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Airline Bomb Plot: A Trial of Popular Perception?

Commentary, 10 September 2008
Terrorism
The outcome of the recent trial of airline bomb plotters at Woolwich Crown Court brings to sharp relief the disconnect between the work of counter-terrorism practitioners and the perceptions of the general public.

The outcome of the recent trial of airline bomb plotters at Woolwich Crown Court brings to sharp relief the disconnect between the work of counter-terrorism practitioners and the perceptions of the general public.

By Anthony McGee, Head of Risk and Resilience, National Security & Resilience Department, RUSI

The dramatic plot to blow up seven aircraft over the Atlantic, which the police and intelligence services were confident they had uncovered, could have ultimately resulted in the most complex and ambitious terrorist attacks to date. Successful prosecution of the defendants would have evidenced strongly the growing sophistication and ambition of those who would terrorise the UK. Yet, some £10 million later and after the biggest counter- terrorism operation in UK history, a jury was unconvinced that any of the eight defendants had conspired to detonate explosives on an aircraft.

As soul-searching over the failed aspects of the trial begins, so too have the recriminations. Clearly, the impatience of the US and their unease at the prospect of a potential terrorist flying towards their shores – dummy run or not – undermined the extensive counter-terrorism operation which had been mounted in the UK. Yet, despite this disruption, the prosecuting authorities remained convinced that they were presenting an almost water-tight case. In fact, this was thought to be the strongest case presented in any of the terrorist trails seen in the UK since the 7/7 attacks.

All those concerned, within Whitehall, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) appear to be genuinely astonished at the failure to convict all eight suspects of the airlines plot; more still at the failure to convict five of the eight of anything at all. The decision to push immediately for a re-trial, apparently without the prospect of any new evidence, suggests that the authorities feel they have fallen foul of a peculiarly reluctant jury rather than an evidential deficit. This may well be the case. However, the entire episode might also be considered in the broader context of the UK’s struggle with ‘Islamic’ terrorism.

Within the police and security services there is now a cadre of terrorism specialists who have spent a great deal of their recent working lives mired in jihadist terrorist plots, whether aspirational, aborted and successful. Similarly, within the CPS there is a dedicated department of prosecutors who have grown used to securing terrorist convictions based on evidence apparently less concrete than that presented to support the airline plots. Regardless of the guilt or otherwise of the eight accused in Woolwich Crown Court, a fascinating and instructive aspect of the case is the gulf in perception, when faced with the same body of evidence, between seasoned counter-terrorist professionals and the lay jury.

The task of all those attempting to protect us from terrorism is becoming more difficult. The few legal firms which specialise in defending suspected terrorists have also accumulated years of expertise. They have become more adept in developing coherent counter-narratives and in exposing the weaknesses of the often circumstantial evidence on which terrorist cases necessarily rely. In the recent absence of successful attacks, officials who are privy to the details of active networks and foiled schemes struggle to justify tough precautionary measures to the vast majority of us who are not. This macro trend is demonstrated in micro by the latest trial. Where those from Whitehall, the police and the CPS, whose job is to be preoccupied with terrorism every day, saw glaring, indisputable linkages, plotting and conspiracy, a lay jury remained very much to be convinced.

If the exasperation and disbelief demonstrated by officialdom in the wake of the failed trials is to be avoided on a grand scale, counter-terrorism policy makers would do well to be aware of, and sensitive to, the apparently growing gap between those who live and breathe counter-terrorism and the wider population, upon whom their success will ultimately depend.

See also:

Due process is better than quick fixes in the war on terror
By Professor Michael Clarke

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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