J7 Operation Crevice Information & Analysis
The big news this week in the UK has been the handing down of a verdict, and heavy sentences, in the “fertiliser bomb plot.” Five British muslims have been sent to jail for life, meaning at least 20 years in this country, although the judge in the case explicitly told them that they may never be released owing to the nature of their offences.
The offence was to store 600 kg of fertilizer with the intention of using it to blow up something (we don’t know precisely what), thereby causing great loss of life. Some people have been calling it a “plot to cause Britain’s 9-11.”
So this has been no ordinary trial. After a year of hearings, the jury in the case took over a month to determine the guilt of the defendants, breaking the record for their deliberations. The judge in the case, Sir Michael Astill, eventually deemed that a “majority verdict” would suffice, not the conventional unanimity, owing to doubts amongst the jurors.
These doubts may also be reflected in the aquittal of two of the accused – Nabeel Hussain and Shujah Mohammed – of all charges. But on 30 April, Omar Khyam, Anthony Garcia, Walid Mahmood, Jawad Akbar and Salahuddin Amin were found guilty of “conspiracy to cause explosions” – while their sentences were extended under anti-terrorism legislation .
I’ll try to set down a narrative of what the press has reported about the plot, and introduce some additional characters which shed some light on my doubts about this case. I won’t question the verdicts – under current legislation almost anything is technically permissible, but I will flesh out the context and suggest some questions. These questions, and a broader view of the “fertiliser bomb plot” will, I think, feed into gathering fears of state surveillance, authoritarian abuse of the judicial system and imaginary fears which are stoked by unscrupulous politicians.
*But back to the story:*
September 11, 2001. The starting point of so many nightmares. But one man saw opportunity. Mohammed Babar, previously a dead end parking attendent (although some sources call him, flatteringly, a “computer programmer”) supposedly rejoiced in the attacks. This was even though his mother worked in the Twin Towers.
Babar decided to travel to Pakistan, as the U.S. war with Afghanistan began, where he hoped to link up with al-Qaeda and fight the invaders. We know this because Mohammed Babar, coincidentally, ended up in front of western film cameras in late 2001, explaining his motivations. As the Guardian has reported, Babar “gave a series of interviews to journalists, including one with Channel Five in which he vowed to kill US troops who entered Afghanistan.” Presumably he expounded a similar philosophy of Jihad to the one offered to the London court before which he became the prosecution’s “star witness.”
“Jihad means basically to physically fight” the jury was told.
Although it looks like he never made it to Afghanistan, while in Pakistan, Babar met up with all of those accused in the fertiliser plot, who stayed at a house that he had acquired in a well-heeled area of Lahore. Posing as a software exporter, Babar also set up offices in Lahore and Peshawar , probably as front companies to skim money from the ISI and transmit it to fighters either at home or abroad. In his garden, meanwhile, Babar stashed a cache of arms – grenades, AK-47s, mortars – which he later told the FBI was intended to be used to assassinate Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Other accounts have it that Mohammed Babar acted as “mr fix-it.” When the London plotters travelled to Pakistan in the summer of 2003, it was Babar who was “the man who found lodgings, arranged transport, raised money, bought equipment and sourced the ingredients for homemade explosives.”
In that summer, an extraordinary convergence took place in Pakistan. Along with Babar, the ex parking attendent, Omar Khyam, Salahuddin Amin, Anthony Garcia and Shujah Mohammed (four of the fertiliser plotters) arrived Mohammed Khawaja – a Canadian who would also be arrested, though tried separately in the fertiliser plot – and a young man from northern England – Mohammed Sidique Khan.
And how did they get here? It wasn’t a pure coincidence. Khyam and his crew were dispatched by a man known to the court as “Q” but now unmasked as a resident of Luton, Bedfordshire called Mohammed Quayyum Khan. Khan, the court heard, took orders in turn from a man called Abdul Hadi – who was living on the Pakistani-Afghan border and was al-Qaeda’s “number three.”
It was “Q” who asked Salahuddin Amin to transport “money and equipment to al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan” in 2003.
We’ll come back to “Q” later though. Another key “operative” mentioned in the court was also present with the group in Pakistan – Abu Munthir, a prisoner of the ISI at the moment.
