The Heathrow Plot Trial: Retrospection and Implications
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
The trial of eight men accused of participating in a 2006 plot to bomb a series of airline flights began April 3 in London. The men are charged with conspiracy to commit murder and preparing acts of terrorism in connection with the plot, which allegedly called for using liquid explosives to bring down at least seven planes flying from London's Heathrow Airport to cities in the United States and Canada.
The trial is expected to last several months, but several interesting facts already have emerged regarding the plot and the people accused of participating in it. Although a considerable amount of media attention has been focused on the revelation that two Air Canada flights (one to Montreal and one to Toronto) were among the first seven flights targeted — the others were United Airlines flights to Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, and American Airlines flights to Chicago and New York — perhaps the most interesting revelation has been the alleged role of Mohammed Gulzar.
Gulzar reportedly flew into the United Kingdom in July 2006 using a fraudulent identity. His means of travel and his role in the conspiracy suggest he was an operational commander who had been sent from abroad to assist the grassroots plotters with their attack plans. The involvement of an operational commander sent by the al Qaeda core leadership and charged with working with grassroots operatives to orchestrate an attack is what we consider the al Qaeda 1.0 operational model.
When combined with other indicators, Gulzar's role and travel pattern seem to confirm the involvement of the al Qaeda core leadership in the plot. The participation of the core organization sheds new light on the behavior of the core al Qaeda leaders in 2006, and gives us some insight into plots they might still be planning.
As we noted after the Heathrow plot came to light, the scheme shared several themes with other thwarted or successful al Qaeda plots, including the choice of aircraft as targets, the notion of multiple, simultaneous strikes and the use of modular improvised explosive devices, which would have been smuggled aboard the aircraft in carry-on luggage. Moreover, whoever was involved in planning the operation shared al Qaeda's penchant for "thinking big."
As originally conceived, al Qaeda's 2001 "planes operation" was to involve the simultaneous hijackings of 10 aircraft departing from both the East and West Coasts of the United States. Nine of the aircraft were to be either blown up in-flight or slammed into targeted buildings. The 10th plane was to be landed at a U.S. airport and, after all the adult male passengers were killed, a speech was to be delivered outlining al Qaeda's grievances with the United States. Al Qaeda's apex leaders — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef — eventually agreed to a scaled-down version of the planes operation involving four aircraft, which was carried out Sept. 11, 2001.
The West Coast portion of the plan was spun off as a separate operation that was to have occurred in October 2001, but which reportedly was postponed several times for various reasons. This operation, also known as the Library Tower Plot, was compromised and disrupted in 2002.
These themes also were evidenced in the plot to bomb American Airlines Flight 63 in December 2001. In that plan, Richard Reid successfully smuggled his "shoe bomb" aboard the aircraft. The attempt failed only because Reid tried to light the bomb's fuse in the passenger cabin (rather than a more secluded area, such as a restroom) and was stopped by a flight attendant and passengers.
The 2006 Heathrow plot, however, bears the strongest resemblance to Operation Bojinka, which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, along with his nephew Abdel Basit, helped to plan and finance while living in Manila, the Philippines, in the mid-1990s. The tactical similarities include the targeting of multiple U.S.-flagged aircraft traveling to the United States, the use of modular explosive devices — which were to be assembled in-flight after operatives accessed their carry-on baggage — and the use of liquid explosives.
The scope of the Heathrow plot also highlights another theme common in al Qaeda plots: a tendency to think big. This theme, which was reflected in the original planes operation and in Bojinka, was also the undoing of al Qaeda attacks such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Millennium Bomb Plot and an attempted strike against the USS The Sullivans off the coast of Yemen in January 2000. Indeed, the scope of the Heathrow plot and the need to include many people in its execution is likely what opened the door for a British government informant to penetrate the group and learn of the plans.
A close look at the details emerging from the trial of Gulzar and the seven other suspects also reveals other recurring themes, including the use of document fraud. Gulzar entered the United Kingdom on July 18, 2006, using a fraudulent South African passport in the name of Altaf Ravat. He reportedly was traveling with his new wife and, in order to secure a visa, alleged that he was on his honeymoon. The pair even spent a couple of days in Mauritius after leaving South Africa in order to make the honeymoon cover appear more convincing. As a British citizen, Gulzar had the right to a British passport and thus could have traveled to the United Kingdom using his own identity. The only reason to commit document fraud was to conceal his identity.
As seen in past cases involving operational commanders such as Basit and Ahmed Ressam, it is fairly common for operational commanders to commit passport fraud. In fact, recovered al Qaeda operation manuals encourage using fraudulent documents to hide one's identity, enter a country illegally or continue to stay in a country after a legitimate visa has expired. Basit had more than a dozen aliases that we know of, including the well-known fraudulent Iraqi passport in the name of Ramzi Yousef — the name by which many people still mistakenly refer to him. Gulzar's use of South Africa as a source of fraudulent documents and a transit point to Europe also exemplifies a trend we have been watching for some time now.
