More time granted for terror probe

British courts also order three charged in suspected conspiracy held without bail

August 31, 2006|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- British courts gave police more time yesterday to investigate a suspected conspiracy to bomb U.S.-bound planes in midair. They also ordered three suspects held without bail on charges of attempted murder.

The proceedings bring to 11 the number of suspects charged as central conspirators in what British and European counterterrorism officials describe as a plan to down as many as six jets. Four other suspects have been charged as accomplices.

In interviews, officials said the decision to stage a roundup this month was made after suspects under surveillance learned of the arrest in Pakistan of another suspect. The arrest, they said, spurred suspects to film so-called martyrdom videos, which are considered a telltale sign that an attack could be near.

"Things moved quicker than anyone expected because of the detention in Pakistan," said a British counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified. "There will prove to be a link between the arrests here, the videos and the detention in Pakistan."

Dozens of searches turned up six videos in which suspects described their reasons for participating in an attack that would have involved smuggling liquid explosives aboard and combining them in flight, British and European officials said.

"It is certain that they were making videotapes," said a senior European counterterrorism official with access to information about the case. "That's a classic moment in investigations when you feel great pressure to move in."

Authorities have said previously that searches yielded large quantities of potential bomb-making materials at locations including an apartment in East London that was headquarters for the group.

The British official said police conducting audio and video surveillance felt that "there was no doubt" that the group had the technical ability to smuggle the ingredients through airport security, combine them on planes and set off the explosives using makeshift detonators such as batteries.

"This is an ability that is new and that should have huge implications for the way people see the threat," the British official said.

Officials said the number of planes targeted might have been overstated in the aftermath of the arrests Aug. 10. Rather than nine or 10 planes, as some officials previously said, the British official put the number at "half a dozen maybe, at a maximum. I think the numbers got exaggerated. The notion of nine is too much."

Soon after the arrests, officials said that any attack was at least weeks away and that the suspects had not bought airline tickets.

The suspects "had a very serious project, but the reaction seems a bit exaggerated," the European official said. "They did not have a date [for an attack]. And above all, the dimensions weren't so big, not as many flights" as was first reported.

Top investigators in neighboring countries were reluctant to criticize their British counterparts, saying they understood the challenges of running surveillance operations, assessing risks and keeping the public safe and informed.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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