A top cop has told how British police smashed a terror cell planning a 9/11 style atrocity.
Detective Chief Superintendent Kevin Southworth revealed for the first time how the plot to foil the “liquid bombers”, who planned to bring down seven airliners, was shrouded in so much secrecy that full details were kept from senior officers until the 11th hour.
He today gives a fascinating insight into the night cops finally arrested the terrorists 15 years ago.
The operation changed the way Brits travelled the world forever, with liquids over 100ml banned in hand luggage.
Today, as experts predict a resurgence of terrorism as troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the DCS warns Brits that the threat of terrorism has not gone away.
He said: “The absence of foiled attacks should be taken as a success of intervention rather than an absence of threat.”
Former General Sir Richard Barrons, who was head of UK Joint Forces Command, this week warned that pulling soldiers from Afghanistan could “run the risk of terrorist entities re-establishing to bring harm in Europe and elsewhere” as the Taliban seizes swathes of the country.
And MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, said: “Unless we wake up to the reality of what is taking place, Afghanistan might once become a terror state.
“This, remember, is the country that brought us 9/11.”
Taliban forces were driven out of Afghanistan in the wake of the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks that killed 2, 977 people in 2001.
But, as US forces poured into Afghanistan to stamp out terrorism, the refugee crisis worsened.
Around the same time, 4,000 miles away in Clapton, east London, The Islamic Medical Association charity shop began raising money and collecting equipment to send to camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Friends Assad Sarwar and Abdulla Ahmed Ali volunteered to deliver the aid and, angered by what they saw and plans for the Iraq War, Ali soon developed radical beliefs and came to the attention of security services.
When the now 41-year-old returned from a trip to Pakistan in June 2006 investigators secretly opened his baggage and found an unusual powdered soft drink, Tang, and a large number of batteries.
What followed next was the largest surveillance operation the Met and MI5 have ever undertaken as they watched Ali and his associates.
On August 3 2006, MI5 covertly broke into the east London flat being used by Ali, installing a tiny camera and microphone. They watched as Ali and friend Tanvir Hussain constructed odd-looking devices out of drink bottles.
It emerged they were plotting to blow up seven transatlantic airliners leaving London in an atrocity akin to 9/11 . They planned to smuggle hydrogen peroxide onboard in 500ml of Oasis and Lucozade bottles before constructing small bombs to blow a hole in the fuselage and bring down the jets.
On August 9, 2006, British police swung into action to arrest 24 people in one nail-biting night.
DCS Southworth said: “Even though I was a detective inspector, there was such operational security around the investigation that I only found out the full details of the plot 48 hours before the arrests.
“Within the command it was recognised that this was a whole different level of threat and they needed to keep the operation tight, if you like, which meant that many of our own internal people didn’t even know all the details.”
DCS Southworth, part of SO13 and heading up research on the suspects, said: “It was at the witching hour when we were all told what we needed to know and went to arrest everyone, so it was late in the day when I appreciated just how complex, how innovative the plot was and how many people were involved.”
Officers faced the risk that if just one suspect got away they could bring down a plane.
Mr Southworth said: “It was very much a team effort and the commanding officer led.
“We knew where most of the suspects were but it would have only taken a few of them to get away and, if they had these devices they could evade detection, board a plane and carry out their attack.
“It was a long, long night.
“We had a list of people who needed to be arrested and we had pictures of them pinned to the wall and when the last red dot went on the last man arrested and someone said ‘right, we’ve got him’, there was a sigh of relief and half a cheer.
“They had planned to target seven or more transatlantic airliners with these innovative devices which were specially configured to evade airport security, X-rays and scanning.
“They could be assembled quite easily on a plane and then held up against the fuselage of the interior to cause an explosion, not a massive one but big enough to blow a hole in the side of a compressed air cabin, which would bring down the plane.
“If we work on simple maths that there’s potentially 200 people on an average flight and, if the bombs were detonated overland it could genuinely have been into the same numbers of deaths as 9/11.
“The risk was off the charts.”
In 2009, father-of-two Ali, of Newham, London, was jailed for at least 40 years for conspiracy to murder.
His ‘quartermaster’ Sarwar, then 24, of High Wycombe, and associate Tanvir Hussain, then 27, of Walthamstow, were also found guilty of the same charge and sentenced to 36 and 32 years, respectively.
Four others were convicted of taking part in the plot following retrials.
Operation Overt, as it became known, involved more than 26,000 exhibits, 102 property searches in which 80 computers and other devices were seized, 14,000 gigs of data and police visits to Pakistan, South Africa, Mauritius, Belgium and even Japan, where officers tracked down batteries used by the gang.
The arrests came a year after the 7/7 London bombings.
Four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives attacked, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more in the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.
Mr Southworth said: “The liquid bombing case came at a time when we were extraordinarily busy.
“We hadn’t recovered from 7/7, not just as a society but as a service.
“We were still faced with a number of investigations at that point, which were of the likes we’d never seen before.
“There were so many plots that the public never heard that we were also working on. We had about 60 live investigations which were high priority, although not every one would have been a major attack.”
He told how officers had to balance when to foil the plot while ensuring prosecution.
Mr Southworth said: “We are not into brinkmanship with terrorists.
“When we talk about surveillance, we have to strike a balance between what we can prove prosecution wise, relative to the risk we know we are running.
“If you go too early you risk going off too soon and not having sufficient evidence to get a conviction. What you’ve done then is show your hand to the terrorist so they can regroup if acquitted and attack again. Only now they’d be more dangerous because they are aware they could be under surveillance.
“Prior to 9/11 terrorism had been typified by attacks from the IRA where, while you did get casualty based attacks there was also a wider regime of coded warnings and an opportunity to evacuate people in some instances.
“It was all about the statement of what could be achieved. We were now seeing a new type of terrorist who had no interest in giving warnings and wanted to cause mass casualty in the most damaging and shocking way they could.”
As the Taliban increases it’s advance in Afghanistan, the terror boss is asking the public to be vigilant.
He said: “Many people still don’t realise that the very reason we have the 100ml restriction on liquids on airlines is because of Operation Overt. We still live in it’s shadow and the implications for security have been felt ever since.”
“Sadly I don’t think we’re past the days of having to worry about terror attacks.
“We would always want to reassure the public that Britain is still safe but, as we saw in the Manchester arena attacks in 2017, the threat has not gone away.”
- If you are worried about someone who is vulnerable to radicalisation or want to report anything of concern log on to: www.gov.uk/ACT