Operation Crevice was, at the time, the largest counter-terrorism operation ever mounted in the United Kingdom, which led to the discovery of what is often known as the Fertiliser Bomb Plot. After the most expensive trial in British criminal history five men were subsequently convicted on a charge of conspiracy to cause explosions, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
1. The Origins of the Fertiliser Bomb Plot
The story really begins with a Muslim cleric named Omar Bakri Mohammed who gained control of Finsbury Park Mosque in London and in 1996 formed his own jihadist group known as Al-Muhajiroun. During the late 1990s Al-Muhajiroun emerged at the forefront of radical Islamist politics in the United Kingdom, gradually built a network of followers in Britain, established a branch in New York, and eventually added an office at Lahore in Pakistan. Initially Al-Muhajiroun was largely concerned with organising support for various Muslim militias fighting in Kashmir and Bosnia, however following 9/11 the focus changed to defending the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. Al-Muhajiroun was formally wound up in 2004, and Omar Bakri Mohammed fled the country in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and is currently living in Beirut. However the network built by Al-Muhajiroun did not disappear, but simply splintered into a variety of different interconnected cells.
One of those recruited into Al-Muhajiroun was a British born Muslim of Pakistani origin named Omar Khyam. In June 2000 he left his home in Crawley to attend a training camp in Pakistan, and over the next three years he made a number of further visits to Pakistan. Whilst there, Khyam he made or renewed contact with a number of other similarly radicalised British Muslims such as Salahuddin Amin, Anthony Garcia, Waheed Mahmood and Jawad Akbar as well as an American Muslim named Mohammed Junaid Babar.
Behind these names stood the shadowy figure of 'Q', alias Mohammed Quayyum Khan, who was apparently acting under the orders of Abdul Hadi, at the time 'number three' in al-Qaeda, but now currently a guest of the US government at Guatanamo Bay. Khan, a part-time taxi driver from Luton in Bedfordshire, appears to have been a key facilitator in the movement, making the necessary arrangements to move and material around the world. British intelligence naturally became interested in the activities of Mohammed Quayyum Khan and placed him under surveillance. This soon revealed the name of Omar Khyam and sometime in March 2003 MI5 began to take a serious interest in Khyam shortly before he disappeared off to Pakistan once more in the spring of 2003.
As eager as he was to participate in the fighting in Afghanistan, Khyam decided (or was persuaded to) turn his attention back to Britain. According to the later testimony given by Mohammed Junaid Babar, Khyam had now decided to launch a terrorist attack on a British target. Khyam and his friends spent the summer of 2003 receiving explosives training at Kohat and experimenting with various explosive materials.
2. The Crawley boys
When Khyam returned to Britain in September 2003 he did so as effectively the ringleader of his own cell of would-be terrorists.
Of course neither Khyam nor his fellow conspirators were aware of the fact that they were under surveillance at the time, but then the security services were similarly ignorant of certain of their activities.
In November 2003 a man calling himself 'John Lewis' contacted Bodle Brothers, a firm of agricultural merchants at Burgess Hill in West Sussex, and purchased 600 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertiliser which he said he needed for his allotment. John Lewis was simply a convenient pseudonymn adopted by one Anthony Garcia, and having purchased the fertiliser he took it to Access Self Storage of Boston Road in Hanwell not far from Heathrow Airport. Since he'd spent all his money buying the fertiliser he persuaded a friend named Nabeel Hussein to use his debit card to pay for the storage charges.
There the fertiliser remained for some months until Emma Wallis, the receptionist at Access Self Storage, became suspicious as to
why anyone should want to store such a large quantity of fertiliser during winter. In February 2004 she telephoned the MI5 anti-terrorist hotline, after which MI5 rapidly recognised that the name of Nabeel Hussein had already cropped up during their surveillance of Khyam and company. They replaced Emma Wallis with one of their own people, and also replaced the fertiliser with an inert substitute.
The importance of the ammonium nitrate fertiliser (and the reason why MI felt obliged to replace it with an inert alternative) was simply that, whilst it has a fairly obvious use as an agricultural fertiliser, it can also be used as one of the basic ingredients of a reasonably effective bomb. (The IRA built a number of fertiliser bombs, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was based on a 2,200kg mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil that demolished an entire building and killed 168 people.)