In Pakistan, Khyam, Khawaja and Khan travelled into the mountains to attend a training camp. While there, or in Lahore, the plot developed. Although the British travellers had arrived with the aim of fighting either in Afghanistan or Kashmir, they were persuaded by Waheed Mahmood to redirect their attentions to the UK.
As the Times reported in March 2006, “Fired up for jihad (holy war), the men were said to be keen to fight in Afghanistan but were told by Mr Mahmood that this was not possible — the country was closed to foreigners.” Although this advice doesn’t fit neatly with conventional views of the Afghan border, the British crew took it to heart and began experimenting with fertilizer-based explosives (according to the testimony of Babar). Mahmood was the man who then “gave examples of possible British targets to his accomplices.”
“Some were intended to cause maximum financial damage by hitting utilities or telecommunication plants….The court was told that other suggestions included taking a job as a beer-seller at a football stadium, smuggling in poison in a syringe. Babar said Mr Mahmood claimed that he had already sold toxic burgers from a mobile van…Another plan was to distribute leaflets for a fictional take-away restaurant, then deliver poisoned food to houses.”
[the Times, March 25 2006]
Waheed Mahmood declined to give evidence at his trial, and we are left with evidence collected by MI5, the police and from Babar’s testimony.
The plotters returned to the UK in September 2003 (or Canada in Khawaja’s case). Khawaja went to work on detonators for a fertilizer bomb, struggling into early 2004 to arrive at a functioning design. Garcia and Khyam then set about purchasing the raw materials for a device – ammonia based fertilizer and aluminium powder.
As the Guardian reported on May 1, “In November , a man calling himself John Lewis asked Bodle Brothers, an agricultural merchants in Burgess Hill in West Sussex, to supply ammonium nitrate fertiliser. Lewis, actually Rahman Adam aka Anthony Garcia, bought 600kg, which he said was for his allotment.
At that stage though, according to intelligence expert Richard Norton-Taylor, “Khyam had been under surveillance for some time by the police and security service. Bugs were planted in his home and car, and another in Jawad Akbar’s home. But the police and MI5 were unaware that ammonium nitrate had been bought.”
Khyam had apparently been netted in an ongoing police and MI5 investigation codenamed “Operation Crevice.” Crevice stemmed from intercepts made on the phone of Mohammed Quayyum Khan, or “Q” who had linked up with Abdul Hadi (now in Guatanamo Bay). Khyam was tailed after becoming “associated” with “Q” before the bomb plot had been hatched.
In November, Garcia took the newly purchased fertilizer to Access Storage, near Heathrow Airport, which proved to be a crucial mistake. It also proved to be a disaster for Nabeel Hussain, whose debit card was used by Garcia and Khyam to purchase the storage rights. (Hussain spent almost two years being ground through the gears of the British judicial system before he was acquitted last week.)
In February 2004, a receptionist at Access phoned MI5’s “anti-terrorist hotline” – spilling the story about Garcia’s 600 kg deposit. The story given by the plotters had prompted Emma Wallis’ curiosity. Why buy 600 kg of ammonia fertilizer and then offer the explanation that it is for an allotment so far out of the planting season?
MI5 immediately recognized the name of Nabeel Hussain as an associate of Omar Khyam, and Jawad Akbar (whose homes and cars had been bugged) and they surmised the rest. At this point, it looks like MI5 had the situation under complete control and indeed, they never lost it.
After a couple of months of fertile surveillance and evidence gathering, police and MI5 swooped in March 2004. In the months before the arrests, carried out on 30 March, the “plotters” had been taped discussing blowing up the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s question time, praising the Madrid train bombings, thinking about bombing the Ministry of Sound nightclub and setting off a “little device” at Bluewater shopping center, Kent – among other things.
The Times reports that in late March 2004, “Detectives acted when snippets of conversation convinced them that the plot was slipping beyond their control. One suspect was recorded asking whether something was “ready to go”.”
But, we know now that after the alarm was raised by Emma Wallis over at Access Storage, the fertiliser was replaced by an inert substitute, and the receptionist at the company replaced by an MI5 agent.
While Operation Crevice was netting the British crowd, Mohammed Khawaja was arrested in Canada a week later, as was Mohammed Babar, on the streets of New York City. Then, the task became to build a case.
