British courts on Wednesday extended the deadline to bring charges against five suspects in connection with an alleged conspiracy to bomb U.S.-bound planes in midair, and ordered three other suspects held without bail.
Police will have another week to develop their case against the five suspects, or the court will release them. So far, 15 suspects have been charged, including the three denied bail Wednesday: Mohammed Yasar Gulzar, 25; Mohammed Shamin Uddin, 35; and Nabeel Hussain, 22.
British and European counter-terrorism officials said they now believe the suspects planned to down about six jets, perhaps fewer. In interviews, officials also revealed that the decision to launch a roundup this month came after suspects under surveillance learned of the arrest in Pakistan of another suspect.
The arrest, officials said, spurred suspects to film so-called martyrdom videos, considered a telltale sign that a terrorist attack could be looming.
“Things moved quicker than anyone expected because of the detention in Pakistan,” said a British counter-terrorism official, who asked not to be identified.
“There will prove to be a link between the arrests here, the videos and the detention in Pakistan,” the official said.
Dozens of searches turned up six videos in which suspects described their reasons for participating in a plot to smuggle aboard materials to make liquid explosives while in flight, British and European officials said.
“It is certain that they were making videotapes,” said a senior European counter-terrorism official with access to information about the case. “That’s a classic moment in investigations when you feel great pressure to move in.”
Authorities have said previously that searches netted large quantities of potential bomb-making materials at locations including an apartment in East London that served as a headquarters for the group.
Moreover, the British official said police conducting audio and video surveillance felt “there was no doubt” that the group had the technical ability to smuggle the ingredients through airport security, mix them on board and set off the explosives using makeshift detonators such as batteries.
“This is an ability that is new and that should have huge implications for the way people see the threat,” the British official said.
But officials acknowledged that the number of planes targeted might have been overstated in the aftermath of the arrests Aug. 10. Rather than nine or 10 planes, as some officials previously said, the British official put the number at “half a dozen maybe, at a maximum. I think the numbers got exaggerated. The notion of nine is too much.”
Soon after the arrests, officials told The Times that any attack was at least weeks away and that the suspects had not purchased airline tickets.
The suspect group “had a very serious project, but the reaction seems a bit exaggerated,” the European official said. “They did not have a date [for the attack]. And above all, the dimensions weren’t so big, not as many flights,” as had been first reported.
Top investigators in neighboring countries were reluctant to criticize British counterparts, saying they knew the challenges of running surveillance operations, assessing risk and keeping the public safe and informed.
Nonetheless, a high-ranking French anti-terrorism official said the resulting chaos in airports and draconian bans on many carry-on items had created a “psychosis” about flying.
“The reaction is a real gift to Al Qaeda,” the French official said.
Key questions remain about alleged links to Al Qaeda or its allied networks in Pakistan.
Although Pakistani authorities have described Rashid Rauf, the Briton in Pakistan whose arrest triggered the raids here, as a central figure who met with top militants, his role remains “very unclear,” the British official said.
“I don’t think there’s clarity on how directive the Pakistani networks are,” the official said.
Police have requested Rauf’s extradition in connection with the 2002 slaying of his uncle in Birmingham, a suspected family “honor” killing, rather than on terrorism charges, because the evidence in the murder case was collected in Britain and will be looked on more favorably in a British court, the official said.
British authorities have yet to discuss allegations by Pakistani officials linking the suspects to South Africa. Several previous terrorism cases here have featured links to the South Asian diaspora communities of southern Africa.