A bomb, of course needs a detonator, and this case the Crawley boys relied on their American friend, Mohammed Junaid Babar, who put them in touch with a Canadian named Mohammad Momin Khawaja who worked for the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but who also claimed to be an expert in detonators. on the 20th February 2004 Khawaja flew to Britain and met with Omar Khyam to discuss the subject of detonators.
From the point of view of the Security Services this all provided clear evidence that there was a very real plot in progress, which presented a real and present danger of a terrorist attack somewhere in the United Kingdom.
3. The Arrests
After seven weeks of intensive surveillance the authorities eventually decided to act. They were aware that it was Khyam's intention to leave the United Kingdom before any bomb was detonated, and therefore took the news that he had purchased a ticket to fly to Pakistan on the 6th April, as the signal to arrest those they believed to be involved.
On the 30th March 2004 the authorities launched what they called a "pre-planned intelligence-led operation". Officers from the Metropolitan Police officers assisted by others from the Thames Valley, Sussex, Surrey and Bedfordshire Police, executed a number of search warrants issued under the Terrorism Act 2000 at premises in London and the Home Counties. In practice this meant that some seven hundred or so police officers launched a series of early morning raids at twenty-four locations across the south-east of England as a result of which eight men were arrested, two in Uxbridge, one in Ilford, one in Horley, one in Slough and three in Crawley.
At the time the authorities were very keen for it to be known that they had foiled a terrorist attack. As one quoted 'anti-terrorist source' explained, "This was a potential major terrorist outrage. We believe we have disrupted something that would have been a major attack."
Of the eight men who were originally arrested, two were eventually released, but the remaining six were charged with conspiring to cause explosions. They were later joined by a seventh suspect named Salahuddin Amin who was in Pakistan at the time, but was subsequently returned to the United Kingdom to stand trial. Their Canadian contact Mohammad Momin Khawaja was arrested by the Canadian police on the 29th March 2004. A search of his home led to the discovery of firearms, some explosives as well as a half-built remote detonator.
4. Mohammed Junaid Babar
At this point we need to say a few words regarding Mohammed Junaid Babar, who has been described as the world's first al-Qaeda supergrass. Although born in Lahore his family moved to the United States when he was two, and he was therefore a US citizen and spoke with a decidedly New York accent. Strangely enough, although his mother was in the northern tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and barely escaped with her life, Babar's sympathies were with the bombers, a position which he claimed was inspired by the racism and anti-Muslim prejudice that he suffered whilst growing up in New York.
Babar was one of those recruited into the New York branch of al-Muhajiroun in 2000, and later achieved a certain notoriety when he gave a television interview in November 2001 during which he expressed the desire to "to go to Afghanistan and fight the Americans" and that he wanted to "kill every American that I see in Afghanistan, and every American I see in Pakistan". He then disappeared from view having fled to Pakistan where he made his home in Lahore, and spent the next two years organising training camps, where he made the acquaintance of various like-minded individuals, such as Omar Khyam and the Crawley boys, as well as Mohammad Sidique Khan, later to achieve notoriety as one of the 7/7 bombers.
For reasons that remain unclear Babar subsequently decided to return to the United States in early 2004, at which point he was immediately arrested by the FBI. Once in custody Babar appears to have willingly co-operated with the American authorities and provided them with a great deal on information regarding his activities. It has certainly been suggested that the FBI had procured evidence of his involvement in a plan to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, and that he agreed to co-operate rather than be returned to Pakistan and face the death penalty for that particular charge. Babar’s wife and child are also believed to have been allowed entry into the United States, and are currently in the Witness Protection Program.
In any event Babar was particularly forthcoming on the details of his involvement with Omar Khyam's plans to launch a terrorist attack on a target in Britain, and agreed to testify in their forthcoming trial in return for which he was granted immunity from prosecution in relation to any charges in the United Kingdom. The prosecution was to claim that his testimony provided "an insight as an insider into the events and plans, which an outsider could not have"; the defence on the other hands dismissed him as a "liar and a fantasist".
5. The Fertiliser Bomb Plot trial
The trial of the 'Crawley Seven' eventually opened on the 21st March 2006 with Judge Michael Astill presiding. The seven defendants were Omar Khyam, Jawad Akbar, Waheed Mahmood, and his younger brother Shujah Mahmood from Crawley in West Sussex, Anthony Garcia from Ilford, Nabeel Hussain from Horley and Salahuddin Amin from Luton. All seven were charged with "unlawfully and maliciously conspired with others to cause, by an explosive substance, an explosion of a nature likely to endanger life or cause serious damage to property" under the Explosives Substance Act 1883. Additional charges relating to the possession of substances "in circumstances which gave rise to reasonable suspicion that your possession was for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism" under the Terrorism Act 2000 where also laid against Khyam, Garcia and Hussain in relation to the 600kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, and against both Khyam and Shujah Mahmood in relation to a quantity of aluminium powder found during the initial police raids. All seven pleaded not guilty to all charges.