The 7/7 Connection
This is crucial. One of the best reported aspects of the trial verdict has been the irrefutable evidence that MI5 had Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer in their sights for over a year before the London bombings of July 7 2005. This evidence is now fuelling calls for an inquiry into the attacks, calls which Tony Blair is strongly resisting (although Gordon Brown may find it harder to do so when he becomes PM).
Let’s have a look at it.
Well, the Times reported that the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence services) had knowledge in 2003 of the “Suf house” group which had gathered in Lahore to plan attacks. On 1 May, the paper reported that “A high-ranking ISI official said: “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.” One of those present was Mohammed Sidique Khan.
We also learn from the Times that when FBI agents interrogated Mohammed Babar in 2004, they requested surveillance images from MI5. MI5 complied, sending “A batch of surveillance pictures” to the “supergrass witness.” But, we are told, “MI5 judged the quality of the Khan images – a black-and-white closed-circuit television image and a colour photo taken covertly – too poor to be included.”
In February 2004, we learned in the “fertilizer plot” trial that MI5 had watched and listened intently as a “key meeting” unfolded in Crawley. Mohammed Khawaja had flown in from Canada to deliver his detonators, and as Khyam drove him from the airport to his home, he told him – ironically – that “We don’t want to mix many things together because if you start to mix too many people in this life you’re going to get yourself caught.”
Even though he counseled Khawaja that “The way you need to work is secretive, within yourselves not mix the cells” at Khyam’s house they met up with “two Yorkshire Muslims whose names would the following July be associated with the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil – Mohamed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer” (the Telegraph 30 April 2007). It seems that cell mixing was commonplace. MI5 watched and heard all of what went on.
It’s worth relaying a little of the recorded dialogue:
“Sidique Khan, who in Khyam’s jeep, asked him: “You’re seriously basically a terrorist?”..Khyam told him: “I’m not a terrorist, they’re working through us.”...Sidique Khan replied: “Who are? There’s no one higher than you.”
That was on February 21, but Khan was also in Crawley earlier in the month.
Peter Taylor, writing for the BBC, has also seen MI5’s surveillance log for February 2004 and describes what it records for February 2:
“According to the log, a Honda car, registration R480 CCA, was seen in Langley Parade, Crawley. Omar was in the passenger seat and the driver was Khan…MI5 ran a check on ownership of the vehicle. The name meant nothing at the time. It was registered in the name of Khan’s wife….Although they did not know who he was, the officers followed the car after it left Crawley, not knowing where it was going. After Khyam was dropped off, Khan drove onto the M1 and headed north…When it stopped for petrol at Toddington services, MI5’s log states that photographs were taken of the passengers. MSK was covertly snapped in the vicinity of Burger King at the entrance to the services’ refreshment area.
“Was the photograph clear enough to identify him? The intelligence services say the quality was very poor. But other sources who have seen it told me that Khan was identifiable. Panorama asked to see the photograph, but the request was refused. We understand that one other photograph, said to be of marginally inferior quality, was subsequently taken of MSK going into an undisclosed internet café....According to MI5’s log, officers followed the Honda for a further 150 miles to Leeds. It notes the addresses and locations where some of the passengers got out…The Honda, with Khan at the wheel, was eventually seen parking out side his family home in Dewsbury. The log notes the precise address.”
The Telegraph reported on 30 April that, besides this February 2 meeting, “There were at least four occasions when Sidique Khan and Tanweer were seen by MI5 surveillance officers” (February 2 was apparently the first).
This was followed by the grand meeting with Khawaja on February 21 and then another meeting on February 28 when “Sidique Khan and Tanweer were back in Crawley, trawling around builders’ merchants with Khyam as part of a fraud scheme before Sidique Khan drove him to Wellingborough where a three-hour meeting was held at a mobile phone shop.”
Finally, “The last sighting was on March 23 when Sidique Khan and Tanweer, in the green Corsa, met Khyam and his brother at their family home in Crawley…They drove in convoy to an Islamic bookshop in Upton, East London where they spent the afternoon before driving to Slough.”
As with Khyam, Sidique Khan found his way into the files of Operation Crevice via Mohammed Quayyum Khan.
