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

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."

Then, without notifying the British authorities, Cheney sent a senior operative, Jose Rodriguez, on a secret mission to the Pakistani government with the demand that it arrest Rashid Rauf. The Al Qaeda operative was immediately detained. The plotters in Britain knew their cover was blown and Hayman and his team had to scramble to make arrests. The plotters had time to destroy crucial evidence before the police arrived. In a BBC interview on Tuesday, Michael Clarke, head of the defense think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said that British authorities had been enraged by Cheney's action.

In fact, the haste with which Ali, Hussein and Sarwar were arrested may have contributed to the failure of their first trial. A little over a year ago a jury was unable to reach a verdict on the main charge against them: that they plotted to blow up airplanes. With double jeopardy rules not applying to terrorism cases in Britain, the men were ordered to stand trial again. This time, with the Obama administration in place, the American government helpfully provided transcripts of intercepted emails between the plotters and Rauf. Even in the obscure spy code used in their communications it was clear what the men were plotting. "How is the skin infection you were telling me about?" asks Rauf in one email. "Skin condition" was code for police surveillance.

The jury this time had no trouble convicting the three men. Sentencing is scheduled for next week.

But big questions still hover over the case. Rashid Rauf escaped from a Pakistani jail while awaiting a decision on his extradition to Britain. Was he being ingenious or did someone inside the Pakistani security services help him? Rauf was killed in November 2008 in a predator drone strike on a Taliban safe house in Waziristan. Nobody was ever recovered and the word "allegedly" is increasingly being used to describe his current status — as in "allegedly" killed by a predator drone strike. So is he really dead?

If the British authorities had had more time to observe the plot unfolding, how much further along the Al Qaeda network in Europe would they have penetrated? It was clear from the information they had that there were many plots afoot. How many potential terrorists and terrorist sympathizers might they have found if they had been allowed to run the operation in their own way?

Why were the emails not available at the first trial?

Why has Andy Hayman's book about his time running the counterterrorism unit at Scotland Yard been suppressed by the British government? Is it to spare American officials embarrassment?

The biggest questions of all are for Dick Cheney. On whose authority did he lean on the Pakistanis? Why did he not give Tony Blair warning of his intentions? Was he not aware that by his actions he very nearly made it impossible for the British to successfully prosecute those involved in the airplane plot?

Five years into the global war on terror hadn't Cheney figured out that interdiction and due legal process were part of the rule of law and that successful operations against terrorists require legitimate governments to do both: interdict and legally punish?