A jury of five women and seven men were selected to try the case from a panel of 125 potential jurors. At the time they were told that the case was expected to last six months, although as it turned out the case took thirteen months to reach a conclusion and with a cost of £50 million became the most expensive trial in British criminal history.
Much of the prosecution evidence consisted of the recordings of the surveillance operations conducted against the accused, which revealed various discussions that had taken place between Omar Khyam and his friends regarding what actions they might take against the British public. They apparently considered approaching the Russian mafia with a view to acquiring the materials to construct a dirty bomb, discussed various schemed which involved selling poisoned drink or food, and even considered the possibility of launching their own series of airborne suicide bomb attacks in direct emulation of 9/11.
It must be said however that the accused took very little in the way of practical steps to further any of these particular schemes. The one plan that did progress beyond the initial concept stage was that of building themselves a car bomb, where they had clearly acquired the basic materials necessary in the form of the fertiliser and a quantity of aluminium powder, whilst they had made contact with an individual whom they believed could supply them the necessary detonators.
Further surveillance recordings revealed the discussions took place regarding the choice of targets for their campaign. Waheed Mahmood (an employee of National Grid Transco) favoured targeting the gas and electricity supply network and had stolen a set of CDs which showed the locations of some of the high-pressure gas pipelines. Other potential targets included the Bluewater shopping centre, and the Ministry of Sound nightclub, this latter target being favoured by Jawad Akbar on the grounds that "No one can even turn around and say 'oh they were innocent', those slags dancing around." They had also procured a twelve page list identifying the location of almost every British synagogue.
Of course the prosecution also had the testimony of their star witness Mohammed Junaid Babar who was able to testify as to what certain of the accused had got up to on their summer holidays in Pakistan, as well as providing his 'inside knowledge' of the plot.
As far as the defendants were concerned (all of whom, it must be remembered, denied all charges); Nabeel Hussain admitted that whilst he had provided the money to pay for storing the fertiliser, he only did so because Jawad Akbar was his cousin, and had no idea what was being stored or to what use it might be put. Shujah Mahmood, who was seventeen at the time of his arrest, similarly claimed that he was ignorant of any plot and that he had simply been acting under the influence of his older brother Waheed.
Salahuddin Amin, who had actually confessed to his involvement in the plot, claimed in court that he had only done so as a result of his mistreatment at the hands of the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) when he was initially arrested in Pakistan. He claimed that they ISI had used "bad language, profanities against my family, threats to rape me with the wooden handle of the lash and a lot of swear words", and that he had also been "beaten and flogged, threatened with an electric drill".
Omar Khyam began to give evidence in his defence but then refused to say anything further on the 18th September 2006, claiming that the "ISI has had a word with my family in Pakistan regarding what I have been saying about them". The other three defendents similarly all chose not to give evidence, claiming that their families would otherwise be harassed or arrested by the ISI.
The profusion of surveillance recordings meant that the defence could hardly deny that the accused had indeed sat down together and discussed how they might commit terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. The basis of the defence was therefore that the accused were simply "young, Muslim and angry at the global injustices against Muslims"; that is, they were a bunch of hotheads letting off steam and that there was never any real threat that they would do anything, whilst the evidence of Mohammed Junaid Babar should be discounted because he as either an FBI double agent or had simply invented the details of the plot in order to curry favour with the authorities.
6. The Verdicts
The jury deliberated for a total of twenty-seven days (another British record), during which time the trial judge announced on the 20th April that he would accept a majority verdict. The verdicts were eventually delivered on the 30 April 2007 with five of the accused, Omar Khyam, Waheed Mahmood, and Jawad Akbar, Salahuddin Amin, Anthony Garcia, being found guilty of the main charge of conspiracy to cause explosions, whilst both Shujah Mahmood and Nabeel Hussain, were found not guilty of all charges.
