Four Islamic militants, all British citizens, admitted involvement on Wednesday in a conspiracy inspired by Al Qaeda to place a bomb in the toilets of the London Stock Exchange, with the hope that the multistory building would catch fire. Five other men involved in a wider terrorist conspiracy pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Prosecutors said the stock exchange plot was foiled by the arrests of the nine men, all with family origins in Bangladesh or Pakistan, in December 2010 at their homes in London, Cardiff and the Midlands town of Stoke-on-Trent. They said the men’s plans were discovered after undercover counterterrorism officers tailed them as they surveyed London tourist attractions and tracked their conversations through secret electronic monitoring devices planted in their homes, cars and computers.
Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the United States Embassy were among the targets scouted or considered by the men, the court was told. Others included the home of the London mayor, two rabbis and the London Eye, a 440-foot Ferris wheel towering above the River Thames.
The case was part of Britain’s long-running battle against terrorist plots involving militants born or living in Britain since the bombings on July 7, 2005, that killed 52 people, plus four bombers, on three London subway trains and a bus.
The outcome was taken by British counterterrorism experts as a triumph for the elaborate electronic surveillance techniques deployed by the country’s web of intelligence and security agencies. But the case also served as a warning of potential threats as London prepares a security force of nearly 25,000 men and women, including troops, to protect the 2012 summer Olympic Games, which begin in July.
The nine had been set to plead innocent to terrorism charges but changed their pleas to guilty at the last minute when the judge warned them of heavy sentences, including up to 13 and a half years for the man suspected of being the ringleader, if the case went to a prolonged trial. By pleading guilty, legal experts said, the men made themselves eligible for a “discount” of as much as 10 percent in their prison terms when sentenced next week.
For years, Britain’s top counterterrorism officials have been warning of what they called a network of Islamic terrorist cells across the country, and saying that the security agencies, despite major increases in financing and staff, lack the resources to track them all. Bob Quick, a former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, said in a BBC radio interview that the plot “serves to remind us that there are still people out in the country contemplating and capable of carrying out terrorist attacks on innocent people.”
But other experts said that the arrests and convictions of the men showed the vast improvements in British methods of hunting down would-be terrorists.
Alexander Carlile, a member of the House of Lords and formerly the government’s independent reviewer of counterterrorism legislation, said the tracking of the militants in the stock exchange plot had been “an excellent example of the surveillance and interception capabilities of British intelligence, as good as and probably better than any other country in the world.”
But he added, “We must not cease for one moment to be vigilant about the dangers of terrorism, particularly in this Olympic year.”
Much of Britain’s covert electronic listening, code-breaking and surveillance is conducted by an institution called Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, run in close collaboration with the National Security Agency in the United States. GCHQ is one of three British intelligence agencies, along with the domestic MI5 security agency and the overseas MI6 secret intelligence service. GCHQ’s operations are conducted mainly from its headquarters at the entrance to the spa town of Cheltenham, where most of the agency’s 5,500 staff members work, according to its Web site.
The militants involved in the case that went to court on Wednesday met through their affiliations with Islamic groups, prosecutors said, and communicated via Internet and cellphone. They also met in public places, like parks, where they believed official surveillance would be more difficult, unaware that undercover agents were scrutinizing their movements.
Mohammed Chowdhury, 21, and Shah Rahman, 28, both of Bangladeshi descent and from London, together with two militants from Wales, Gurukanth Desai, 30, and Abdul Miah, 25, admitted planning to plant a bomb at the London Stock Exchange “with the obvious attendant risk but without any intention to cause death or even injury but with the intention to terrorize, damage property and to cause economic damage,” said Christopher Blaxland, a lawyer acting for Mr. Chowdhury.
The nine were arrested before they had set a date for attacks or built bombs, the prosecution said. Though not members of Al Qaeda, they were inspired by the anti-Western tirades of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American jihadist killed by an American drone strike in Yemen in September, said Andrew Edis, a prosecution lawyer.
Counterterrorism officials found the men in possession of a Qaeda magazine containing an article titled: “Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom,” the prosecution said.