9 September 2009

Liquid Bomb Plot Conviction

In response to this Evening Standard leader yesterday, letters editor Josh Neicho asked me to respond. The following letter was printed:

Efforts to showcase the airline bomb plot trial as "Britain's 9/11" being foiled are less than convincing. For the plot to work, hydrogen peroxide would need to be present in at least 30 per cent concentration, a state in which it is highly unstable; and it is unclear how the plotters would have supplied the necessary input of oxygen at high concentration.

On the other hand, the plotters’ murky international connections have been underplayed. Under cover of doing humanitarian work the plotters travelled to camps in Pakistan run by terrorist organisation Jundullah. Jundullah has reportedly “been secretly trained by American officials" due to their carrying out cross-border raids against Iran.

According to Pakistani sources, the plotters had also been members of extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which re-launched in Britain this June. In Lebanon, group founder Omar Bakri - who still radicalizes British followers over the internet - has allied himself with Saudi financed, al-Qaeda linked groups to which the US has turned a blind eye.

British police worked well to foil a scheme that was operationally flawed, but greatly facilitated by US intelligence strategies. Ministers must now take concerted action against al-Muhajiroun activists with a track record of incitement and exert greater scrutiny over our Atlantic ally's policies.

Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, author, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry.

Followers of this blog will note that I've been writing critically about the government's narrative around the liquid bomb plot consistently since August 2006. Last year I wrote more detailed piece on the liquid bomb plot after the farcical output emerging from the first trial, for the Muslim News (26th September 2008). Although the outcome of the re-trial in this September's convictions indicates that the convictees did indeed bear intent to carry out attacks, disturbing questions about the networks in which they operated and the role of intelligence services remain unanswered. I think the issues raised in this piece remain as pertinent as ever, and put the government's (and media's) self-congratulatory triumphalism in sharp relief. So I repost it in full here:

Arming the enemy? Fact and fiction in the liquid bomb plot

By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

In the long awaited verdict of the liquid bomb plot trial, three men, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain, were convicted on September 8 of conspiring to commit mass murder. Yet after a £10 million investigation and a trial lasting more than two years, the jury could not agree on the Crown’s main allegation - that the eight Britons on trial had planned to blow up at least seven airliners across the Atlantic in 2006, using chemical explosives concealed in drink bottles, to be smuggled on board from Heathrow airport.

The jury also failed to reach a verdict on four other defendants, who had earlier admitted conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by making al-Qa’ida style suicide videos. Another defendant, Mohammed Gulzar, alleged by the Crown to have flown into Britain from Pakistan to oversee the plot, was acquitted of all charges. While ample evidence of the criminal intent of the convicted plotters seems to have emerged in the trial, less certain was their technical ability to actually carry out the grandiose scheme.

In the original story put out by security officials, liquid explosives - TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide) - were to be made on board the planes by mixing sports drinks with a peroxide-based household gel and then detonated using an MP3 player or mobile phone. Former British Army explosives expert Lt Col. Nigel Wylde dismissed that story as an impossible “fiction” that would take up to 36 hours to complete, emitting noxious fumes in the onboard lavatory that would trigger alarms in the aircraft air change system, and cause the plot to be quickly neutralised.

Given the absurdity of this scheme, the Crown later changed tact, opting for an alternative scenario: The alleged plotters planned to bring on board drink bottles containing a pre-prepared explosive - hydrogen peroxide mixed with Tang. The explosives would be connected to detonators made from hollowed-out AA battery cases filled with HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine), that could be set off using the flash circuits of a camera.

Yet the prosecution’s case remained problematic. Hydrogen peroxide would need to be present in purified form - at least 30 per cent concentration - which is a highly unstable state prone to accidental detonation even in a sealed bottle. According to James Thurman, a former FBI explosives forensic expert, HMTD is also “exceptionally sensitive” to “impact, friction and electrostatic discharge”, and is thus considered an “exceptionally hazardous explosive” that is extraordinarily difficult to handle. Even if the plotters managed to get passed these hazards, they wouldn’t make it pass the final clincher: for hydrogen peroxide to function as an explosive, it requires a large input of oxygen in high concentration, either as liquid oxygen or as part of the explosive itself. Neither was feasible on board a plane. Hence, a large explosion would be impossible unless conducted as a highly controlled experiment. Government scientists attempting to demonstrate the viability of the plot undertook 30 attempts in stringent laboratory conditions before pulling off a sufficiently large explosion to show the jury. They also consistently used a mechanical arm to attach the detonators to the explosive material to avoid premature detonation, because its components were too volatile. In any case, the prosecution conceded that the men had failed to construct a viable bomb.

