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Opinion: Could US-British cooperation have caught more terrorists?

In a second trial, three British men were convicted on 2006 charges of plotting to blow up airplanes.

A Virgin Atlantic aircraft comes in to land at Heathrow Airport, in London on May 26, 2009. Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar, three British men of Pakistani descent were convicted Monday of planning to blow up as many as nine commercial airliners en route from Britain to America in the summer of 2006. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Three British men connected to Al Qaeda were convicted Monday of masterminding a massive terrorism plot that could have resulted in thousands of deaths in fiery explosions over the Atlantic. Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar had been accused of planning to blow up as many as nine commercial airliners en route from Britain to America in the summer of 2006.

The convictions should have brought a feeling of satisfaction to Britain's security services but it hasn't. The case of the airplane plotters has highlighted the tensions that had built up between British and American security services in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. The tensions led Andy Hayman, Scotland Yard's former head of counter-terrorism policy and operations, to today blame former Vice President Dick Cheney of nearly blowing the whole operation.

The back story:

Starting in late 2005 and early 2006, British operatives began tracking Abdulla Ali and Assad Sarwar as they made trips from their homes in London to Pakistan (all three men were of Pakistani descent). The pair were already on British security service's radar as they had visited Pakistan at the same time as the men who bombed London on July 7, 2005. Fifty-two people were killed in that atrocity. The men were placed under 24-hour surveillance by a team of 200 British security officers. They were secretly filmed buying the components for the bombs: hydrogen peroxide and wires, batteries and alarm clocks. The idea, borrowed from a plot concocted back in the 90s by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, was to put a powerful distillation of the peroxide in sports drink bottles. The wires and batteries would then be packed along with alarm clocks in hand luggage. At some point in the flight the men were to go to the bathroom, assemble all the pieces, set the alarm timers and place the bombs in a position where the explosion would tear a hole in the fuselage causing massive pressure loss and the plane's explosion.

Throughout spring and summer 2006 the men were being monitored. Pakistani security services kept tabs on the men when they visited Rashid Rauf, thought to be the European operations chief for Al Qaeda. Immigration and customs officials waved them through London's Heathrow airport on return flights from these visits even when they were carrying incriminating evidence. As the plot grew firmer and it became clear that once again American airplanes were to be the vehicles of destruction, Britain's then-Prime Minister Tony Blair decided it was time to bring the Bush administration into the picture.

According to Hayman, that may have been a mistake. Immediately, the American officials began demanding the British shut the operation down. The British resisted. The more the men carried out their activites both at home and abroad, the more they were learning about Al Qaeda's operations in Europe. Hayman's team wanted to continue to watch and see how far along the terror chain of command they could gather information.

In an article in Tuesday's Times of London, Hayman writes of the transatlantic tension: "Fearful for the safety of American lives, the U.S. authorities had been getting edgy, seeking reassurance that this was not going to slip through our hands. We moved from having congenial conversations to eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations."