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A ‘fertiliser bomb’, secret services and fertile imaginations?

This article is over 15 years, 8 months old
There are serious questions over the use of confessions to convict five men over the "fertiliser bomb" plot. Simon Basketter investigates
Issue 2112
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

Seven men were arrested in March 2004 following the discovery of more than half a tonne of chemical fertiliser in storage in west London.

It was said they had struck a deal to buy a “radioisotope bomb” from the Russian mafia, that they planned to sell poisoned burgers outside football grounds, and that they plotted to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent and the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London.

The five men who were jailed for life in the case lost their appeal against their convictions last week. Omar Khyam, Waheed Mahmood, Jawad Akbar, Anthony Garcia and Salahuddin Amin were found guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions likely to endanger life at the end of a lengthy trial last year.

While the convictions have been declared “safe”, the defendants denied there was a plot. Some said they did not know what the fertiliser was, or that they were only interested in sending money to fighters in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The police and secret service operation to catch the plotters involved intercepting 97 phone lines, secretly searching property on 12 occasions, and compiling thousands of hours of surveillance tapes from bugs and video cameras hidden outside mosques and internet cafes.

But the trial also contained two key pieces of confessional evidence.

One piece came from Salahuddin Amin, one of those convicted. He was accused of supplying the formula needed to mix explosives. Amin handed himself in to Pakistani authorities in April 2004 but was held without charge for ten months before being flown back to Britain where he was arrested.

Secret prison

Amin told the court that Pakistani interrogators threatened to “drill another hole in his backside”. After two weeks in a secret prison run by Pakistan’s

Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Amin says he was ready to do whatever he was asked.

He was deprived of sleep for several days before being beaten, whipped and threatened with an electric drill. Then the torture would stop, and he would be interviewed – by “Matt” and “Chris” who introduced themselves as from MI5.

Amin says the MI5 officers would insist that his main torturer remained in the room. He told the original trial, “I assumed my treatment was tolerated by the British at a very high level.”

He added that he only confessed to trying to acquire a so called “dirty bomb” after being hung up by his wrists and beaten. “I was willing to admit to anything,” he said. After his confession was complete Amin was put on a plane to Heathrow. There was no extradition process or court hearing.

During the trial Amin’s counsel Patrick O’Connor QC suggested that there had been “a tacit understanding of some considerable amorality” between MI5 and the ISI, with the British knowing their Pakistani counterparts could torture him with impunity.

It is impossible to report on the response that MI5 gave to the allegations at the original trial. Testimony from its officers was heard “in camera”, with press and the public excluded. The same state-sanctioned secrecy surrounded most of the appeal hearing.

The key witness in the trial was Mohammad Junaid Babar. His intriguing story contrasts starkly with that of Salahuddin Amin. One US official described Babar to the Washington Post as follows – “This guy’s connections to different cells and plots just seems to be expanding. He is the fish that is getting bigger.”

A car cleaner in New York, Babar travelled to Pakistan soon after 9/11 claiming that his mother had survived the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

He gave a number of interviews in Pakistan with the Western media, in which he said, “I will kill every American that I see in Afghanistan and every American I see in Pakistan.”

Unsurprisingly he was added to a terrorist watch list. Somewhat more surprisingly, he was able to fly to Britain on several occasions.

Babar has claimed many things. He told the original trial he had been involved in two separate attempts to assassinate Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf in 2002 and that he had set up a number of terrorist training camps.

After the arrests in Britain around the fertiliser plot, Babar flew to New York and registered for a taxi drivers’ training course. He was picked up by the FBI and was taken to room 538 of Embassy Suites, a luxury Manhattan hotel, where he spent five days being persuaded gently that he should cooperate.

His original arrest went largely unreported in April 2004. At the trial Babar had memorised his statement to the police, and showed a precise memory of every date and location in the long story of the conspiracy. He named conspirators and described the plots they discussed.

In particular, Babar had described how some of the defendants had met at the Pakistan home of Waheed Mahmood, one of those found guilty.

But under cross-examination his account began to appear questionable. Babar became uncertain about the meeting. Maybe there were two events. Maybe some of the defendants were not there. The defence suggested there was no such meeting at all.

Babar claimed Amin had given him a bag of detonators. But again under cross-examination he seemed unsure.

Defence lawyers suggested Babar was in fact a US agent who could have been recruited in 2004 when he visited the US embassy in Pakistan to ask for a visa for his family to return to the US.

Why would the US grant a visa to a man who had told a British television reporter in 2001 that he wanted to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, they asked?

Babar’s full story and real motivation remain unknown. He is currently providing evidence for terrorism trials in the US and Canada.

When he is finished he may serve three years in prison, after which he will go into a witness protection programme. He is immune from prosecution in Britain.

Dangerous echoes

There are dangerous echoes with the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s a number of Irish people in Britain were convicted for crimes they did not commit on the basis of false confessions.

And in the first half of the 1980s a succession of trials took place in Northern Ireland on the evidence of “supergrasses” from paramilitary organisations prepared to betray hundreds of their alleged co-conspirators.

The process collapsed after the supergrasses were shown to have concocted evidence.

Now this, the longest terrorism trial in British history, raises many questions.

Was torture used to obtain evidence in the case? What was the involvement of the British state in that torture? If the convicted men did conspire, which they have always denied, were they encouraged to conspire? What is the real story of Mohammed Junaid Babar?

Until these questions are answered, the fertiliser plot case won’t be closed.


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