British police and security officials, deeply disappointed at the verdict, blamed the US Government for the weakness of the case. US officials, they said, pressured Pakistani authorities to pre-emptively arrest Rashid Rauf, a Briton operating in Pakistan and the alleged al-Qa’ida ringleader of the liquid bomb plot terror cell. The arrest forced British police to crackdown on the members of the cell far earlier than they would have liked to. Indeed, in 2006 long before the trial, British security officials were already complaining that an associated team of suspected terrorists “escaped capture because of interference by the United States.” This second group, they told the Independent (November 25, 2006), is “still at large.”

Questions arose when it emerged that Rauf, the alleged al-Qa’ida go-between for the group, had been tortured in the custody of Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which described him as the main planner of the attacks. Pakistani intelligence sources had reportedly penetrated the liquid bomb plot cell since late 2005, on behalf of MI6 and the CIA. According to Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times (August 15, 2006), Pakistani intelligence and ‘jihadist’ sources told him that the men “were exploited by agents provocateurs” in the ISI who wanted to “guide them to carry out any attack on US interests.”

The pre-emptive arrest of Rauf, however, prevented British investigators from uncovering the role of the Pakistani ISI and the wider network under its tutelage. US interference may have been designed to protect ongoing illegal relationships with intelligence assets of dubious moral stature.

Intelligence sources say that at least four of the alleged liquid bomb plotters had gone to Pakistan after the earthquake in October 2005 under the cover of humanitarian relief work. The men were reportedly then taken to camps run by Jundullah (Army of Allah), a terrorist organisation loosely linked to al-Qa’ida in the Waziristan area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where they were trained in the fabrication and use of explosives.

Yet, according to ABC News (April 3, 2007), citing US and Pakistani intelligence sources, Jundullah “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005,” to stage terrorist attacks inside Iran. To avoid Congressional oversight, the Pentagon has funnelled assistance to Jundullah through Afghan military and Pakistani intelligence services. The dual US-ISI sponsorship of Jundullah was, say Pakistani sources, agreed between Vice-President Dick Cheney and former President Pervez Musharraf. As of February 2008, American national security journalist Andrew Cockburn reported that an official Presidential Finding authorized a further $300 million to finance covert operations against Iran from Lebanon to Afghanistan - among the beneficiaries is Jundullah.

Across the Middle East, to counter regional Iranian influence the Bush administration has covertly sponsored al-Qa’ida affiliated terrorist networks since at least 2005, largely through Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Covert US sponsorship of terrorist groups linked to the liquid bomb plot, as well as other terror plots including 9/11, has no doubt undermined national security. The dubious role of American and Pakistani intelligence in sponsoring the same extremist groups we are supposed to be fighting, although ignored in the trial, raises awkward geopolitical questions about Western security and foreign policy in the “War on Terror.”


  1. There is understandable confusion about hydrogen peroxide concentrations. A 30% solution is suitable for the synthesis of TATP or HMTD. A small amount of these compounds can be used to trigger the main charge. The main charge in the transatlantic airlines plot was going to be propellant grade hydrogen peroxide of a concentration greater than 70%, mixed with Tang (sugar, citric acid).

  2. Further to numeral's comment, concentrated hydrogen peroxide does not need any oxygen to make it explosive.

    The real problem with the prosecution case is that it does not address how the concentrated hydrogen peroxide was produced. This cannot be done simply by heating dilute hydrogen peroxide on a stove, as the prosecution in this case, the 21/7 trial and the 7/7 helpers trial has alleged, a procedure which itself carries a high risk of an explosion. It requires sophisticated apparatus.

    Even if it concentrated hydrogen peroxide had been produced, there would then have been the problem which you rightly identify of maintaining the concentration without it either decomposing or detonating prematurely.

    The re-posted article from Muslim News is a cut down version of a larger one posted on Raw Story which gives as one of your main sources Glen Jenvey. When you rebutted Leninology, you defended your reliance upon Jenvey. In light of recent developments, have you changed your opinion of Jenvey and, if so, have you revised your narrative of Bakri's network?

  3. "A small amount of these compounds can be used to trigger the main charge." - Surely not if the the main charge relies upon thermal detonation. So, does it?


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