In passing sentence Judge Michael Astill pronounced that the five convicted men had "betrayed this country that has given you every opportunity" and sentenced each to a term of life imprisonment. He further set out the specified minimum terms to be served as, 20 years in the case of Anthony Garcia, 35 years for Jawad Akbar and Salahuddin Amin and 40 years in respect of Waheed Mahmood and Omar Khyam, although the judge warned them that "all of you may never be released".
One of the defence solicitors Imran Khan, issued a statement on behalf of the five convicted defendants, which claimed that the
case had been brought in "an atmosphere of hostility against Muslims", denied that there was ever any conspiracy to cause explosions, and repeated the assertion that whatever they might have said they never had the intention of committing any terrorist attacks. Another solicitor Tayab Ali, issued a further statement on behalf of Salahuddin Amin which asserted his innocence and claimed that he had been "convicted by false evidence and the fruits of torture". Salahuddin Amin at least, intends to appeal.
7. The 7/7 connection
On the 7th July 2005 five suicide bombers targeted the London transport system in a series of co-ordinated attacks that killed fifty-two people. At the time the authorities claimed that the bombers were 'clean skins', that is completely unknown to the security services, and that the attack therefore came out of the blue.
It later became apparent that two of the 7/7 bombers Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were closely connected with those arrested as a result of Operation Crevice, having been present at the same time at various training camps in Pakistan, and having made contact in Britain. Although the bare outline of this connection was first revealed in January 2006 few details were made public as Judge Michael Astill had ruled that any evidence relating to said connection was inadmissable as it would prejuduce the trial of the Crawley Seven.
It was only therefore with the conclusion of the Fertiliser bomb plot that these details became public knowledge, when it was revealed that Mohammad Sidique Khan had met with Omar Khyam on at least four occasions during the time the latter was under intense surveillance. This very naturally led many to ask the question; if the authorities were able to arrest Omar Khyam and company and thereby prevent one terrorist attack, why hadn't they similarly acted against Mohammad Sidique Khan and prevented the 7/7 attacks?
The official explanation was that Operation Crevice resulted in fifty-five names being identified as "individuals of interest", and that both Khan and Tanweer were categorised as "desirable" rather than "essential" targets because as far as they could see at the time they were only involved in credit card fraud and not directly linked to terrorism. MI5 further claimed that they passed the relevant details onto the West Yorkshire Police who then failed to investigate any further. The West Yorkshire Police have let it be known that the first time they ever heard of the matter was when they were later approached by a BBC journalist.
Both the main opposition parties used the issue as yet another stick with which to beat the government and demanded a public inquiry into Operation Crevice and its connection to the 7/7 bombings. The British government ruled out holding any such public inquiry, claiming that it would divert resources away from the task of combating the current terrorist threat. The official line was that the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee was the proper body to examine such questions. The IASC had already investigated the issue and concluded that the Security Services did nothing wrong, and the chairman soon made it known that as far as he was concerned nothing had since come to light which would change that conclusion.
None of which necessarily really answers the question, and there is a very real question to answer. The Times has quoted the opinion of a "high-ranking ISI official" that "There is no question that 7/7 could have and should have been stopped. British agencies did not follow some of the information we gave to them."
The answer may well be that Operation Crevice wasn't really a counter-terrorist operation at all. It appears that the original intention was to infiltrate certain radical Islamist groups and that the identification of the Fertiliser Bomb plot came about entirely by accident as a result of a tip-off from a member of the public. Th suspicion was therefore that the Security Services didn't identify Mohammad Sidique Khan as a potential terrorist, because they were not looking for potential terrorists, and they were not looking for potential terrorists because they did not regard any of the hotheads they were following as being capable of doing any damage.
8. The Mysterious Q
Finally we come to the subjec of the mysterious Q. During the trial there were a number of references to the mysterious man known only as 'Q', the Mr Fixit of radical Islamism in Britain.
When questioned about Q's identity Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan Police replied, "I know who ‘Q’ is but I’m not going to discuss who he is or what he is, or what he does". Nevertheless the British media have unanimously and quite openly identified him as Mohammed Quayyum Khan. He remains at liberty in the United Kingdom. He has never been arrested nor indeed has he ever been questioned about any alleged offences whatsoever.
Which is odd to say the least.
Sourced from various reports in the British media including The BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Independent and the Independent on Sunday. Some account has also been taken of the material at the July Seventh Truth Campaign website and the article The Entrapment of Omar Khyam by Szamko which appears on something called the Guerilla News Network see here.