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Monday, August 21, 2006

Britain Files Charges for 11 Tied to Plot

LONDON, Aug. 21 — Warning that Britain faced a “deadly” and “enduring” threat from terrorism, British authorities announced today that 11 of 23 people held in connection with a suspected plot to blow up America-bound planes would be formally charged with offenses that included planning to bomb the airliners and conspiracy to commit murder.

At a news conference, Susan Hemming, a lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service, said one woman who had been held and was not identified was being freed while the remaining 11 suspects would stay in custody under counterterrorism laws permitting 28 days of detention without charge.

The decision to press formal charges came after days of growing public skepticism about the extent of the plot that the authorities announced on Aug. 10. At the time, the police warned that the purported conspirators had planned to commit mass murder on what one officer called an “unimaginable scale.”

On that day, the police rounded up most of the suspects in early morning raids, saying they had thwarted a plot to use liquid explosives to bomb airliners flying to the United States from London. At that time, investigators said that up to 10 airplanes might have been attacked.

Ms Hemming said eight of the 11 suspects charged today were accused of conspiracy to commit murder and an offense under new counterterrorism laws of “preparing acts of terrorism.” The charges accused them of planning “to smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble and detonate them on board.”

The three other suspects were charged with lesser offenses under counterterrorism legislation dating to 2000, Ms Hemming said.

The nature of the charges raised new speculation about the scope of the plot, possibly suggesting that it was more limited than indicated by the sweep of the first arrests. Ms Hemming said the authorities had not yet decided whether to seek the further detention of the 11 other suspects still held without charge.

Under counterterrorism laws, the authorities must apply to a High Court judge by Wednesday to detain them for a further seven days.

“We cannot yet make a decision about whether further charges will follow or if a further application will be made on Wednesday as the evidential picture is continuously developing,” Ms Hemming said.

At the news conference, where no questions were permitted, Peter Clarke, the head of London’s antiterrorism police, said the scale of the investigation into the suspected plot was “immense.”

“Inquiries will span the globe,” he said. “The enormity of the alleged plot will be matched only by our determination to follow every lead and line of inquiry.”

Mr. Clarke said the police had found bomb-making chemicals including hydrogen peroxide and electrical components, recalling earlier British and American accounts that the suspected bombers had planned to mix liquids into an explosive cocktail once they boarded airliners heading for American cities.

“We have also found a number of video recordings — these are sometimes referred to as martyrdom videos,” he said. “This has all given us a clearer picture of the alleged plot.”

The authorities’ announcement of the plot caused pandemonium at British airports. Britain raised its terrorist threat assessment to its highest level “critical” but has since lowered it by one notch to “severe.” Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed and untold thousands of passengers were unable to travel for several days. New security measures have been introduced limiting the baggage that can be taken into airplane cabins and barring fluids and gels from carry-on bags.

After the London bombings of July 2005, two of the four attackers who killed 52 people on the London transport system were shown in pre-recorded videos warning that more attacks would follow.

Since last year, the police have been on heightened alert for possible conspiracies, and officers say the people apprehended on Aug. 10 had been the object of a long investigation.

Before Aug. 10, Mr. Clarke said, police had secured “highly significant video and audio recordings” of suspects. And since then, the police have searched “69 houses, flats and business premises, vehicles and open spaces.” he said, and recovered 400 computers, 200 cellphones and 8,000 data storage devices such as memory sticks and DVD’s.

Mr. Clarke’s aim in offering such detail seemed two-fold: to give the impression that the police were offering the public a glimpse into the kind of evidence that was being amassed and to offset charges that the police had overreacted to a threat.

In June, with much fanfare, the police raided a home in East London, shooting one of two Muslim brothers they arrested. But after a detailed search of the house in Forest Gate, police said they found no evidence of a terrorist conspiracy and released both brothers without charge seven days later.

“I would like to reassure the public that we are doing everything we can to keep you safe, for you to live your lives without being in constant fear,” Mr. Clarke said.

“However, we must be realistic,” he said, “The threat from terrorism is real, it is here, it is deadly, it is enduring.”

He added, “As we all look for explanations, we cannot afford to be complacent and ignore the reality of what we face.”

The names of suspects to be charged seemed to be predominantly those of British Muslims of Pakistani descent, but one person was identified as Umar Islam, also known as Brian Young, a convert to Islam. A second name was that of Ibrahim Savant, another convert.

The eight people charged with conspiracy to murder were also charged with planning “to smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble them and detonate them on board.”

The youngest of the suspects, a 17-year-old, who was not identified by name because of British legal restrictions on identifying minors, was accused of possessing “a book on improvised explosives devices, some suicide notes and wills with the identities of persons prepared to commit acts of terrorism and a map of Afghanistan containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

A woman identified as Cossar Ali and a man identified as Mehran Hussain were accused of failing to disclose information that could prevent an act of terrorism.

The eight people accused of conspiracy to murder were identified as Ahmed Abdullah Ali, also known as Abdullah Ali Ahmed Khan, Adam Khatib, Waheed Zaman, Tanvir Hussain, Arafat Waheed Khan and Assad Ali Sarwar, along with Mr. Islam and Mr. Savant.

The suspects, who are scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday, were aged between 17 and 28. The list of suspects to be charged did not include all those made public earlier on a list issued by the Bank of England of people whose assets were being frozen as part of the inquiry. Among those missing from today’s list was Tayib Rauf, from Birmingham, whose brother, Rashid Rauf, was arrested by Pakistani authorities who said they suspected him of being a “key player.”

NY Times
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