A British court has found three British Muslims guilty of plotting to murder thousands of people with attacks against at least seven airliners flying from Britain to North America.
The 28-year-old British-born ringleader, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, was found guilty of conspiring to murder thousands of people. Twenty-eight-year-old Tanvir Hussain and 29-year-old Assad Sarwar were both found guilty of plotting to carry out bombings on aircraft.
British and U.S. security officials say the plan was directly linked to Al-Qaeda and guided by senior Islamic militants in Pakistan. They say the plan was thwarted in August 2006, just days before the attacks were to be carried out.
"This case reaffirms the fact that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism. This was a particularly horrendous plot which would have led to murder and mayhem on an unimaginable scale," said Alan Johnson, Britain's home secretary.
"The police, security services, and [prosecutors] have done an excellent job in bringing these people to justice as part of the largest and most complex counterterrorism operation ever in the U.K."
In fact, the planned attacks have been described by prosecutors as a potential "terrorist event of global proportions." Authorities say it was meant to be the world's deadliest terrorist strike since September 11, 2001.
"The loss of life would have been immense. It's very difficult to actually comprehend exactly what this would have meant," said John McDowall, the head of the antiterrorism squad of London's Metropolitan Police.
"But certainly, if the aircraft had been brought down over land, again, the loss of life would have increased many times over."
The would-be suicide bombers planned to smuggle liquid explosives on board the planes inside of plastic soda bottles. The case had immediate and enormous ramifications for global security -- leading to tight restrictions on the amount of liquids that passengers are allowed to take on board aircraft.
"The men set up a bomb factory to make devices using soft-drink bottles. They emptied bottles and intended to refill them with explosives," said Sue Hemming, head of the Counterterrorism Division of Britain's Crown Prosecution Service, the main prosecution body in England and Wales.
"Detonators were being assembled using batteries, and the men intended to explode the devices while in the air."
Hemming said other evidence included notes written by the British ring leader, Ali, instructing would-be bombers how to avoid the suspicion of airport security officials. Details of flights from Heathrow Airport to the United States and Canada were also found among the documents and on a USB memory stick.
Some would-be suicide bombers also recorded so-called "martyr videos," in which they used Al-Qaeda ideology to justify mass murder and made chilling threats about waves of terrorist attacks to come.
"We will not leave this path until you leave our lands and until you feel what we are feeling," a speaker on one such video said.
"This is revenge for the actions of the U.S.A. in the Muslim lands, and their accomplices such as the British and the Jews. This is a warning to the nonbelievers that if they do not leave our lands, there are many more like us and many more like me ready to strike until the law of Allah is established on this Earth."
The trial also has illuminated links between militant British Muslims and senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
Police suspect that the mastermind of the attacks was Egyptian-born Abu Obaidah al-Masri, a senior Al-Qaeda planner thought to have been based in Pakistan at the time the attacks were being plotted. Masri also has been cited as the inspiration for the deadly July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London.
The key link between Al-Qaeda's Pakistan-based militants and militant British Islamists is thought to have been Rashid Rauf, a British-born baker's son who was arrested in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur in August 2006.
Rauf escaped from custody in December 2007 when his Pakistani keepers allowed him to enter a mosque unaccompanied. In November 2008, Rauf was targeted by a U.S. drone strike near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. But intelligence officials in the United States and Britain say they remain unsure whether he was killed or is still alive.