When British police arrested Gulzar on Aug. 9, 2006, he told them his name was Altaf Ravat and produced his South African documents. It was only after running fingerprint checks that they determined — two days after his arrest — that he really was a British citizen named Mohammed Gulzar. When questioned by police, Gulzar admitted he was not on his honeymoon, though he then said he was a missionary with the Tablighi Jamaat and was in the United Kingdom on a proselytizing mission.
As seen in past attacks — the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the attack on the USS Cole, the East Africa embassy bombings and others that followed the al Qaeda 1.0 operational model — the operational planner does not intend to be killed or captured. He flees and lives to fight another day. In operations in which an operative plans to be killed, such as 9/11 and the July 7, 2005 London attacks, there is no need for him to hide his true identity. Gulzar's use of a fraudulent identity suggests he intended to flee after the attack. This theory is supported by the fact that British authorities recovered a number of videotapes containing the wills and suicide declarations of various members of the alleged cell, but they did not recover such a video featuring Gulzar.
Fitting the Pieces Together
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and when we use it to plug the 2006 Heathrow plot into the big picture of al Qaeda behavior during that time, we can begin to make some assumptions as to the extent of the core leadership's involvement.
According to court testimony, the British government began to monitor many of the men allegedly involved in the plot shortly after the July 7, 2005 London attacks. It also has been reported that, like Mohammed Siddique Khan, several of the men involved in the 2006 plot had traveled to Pakistan and received training at jihadist camps. It also appears that Gulzar was sent by the core al Qaeda leadership to London in July 2006 to supervise the execution of this plot. Judging from past cases, Gulzar's preparation for the travel to London likely began several months prior to his actual arrival in the United Kingdom. Also judging from past cases, a plan of this magnitude, involving so many aircraft, almost certainly would have to have been approved by the al Qaeda apex leadership. The leadership probably also provided the funding for the operation, including the more than $271,000 in cash the group reportedly paid for the flat they purchased in London, where the improvised explosive mixtures were to be manufactured.
If those assumptions are indeed true, then this plot may very well be one of the operations Osama bin Laden was referencing in his Jan. 19, 2006, message when he said, "The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through (with preparations), with God's permission."
The preparations for this attack also had picked up momentum by mid-2006 when the al Qaeda core leadership was undertaking what we referred to at the time as a media blitz. Indeed, just as the traffic from this blitz was beginning to slow down, As-Sahab released a video titled, "Will of the Knights of the London Raid (Part 2)," which contained the last will of London bomber Shehzad Tanweer. This video was released one day before the anniversary of the July 7 attacks and 12 days before Gulzar arrived in the United Kingdom.
Nine days after Gulzar's arrival, and two weeks before the arrests were made, As-Sahab released a video featuring al-Zawahiri. The backdrop featured three large photographs: one of Mohammed Atef (al Qaeda's senior military chief who was killed in Afghanistan in late 2001), one of 9/11 operational commander Mohammed Atta and one of the burning World Trade Center towers.
In the video, al-Zawahiri discussed a lecture Atef gave in 2000 to al Qaeda trainees about Palestine. According to his recounting, Atta — who was among the trainees — asked, "What is the way to defeat the attack on Palestine?" Al-Zawahiri supplied his own answer in the video, saying the nation that produced the 19 "who shook America" is "capable of producing double that number."
It could be a coincidence that a large plot involving aircraft — nearly twice as many as were hijacked on 9/11 — was thwarted only two weeks after this video surfaced. But we are not big believers in coincidence — nor do we believe there are obvious (or even hidden) messages in every al Qaeda message. However, to our minds the July 27 tape was a clear message meant to be viewed in retrospect — that al Qaeda was behind the Heathrow airline plot.
The Continuing Fixation
More than anything, the current trial is a reminder of three things. First, had the first wave of attacks successfully taken down the planes, it would have been very difficult to determine how the explosive devices had been smuggled aboard the aircraft. This means it is entirely possible the same tactic would have been used in subsequent waves of attacks.
Second, for some reason in 2006 the al Qaeda leadership's eagerness for a spectacular attack appears to have trumped their perceived need for moderation. It was the moderation of people like Mohammed Atef that reined in the enthusiasm of the group's idealists (men such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and caused them to scale down the 2001 planes operation to less than half its original size — a measure that improved operational security and assisted in the 9/11 plot's eventual success.
Finally, al Qaeda remains fixated on aircraft as targets and, in spite of changes in security procedures since 9/11, aircraft remain vulnerable to attack.