THREE men have been found guilty of planning a massive terrorist atrocity in Britain they thought would equal that of the 9/11 attacks on New York.
Irfan Naseer, 31, Irfan Khalid, 27, and Ashik Ali, 27, planned to detonate a series of bombs and other devices in an attack that would have caused “mass deaths and casualties”. They intended to set off up to eight rucksack bombs in crowded areas and to die in suicide bombings as “revenge for everything”.
Police said it was the most significant terror plot uncovered since the 2006 conspiracy to blow up transatlantic airliners using bombs disguised as soft drinks.
To fund the attack, the three men defrauded fellow Muslims by pretending to collect money for charity during the holy month of Ramadan.
Naseer, the cell’s leader, and Khalid, his right-hand man, travelled to Pakistan for terrorist training. The former also sent others to al-Qaeda camps.
Khalid boasted the attack would be “another 9/11”, Woolwich Crown Court in London was told.
The court heard the trio were imaginative, and discussed different ways of taking lives.
In surveillance recordings, Naseer was heard talking about the possibility of mixing poison into creams such as Vaseline or Nivea and smearing them on car handles to cause mass deaths.
The three men also pondered welding blades to a truck and driving it into people.
Prosecutor Brian Altman, QC, told the jury: “The police successfully disrupted a plan to commit an act or acts of terrorism on a scale potentially greater than the London bombings in July 2005, had it been allowed to run its course.
“The defendants were proposing to detonate up to eight rucksack bombs in a suicide attack and/or to detonate bombs on timers in crowded areas in order to cause mass deaths and casualties.”
The three ringleaders, all from Birmingham, had been inspired by hate preacher Anwar al-Awlaki’s online sermons. The men admired Osama bin Laden and believed the London bombers should have caused more carnage.
Between 2009 and 2011, Naseer and Khalid both travelled to terrorist training camps in Pakistan to learn about bomb-making, poisons and firearms.
After they returned to the UK, the group tried to fund the plot by posing as Muslim Aid charity street collectors, duping legitimate supporters into giving them money. They raised more than £13,000, only for one of their group, Rahin Ahmed, 26, to lose £9,000 playing the foreign currency markets.
Despite the seriousness of the plot, this characterised the occasionally bumbling nature of the group, something that does not appear to have been lost on the members themselves.
In a reference to the film Four Lions, about hapless would-be terrorists, Ali was overheard telling his estranged wife, Salma Kabal: “Oh, you think this is a flipping Four Lions. We’re one man short.”
The gambling losses did not deter Naseer. Instead, the terrorists applied for thousands of pounds in loans, with which they intended to fund their attacks.
Yesterday, Naseer was found guilty of five counts of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts, Khalid four, and Ali three, all between Christmas Day 2010 and 19 September, 2011. For Naseer, this included planning a bombing campaign, collecting money for terrorism and recruiting others for terrorism.
Six other men, also from Birmingham, had already admitted terror offences.
Mr Justice Henriques told the trio they will all face life in prison when they are sentenced in April or May.
Addressing Naseer, he said he had been convicted on “overwhelming evidence” and that he faced “a very long minimum term”. The judge said: “You are a highly skilled bomb maker and explosives expert. Your mindset was similarly manifest.
“You sought to persuade others that a terror plot here in this country was by far preferable to fighting jihad abroad.
“The scale and extent of your ambition was similarly manifest. You were seeking to recruit a team of somewhere between six and eight suicide bombers to carry out a spectacular bombing campaign, one which would create an anniversary along the lines of 7/7 or 9/11.”
He turned to Khalid who, he said, was “virtually inseparable” from Naseer. “You were very much his confidant and his right-hand man,” he said.
He told Ali: “I had mistakenly formed the view that you were a rather foolish recruit to this terrorist cell and rather less dangerous than your co-accused.
“You have dissuaded me from that view. You are intelligent, devious and highly manipulative.”
Karen Jones, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “These men had dangerous aspirations and, whilst the precise targets remained unclear, the potential for damage and loss of life from their plot should not be underestimated. The evidence we put to the court showed the defendants discussing with awe and admiration the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7.
“These terrorists wanted to do something bigger, speaking of how 7/7 had ‘gone a bit wrong’.
“Having travelled to Pakistan for expert training and preparation, Naseer and Khalid returned to the UK, where they discussed attacks involving up to eight rucksacks. Had they not been stopped, the consequences would have been catastrophic.”
The group were carefully monitored for two months by MI5, and police waited for the right moment to make the arrests. When the intercepted conversations became increasingly serious, and they discovered Naseer and Khalid had made martyrdom videos in Pakistan, they chose to pounce, at close to midnight on 18 September, 2011.
Assistant chief constable Marcus Beale, of the West Midlands Police counter-terrorism unit, said the public was a “whole lot safer” after the guilty verdicts. “They said, in their own words, that they were critical of the 7/7 bombers because they didn’t kill enough people,” he said. “They wanted to create their own 9/11.”
He said police did not believe Birmingham had been the target. “Our interpretation of the evidence was that they hadn’t settled on any specific target,” he said. “They aspired to make and detonate bombs in crowded places, places where we go shopping, for our entertainment, to travel.”
The charity whose name was misused by three men to raise money for terrorism insists it has improved the security of its street collections.
The trio were part of a group that collected £13,500 that was supposed to be for Muslim Aid. However, only about £1,500 went to the charity, while the rest was intended to fund terrorist atrocities.
The charity said those sentenced had not been among its volunteer collectors, adding: “A volunteer of the charity who pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing assisted these individuals and abused the name of Muslim Aid without our knowledge.”
Drone attacks ‘paying off’
The terror plot showed a change in the way al-Qaeda is operating, an expert has said.
They went to training camps in Pakistan between 2009 and 2011 to learn about bomb-making, poisons and firearms. But once back in Britain, they were left to set up their terror network and carry out their attacks.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior
research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said this was partly because camps in the mountainous region of Waziristan in Pakistan were under increasing threat of drone strikes. He said: “We have seen this trend starting to emerge for a while. I think the conclusion for the security services is that the pressure in Waziristan is working.”