The three men convicted today wanted to be remembered as the suicide bombers who had committed the worst atrocity ever seen on British soil. Irfan Naseer and Irfan Khalid - known as Big and Little Irfan - and a third man Ashik Ali appeared to be religiously observant but not fanatical. They had all been born and raised in the Sparkhill and Sparkbrook suburbs of Birmingham, second generation Pakistanis with no criminal record or reason for the authorities to single them out for attention.
But over a two and a half year period between 2009 and 2011 they focused obsessively on training, preparing and recruiting others for a bomb plot that they hoped would be the most horrific ever perpetrated in this country. They were secretly recorded on a police audio bug speaking of their admiration for the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the 7/7 bombings in London.
If it had not been for a successful intelligence and police operation, called Operation Pitsford, they might well have succeeded in making and detonating a series of suicide bombs. Irfan Naseer, 31, a large man known by several nick names, including 'Chubbs', and Irfan Khalid, 27, are first thought to have come onto the intelligence radar during an eight-month trip to Pakistan in 2009 during which they visited several training camps in Waziristan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions, learning about explosives, IEDS and poisons. When they returned to Pakistan for a second trip in 2010, West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit had been alerted to their suspicious behaviour and had begun a surveillance operation.
The four-month trial at Woolwich Crown Court was shown photographs which tracked Naseer and Khalid's arrival back at Birmingham Airport in July 2011. They were then closely monitored, Naseer's car was bugged and a flat used by the third defendant Ashik Ali, 29, was also bugged. They were seen buying ingredients and components such as a clock, a sports pack for treating injuries that contained urea prills, and syringes that could be used to make a bomb. They spoke about making "seven or eight separate bombs", which would be timed to go off simultaneously.
The audio bugs allowed detectives to record the men talking about their plans and saying it would be "revenge for everything... another 9/11". They also spoke about the 7/7 attacks, suggesting they had "gone a bit wrong" and deciding that was because the terrorists had forgotten to pack their bombs with nails and shrapnel. But when the police heard the men experimenting at the White Street council flat the decision was taken to move in and arrest the ringleaders.
Targets and a timetable were never established but detectives have defended the policy of early intervention, insisting that allowing the plot to progress would have been dangerous for both local residents and the defendants. They had no doubt that the men could have pulled off a devastating attack, the senior investigating officer Detective Inspector Adam Gough called them "the real deal".
A subsequent search of the flat uncovered a partially burnt piece of paper with the words "ammonium nitrate" "powder and bulb" "nail varnish remover". In court experts testified that these ingredients and instructions would allow the men to make a viable bomb. It was also revealed that Naseer had a pharmacy degree from Aston University in Birmingham.
The jury was told the men had posed as bogus charity collectors to raise money for terror training trips to Pakistan and to buy the bomb ingredients. They wore high visibility jackets and claimed to be raising money for the charity Muslim Aid. Much of the money was raised during Ramadan. In total they collected £14,500 but the charity only received £1,500. A fourth man, Rahin Ahmed was trusted to invest the money but he gambled on the foreign exchange internet site Forex and lost more than £9,000 in just two weeks. Ahmed, an unemployed law graduate, pleaded guilty to the charge of raising money for terrorist acts.
Irfan Naseer and Irfan Khalid met when they were teenagers, like many young men from their background, they regularly attended prayers. They were angry about the British involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and what they saw as the persecution of fellow Muslims. They were increasingly influenced by the teachings of Anwar al Awlaki, a US citizen of Yemeni descent credited with being the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad. The cleric was killed by a US drone several months after their arrest but tapes of his sermons were found in the flat used by the defendants. A tape of the so called martyrdom video made by the leader of the London bombings, Mohammad Siddique, was also found in the flat.
During the conversations overheard on the audio bug, Naseer and Khalid spoke about their experiences in Pakistan. They said that they had been forced to hide from the drones, lying without moving in extremely high temperatures for four hours. Khalid was recorded saying to Naseer "Naseer bia (brother), tell Amir Saab to get us out of here, If I have to stay here for another hour I will pray that I get hit by a drone." In the suicide videos they claimed to have made and left in Pakistan, to be released on their deaths, they said they had warned that their suicide bombs would spill "so much blood that you will remember, you'll have nightmares for the rest of your lives."
Despite their own experiences, Naseer and Khalid persuaded another four men to join their plot and paid for them to travel to Pakistan. They hoped Ishaaq Hussain, Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain and Shahid Khan would attend training camps but rumours started to spread amongst the community in Birmingham when the four young men failed to turn up at the gym they used regularly. Their parents were alerted and the men were contacted in Pakistan and persuaded to return to the UK. All four pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistan for training in terrorism.
M15 and West Midlands Police believe this was an autonomous cell. Although influenced by Al Qaeda it was not actively directed by the terrorist organisation. Irfan Khalid said: "It's not for any group, it's for Allah." When he was arrested, Ashik Ali said in his police interview that the two Irfans had come back from Pakistan determined to put "a plan" together. It would involve him having to wear a suicide vest and having a gun. He later said that he never actually intended to carry out the plan.
For the security services and counter terrorism police this is a major success. They have foiled the biggest terrorist threat to the UK since the failed airline plot in 2006. It reinforces the belief that the policy of early disruption is the best way to prevent terrorist activity. There were similarities between the defendants in this trial and the four men who died along with 52 victims in the London bombings of 2005. However, six years later, the intelligence services will take pride in the fact that this time they were able to identify and track those who wanted to bring terrorism to the streets of Britain.