An acquittal would also lead to renewed attempts by the British government to strip him of his British citizenship.
Koran Defense - Abu Hamza’s defense is that he was merely interpreting certain verses from the Koran, which, according to his lawyer, contains “the language of blood and retribution.” He alleges that simply reminding his listeners of these verses cannot be incitement to murder, and that his statements should be viewed against the context of events in the 1990s, when Muslim were under pressure in Kosovo, Kashmir, and Palestine.
Hamza's Testimony - Abu Hamza himself is put on the witness stand for five days from January 19, but, according to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, he treats it “as if it were a pulpit,” reciting Koranic verses and trying to dictate the direction of the discussion. Some of the things he says are damaging to him, for example he thinks the Jews control the media and banks, as well as having a hold over Western political leaders. He admits running a newsletter for Algerian radicals and being in constant telephone contact with their leaders (see Before October 1997), but claims he never actually read the encyclopedia of jihad because he is not a military man. He also says he had no idea that tapes of his sermons were being sold around Britain, nor can he recall the places he has preached up and down the country. He was an informer for MI5 and Special Branch (see Early 1997) and told them about his preaching. They said it was okay, so he simply carried on with it.
Hamza Convicted - He is convicted on 11 counts and acquitted on four, three of soliciting to murder, and one of inciting racial hatred. He gets seven years’ imprisonment for each of the six counts of soliciting murder, 21 months each for the three charges of inciting racial hatred, three years for possessing the tapes, and three and a half years for possessing the encyclopaedia. However, these sentences will run concurrently, meaning he will only be in jail for seven years. US authorities say that after he is released they may request his extradition to the US for crimes he is wanted for there (see May 27, 2004). [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 168-169, 296-313]
Rashid Rauf. [Source: Warrick Page/ Getty Images]British police arrest 24 people in connection with a plot to blow up aircraft flying from Britain to the United States. Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson says the plot was “intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.” [CNN, 8/10/2006] Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff describes the plot as “well-advanced and well-thought-out and… really resourced to succeed.” [MSNBC, 8/10/2006] He also likens it to the foiled 1995 Bojinka plot, one portion of which involved blowing up up to a dozen airplanes over the ocean using liquid explosives smuggled onto the planes. [CNN, 8/11/2006] The British threat warning level is raised to critical and London’s Heathrow Airport is closed to most European flights. US officials say the plot involved hiding liquid explosives in carry-on luggage, and up to 12 flights would have been targeted. A senior US congressional source says the plotters planned to carry sports drinks onto the flights, which would then be mixed with a gel-like substance. The explosives would be triggered by the electrical charge from an iPod or mobile phone. Administration officials say the plot involved British Airways, Continental, United, and American Airlines. The plotters intended to detonate the devices over New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles. Officials say the plot demonstrates “very strong links to al-Qaeda” and was nearly operational. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security raises the terror threat to the highest level, red, meaning “severe,” for commercial flights originating in Britain and bound for the US. In addition, the threat level is raised to orange, or “high,” for all commercial flights operating in or coming to the US. [CNN, 8/10/2006] British officials say the death toll could have exceeded the 2,700 of the September 11 attacks, with one source calling the plot “our 9/11.” The arrests were spurred by the detention in Pakistan of one of the plotters, Rashid Rauf. The Pakistanis arrested him at the behest of US Vice President Dick Cheney (see Before August 10, 2006 and Between July 28 and August 9, 2006). [Guardian, 8/11/2006] Officials say some plotters already had tickets for flights and planned to stage test runs over the weekend. Despite the 24 arrests, five suspects in Britain are still being urgently hunted. One official says, “They didn’t get them all.” But British officials claim the arrests in London and Birmingham snare all the alleged “main players.” [MSNBC, 8/10/2006] British Home Secretary John Reid says the operation is ongoing and more arrests may be made. US officials say the suspects are all British citizens between the ages of 17 and 35, with some being of Pakistani ethnicity. They add that some of the suspects had been monitored by British intelligence for several months. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police Service Anti-Terrorist Branch, says the arrests follow an “unprecedented level of surveillance” over several months involving meetings, movements, travel, spending, and the aspirations of a large group of people. [CNN, 8/10/2006]
Liquids, Gels, Electronics Banned from Flights - Homeland Security bans all liquids and gels except baby formula and prescription medications in the name of the ticket holder in carry-on luggage on all flights. Passengers traveling from and through British airports are temporarily permitted to only carry-on items on a restricted list. These items have to be carried in transparent plastic bags. No liquids can be carried on board, including liquid medications “unless verified as authentic.” All electronic items are also banned. [Detroit Free Press, 8/10/2006]
Arrests, Alert Questioned - In the days following the security operation, the arrests will meet with some skepticism. Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail points to previous baseless terror scares in the US and Britain, as well as questioning the political motivations of the home secretary. [Daily Mail, 8/16/2006] Douglas Fraser of the Herald in Edinburgh suggests the “political component” of the operation has caused skepticism. He says the intelligence services are taking credit for foiling a major plot by “ramping up the level of public concern about the threat.” He notes that the timing coincides with an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to return to an issue it was defeated on before: increasing to 90 days the amount of time that people can be detained without charge in the case of alleged terrorist offenses. [VOA News, 8/18/2006] Sean O’Neill and Stewart Tendler of the London Times urge the public and the media to wait for solid evidence before accepting the version of events presented by the government. They say previous bungled anti-terror operations have put pressure on the authorities to build a solid case in public. [London Times, 8/12/2006] In response to these criticisms, intelligence services will be hesitant to release much information publicly, but confirm to The Guardian that surveillance and tips from informants pointed to a plot in the making. Police identify the explosives to be used in the plot as TATP (triacetone triperoxide) and HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine), both peroxide-based liquid explosives. [Guardian, 8/19/2006] Police will also reveal that the raids uncovered jihadist materials, receipts of Western Union money transfers, seven martyrdom videos, and the last will and testament of one plotter. [New York Times, 8/28/2006]
Some Suspects to Be Released; Security Measures Probably Unnecessary - However, The Guardian does indicate that some of the arrested suspects are likely to be released and that the security measures instituted following the arrests are almost certainly unnecessary. [Guardian, 8/19/2006] Contradicting earlier reports, a senior British official will suggest an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some do not even have passports. [MSNBC, 8/14/2006] Over two and a half weeks after the arrests, a target date for the attacks and number of planes involved will still be undetermined by investigators. The estimate of 10 to 12 planes is characterized by officials as speculative and exaggerated. Clarke acknowledges the police are still investigating “the number, destination, and timing of the flights.” [New York Times, 8/28/2006]
12 Suspects to Be Tried - Twelve suspects will be charged with terrorism offences near the end of August 2006. Trials are expected to start in January 2008 at the earliest. Prosecutor Colin Gibbs says he expects “a very long trial of [between] five and eight months.” [IOL, 9/4/2006]
Entity Tags: Michael Chertoff, Paul Stephenson, US Department of Homeland Security, Peter Clarke, Metropolitan Police Service Anti-Terrorist Branch, Sean O’Neill, Rashid Rauf, John Reid, Al-Qaeda, Douglas Fraser, United Airlines, Frances Townsend, Stephen Glover, British Airways, American Airlines, Stewart Tendler, Continental Airlines
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
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