There are signs of a deep cover-up within MI5. On May 2 we learned that MI5 had been with-holding photographic evidence that it compiled showing Sidique Khan and Tanweer from the Intelligence Services Committee of the House of Commons. The Guardian reported that one photo of Khan was shown to the Committee “as it was shown to a detainee to see if he could identify the man in the picture” – presumably Mohammed Babar.
At Prime Minister’s Questions Mr Blair insisted that the ISC had been given all the relevant material and warned that a new inquiry would simply divert resources away from the fight against terrorism. “If we end up now saying that the Intelligence and Security Committee was not an adequate inquiry, we have another inquiry, we will simply cause great anxiety and difficulty within the service…“We won’t get any more truth, because the truth is there in the Intelligence and Security Committee, but what we will do is undermine support for our security services and I am simply not prepared to do it.”
However, the Independent reports that “the BBC has now claimed that in fact six surveillance photos existed…MI5 apparently did not pass on the other five to the committee because they were taken by police officers,” according to a security source consulted by the BBC.
Q and A
It seems to me that there are several interesting anomalies hovering around this story, not least the inability of MI5 to prevent 7/7 now that we know how much it knew about some of the central conspirators in that attack.
But it’s not the only question. The role of Mohammed Quayyum Khan is just as interesting. We have been told that “Q” played (and perhaps still plays) a crucial role in terrorist financing and the training of “jihadists” to fight in Afghanistan, Kashmir and even the UK. “Q” sent Mohammed Sidique Khan and Omar Khyam et al to Pakistan on errands, perhaps on behalf of Abdul Hadi (although it is clear that none of these men were able to fight in Afghanistan, and were advised to seek projects nearer to home instead).
We are told that Operation Crevice actually began life as an investigation into “Q”’s activities. Essentially, we have been told that “Q” was the lynchpin for Jihadist activity in the UK and the launching point for training in Pakistan. He’s “Mr Jihad,” to Babar’s Mr Fixit.
Then why are we told that “Q remains at liberty in the UK. The jury was told he has never been arrested or questioned.” (the Guardian May 1 2007).
To me, that’s a very, very good question.
The BBC reported on May 1 that intelligence chiefs have “refused to discuss” the role of “Q” in terrorist activities while “Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan Police refused to discuss Q when asked about his role in the fertiliser bomb plot or in alleged wider jihadi activity.”
Clarke told reporters that “I know who ‘Q’ is but I’m not going to discuss who he is or what he is, or what he does…Decisions are made during the course of investigation based upon the evidence that’s available, and the decision as to who should be arrested based entirely upon what evidence is available at the time.”
Another question worth asking. What kind of work does “Q” do Peter? Is he working for MI5 or a branch of the police? It is hard to see why he hasn’t been brought in at least once for questioning if that isn’t the case, although even if he is an informant or agent you would expect him to have been questioned, if only to provide a veneer of deniability.
Babar the white elephant?
Back to Mohammed Babar. Babar’s testimony was the fulcrum around which the prosecution attacked Khyam et al. He linked them seamlessly with jihadists on the Afghan border, weapons caches in Lahore, Abdul Hadi and terrorist financers via the software exporting “business.” But he also linked them up with the FBI and the ISI in a dubious web of intimidation which casts huge doubt upon his testimony.
The Pakistan Nation reported in March 2006, that when Babar took the stand in London, he told the jury that “he had lied to the FBI for a few days” and that “Asked why he had decided to co-operate, Babar said he hoped to save his wife from arrest in Lahore and the police made an offer he could not refuse.”
It was then that MI5 began to send surveillance materials over the New York, and Babar began to talk. Babar confessed to making two attempts on the life of President Musharraf and to being a “key al-Qaeda operative.” He also became the key witness in the “fertilizer bomb plot” which – as discussed above – had just resulted in arrests in the UK and Canada. (The Globe & Mail, 30 April 2007).
According to Jeevan Vasagar, writing in the Guardian, after admitting his involvement in the attempts on Musharraf’s life, Babar told the court that “he would be facing the death penalty in Pakistan if he had not agreed to collaborate with the FBI.”
