Questions raised over some terror plot charges
By John Crewdson
Tribune senior correspondent
Published August 31, 2006
LONDON -- He is 17 years old, the son of a Muslim family that emigrated years ago to Britain from India. His lawyer describes him as a "steady, strong young man," which is good, because at the moment he is in a world of trouble.
Under British law his name cannot be published because of his age. But public documents attest that he is the youngest person among the 15 so far charged in what Scotland Yard calls a plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" by blowing up airliners en route to the United States.
The teen is accused not of helping to plan the alleged attack, but of "possession of items that would be of use to terrorism." Among the items were documents the police described as "suicide notes" signed by other young men preparing to die.
"They're not suicide notes at all," retorts his lawyer, Gareth Peirce, whose application for bail was rejected Tuesday by a London judge. "They're really simple wills. To call these suicide notes was absolutely disgraceful."
The wills, Peirce adds, "all date to 1995," when her client was 6. She says they appear to have been drawn up by British Muslims going to fight alongside other Muslims in Bosnia more than a decade ago, "which was not a crime."
The charge against the youth --along with the release of five suspects and the failure so far to formally accuse five others out of 25 arrested more than three weeks ago--suggests that the British police may have erred on the side of caution in arresting individuals who knew little or nothing about the plan to blow up the airliners.
The alleged plot has been portrayed as potentially another Sept. 11 attack, or worse. Some of those who have seen the prosecution's evidence agree that several defendants seem to have been contemplating the in-flight bombings of passenger jets.
But skepticism has grown about some of the initial police claims and charges, reminding some Britons of other recent instances in which police initially overstated the seriousness of purported terrorist plots, such as the arrests two years ago of eight men suspected of planning to bomb the stadium where the famed Manchester United soccer team plays. The suspects were quickly released when the case against them evaporated.
In large part, the skepticism has been fueled by the reluctance of the police to more fully describe the evidence supporting their dire warnings that an attack had been "highly likely."
But two defense lawyers who have seen some exhibits presented by prosecutors in closed court hearings say there does appear to be solid evidence that a core group of the defendants was planning to smuggle liquid chemicals--from which a powerful but relatively unstable explosive can be made--aboard trans-Atlantic airliners.
One of the defense lawyers, who spoke on condition that he not be named because to do so would risk a citation for contempt of court, called the evidence "quite serious indeed."
Both lawyers said that they had seen no evidence linking a number of those arrested to a terrorist plot, and one lawyer termed what the police did Aug. 9-10 as "over-broad sweeps."
The documents in the youth's case, according to Peirce, were found by police in a box in the boy's mother's house, apparently left there by his since-divorced and departed father, who once operated a London charity that collected clothing and medicine for Bosnian Muslims.
The box, Peirce said, also contained another of the items listed in the charge against her client, a crude map of Afghanistan--drawn years ago, Peirce says, by the boy's younger brother: "It's a child's map!"
A third item mentioned by police, recovered from the same box, is a book investigators say contains instructions for building bombs. Peirce says the book is filled with drawings of electrical circuits that might contain information useful in building a bomb, although not the kind of bomb the defendants are suspected of having tried to make.
"He saw a book that had diagrams," Peirce says. "He said it looked like the textbooks at school. What I said in court was this charge can only have been brought by people who are seeing things through spectacles that say `terrorism,'" Peirce said after the bail hearing.
The 17-year-old's only connection to the alleged plot, Peirce maintains, is that some of the other suspects in the case worked for his father's now-defunct charity, which she identified as Islamic Medical Aid.
Questions also have been raised about charges against Umair and Mehran Hussain, two university-educated brothers in their early 20s who lived in the heavily Pakistani-Muslim Walthamstow area of northeast London, where eight of the defendants grew up.
Their father, Fazal Hussain, who labored in a shoe factory to put his sons through college, was described by a family friend as "devastated" by the arrests.
Umair and Mehran Hussain are both charged with a single count of withholding from police information pertaining to a possible terrorist act, a far less serious offense than conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism, of which 11 of their fellow defendants have been accused.
Will allegedly withheld
The information allegedly withheld, according to one source who has seen the prosecutors' evidence, is a Muslim will signed "nearly a year ago" by a third brother, Nabeel Hussain, who was charged Tuesday with conspiracy to commit terrorism and murder.
Umair and Mehran Hussain are not accused of participating in or even knowing about the alleged bombing plot, the source said, only of having failed to tell the police about Nabeel's will.
The prosecution's contention that the will relates to terrorism, this person said, hinges on a quotation it includes from the Koran. Nabeel's lawyers are said to have assembled Koranic scholars who will testify that the quotation has nothing to do with terrorism.
Muslims say there is no ideological significance attached to the making of an Islamic will.
The full range of evidence in the case is not likely to become public unless there is a trial, something lawyers say could be two years away.