LONDON (Reuters) - Three Britons were found guilty on Monday of plotting to kill thousands by blowing up trans-atlantic airliners bound for North America in mid-flight suicide attacks using bombs made from liquid explosives.
The suspected al Qaeda plot, just days from being put into operation according to British detectives, had huge worldwide ramifications leading to tight restrictions on the amount of liquids passengers could take on board aircraft.
Four other men were found not guilty of the plot and the jury failed to reach a verdict in the case of an eighth suspect, the Press Association reported.
The bombers intended to simultaneously destroy at least seven planes carrying over 200 passengers each between London’s Heathrow airport and the United States and Canada in August 2006 using explosives hidden in soft drink bottles, prosecutors said.
The conspirators were caught before they could put their plan into action following the largest counter-terrorism operation ever carried out by British police.
London police chief Paul Stephenson said at the time the men’s intent was to cause “mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” while a senior British police source said they could have killed thousands on board and more people if they had detonated the bombs over land.
U.S. officials have said the carnage would have been as horrific as the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people and had huge repercussions for the aviation industry.
Prosecutors said the plot centred on seven flights from Heathrow’s Terminal 3, each capable of carrying between 241 and 285 passengers.
But recorded conversations between some of the men, British Muslims, suggested other terminals and possibly 18 suicide bombers might have been involved, while targets such as gas terminals and oil refineries were mentioned.
The plot was hatched in Pakistan just months before the men were arrested in August 2006. Police suspect that al Qaeda planner, Egyptian Abu Obaidah al Masri, who some media reports have cited as the inspiration for the deadly July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London, was the mastermind.
The British ringleader was Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, while Assad Sarwar, 29, gathered the bomb ingredients at his home in High Wycombe, a town west of the capital.
At a previous trial last year, Ali, Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain, 28, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but the jury failed to agree on whether they had intended to blow up planes.
No verdict was reached against Umar Islam, 31, although he was convicted of conspiracy to murder.
The court heard that six of the men recorded martyrdom videos, in which they sat in front of a black flag inscribed with white Arabic writing, stating the planned attacks were in revenge for U.S. and British interference on Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian territory.
“Sheik Osama (bin Laden) warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed,” Ali said in his video.
“I say to you disbelievers that as you bomb, you will be bombed. As you kill, you will be killed. The time has come for you to be destroyed and you have nothing but to expect ... floods of martyrdom operations.”
In their defence the men claimed the plot was just a stunt.
They said they had intended to set off a small device at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, which is used by U.S. airlines, to cause chaos and to promote a documentary video criticising British and U.S. foreign policy to be aired possibly on the website YouTube.
Ali said they had not intended to kill anyone but wanted to do something that would be considered serious and credible.
The guilty men will be sentenced next Monday.
Editing by Louise Ireland