However, along with these threats, the FBI also began to offer Babar a bait if he would testify in the case. As Vasagar reports:
[Babar] appeared before a US judge in June 2004 and pleaded guilty to five charges including “conspiracy to provide material support or resources” to al-Qaida. Defence barristers in the fertiliser bomb trial accused him of being a double agent for the US government. Babar’s wife and child have been allowed into the US, and the family will have a new life under assumed identities when he is released from prison.
According to the Telegraph, Babar told the court that his reason for cooperating with the FBI “was to get his 70-year sentence reduced, possibly to a little as four years.” (The Telegraph, 30 April 2007).
As it turned out, it was Babar’s testimony which provided the strongest evidence suggesting that Khyam et al were planning an al-Qaeda style attack in the UK on orders from Pakistani jihadists.
During the trial, his testimony was not offset by that of key defendants who chose not to testify. Almost all of them told the court that if they told their stories then their families would be harassed or arrested by the ISI.
Torture and intimidation
The most surprising omission was the testimony of Omar Khyam himself, the alleged “ringleader”of the terrorist cell. After spending two days talking about his activities in Pakistan (““working for the cause” to free Islamic lands” as the Guardian reported at the time) Khyam suddenly clammed up.
On 18 September 2006, Khyam refused to answer any further questions from his own defense barrister, Joel Bennathan who “had just asked how he came to help buy and store half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.” As Duncan Gardham reported for the Telegraph:
“Khyam, 24, from Crawley, West Sussex, told him: “Before we go on to that topic, I just want to say the ISI has had a word with my family in Pakistan regarding what I have been saying about them…“I think they are worried I might end up revealing more about them and right now the priority for me has to be the safety of my family there…“Much as I might want to go on and clarify matters I am going to stop.” Mr Bennathan asked him what he meant and Khyam added: “I am not going to discuss anything relating to the ISI any more or my evidence.”
Khyam did not utter another word in his defense, remaining silent throughout the rest of the trial – a period of around seven months.
Waheed Mahmood also elected not to testify, perhaps for similar reasons while Salahuddin Amin has maintained that many of the statements he made in Pakistan and which implicated him in the plot, were made under conditions of torture.
Amin was not arrested in England in 2004, but was in Pakistan and was soon arrested by the ISI after requests from British authorities. After being picked up, Amin was held by the ISI for ten months. As Ian Cobain reported for the Guardian on 2 May, according to Amin, “he was repeatedly beaten and flogged, threatened with an electric drill, shown other prisoners who had been tortured, and forced to listen to the screams of men being abused nearby.”
Amin, 32, also claims that his mistreatment may have been directed by officers of the security service, MI5. While he received no consular visits during his time in custody in Pakistan, he was visited more than 10 times by MI5 officers. The visits, he alleges, followed a pattern. After being taken to Hamza Camp, the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency in Rawalpindi, he would be asked questions while being tortured. A few days later he would be visited by MI5 officers, who would ask the same questions, and he would give the answers previously extracted under torture…Once, while hooded, he says he was taken for interrogation in a building where he glimpsed a marble staircase and small union flags on a desk. He also alleged that he was once interrogated in English in a room with a camera in it, and says he suspects that this session may have been filmed for MI5.
It is possible that Amin was held in Pakistan for ten months as a hostage, so that the UK based conspirators would tell their interrogators what they wished to hear, knowing that if they did not comply, their friend would suffer.
Salahuddin Amin was eventually described by Police terror chief Peter Clarke to have been a major “facilitator” of terror. Clarke says that “[Amin] received people into training in Pakistan. He could get advice on the technical aspects of constructing explosive devices and so he was right there in the middle of it, acting as a link between the UK end of this plot and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.” (BBC News 30 April 2007)
Khyam was alleged to have asked Amin for advice in his supposed plot, “including a crucial moment when he sought advice on the ratios of chemicals needed to produce a fertiliser bomb.” If this “moment” did not take place, then the case is seriously weakened.
Salahuddin Amin intends to appeal his conviction.
Part Two, as yet unwritten which looks at how the press has framed the fertilizer bomb plot, how MI5 has used the plot to expand its “pre-emptive” capabilities and how the al-Yamamah bribery nexus links in with the entrapment of Omar Khyam.
This article was originally published on Guerilla News Network
Note: Part Two has been written and can be read here.