Lacking evidence, Britain to free LAX bomb plot suspect
British authorities will soon free an accused Algerian leader of Al Qaeda who had been charged as the mastermind of a foiled plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, British officials say.
The recent court order to release the 45-year-old Algerian on bail after seven years in custody comes after authorities freed Abu Qatada, a Jordanian cleric who allegedly was Al Qaeda’s top ideologue in Europe.
British officials refer to the accused Algerian leader as “U” because of a court order to refrain from naming him publicly. American prosecutors identified him in a U.S. indictment in 2001 under an alias, Abu Doha, because his real name remains unknown.
As with Abu Qatada, strict bail conditions will limit the Algerian’s movements and contacts and allow police to monitor him closely, officials said. Nonetheless, the failure to keep the two men behind bars reveals persistent obstacles to fighting Al Qaeda in the Western justice system, anti-terrorism officials and experts say.
The case of the Algerian is alarming, officials and experts say, because investigations by European, U.S. and North African security forces concluded that he was a leader of Al Qaeda plots in the West before the Sept. 11 attacks. His release results from a lack of hard evidence that can be used for prosecution, and from dogged resistance by British judges to deporting suspects to countries with questionable human rights records.
“It’s kind of tragic that after six years we have not been able to find a system for dealing with these individuals,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia- Pacific Foundation, a think tank on security issues. “I have heard people from the U.S. argue that this is why they have Guantanamo,” referring to the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
In Britain, on the other hand, there is growing impatience in sectors of government and among the public with extended detentions of suspects without charge.
The Algerian was detained here in February 2001 in a crackdown on militants suspected of plotting an attack in Strasbourg, France. U.S. prosecutors charged him with leading a cell that intended to carry out a bomb attack on LAX just before New Year’s Day 2000.
U.S. Customs inspectors arrested the would-be bomber, an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam, at the Canadian border with a car load of explosives. He was convicted and cooperated with investigators, describing the Algerian as an Al Qaeda chief who oversaw recruiting in Europe and training at a camp in Afghanistan.
But Ressam then refused to testify, forcing prosecutors to drop an extradition request for the alleged mastermind in 2005.
Security officials and defense lawyers are discussing details of bail conditions before the Algerian’s release, which could take place within days, British counter-terrorism officials said last week. He had been held on immigration charges.
British anti-terrorism officials tried to have him deported to Algeria, but the courts blocked that move. The Algerian, Abu Qatada and other foreign terrorism suspects here are in limbo because British judges have ruled that they face a danger of torture, or prosecution based on evidence obtained through torture, if they are deported.
Resentment and distrust of government detention policies came through in a recent published commentary about the case of Abu Qatada.
“The police should have placed him under surveillance until they had accumulated the necessary evidence to charge him with a crime,” wrote Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. “Instead, the government ordered him to be locked up and just threw away the key.”
European investigators retort that Abu Qatada inspired militants, including the Sept. 11 hijackers, while living with his family on welfare checks in a comfortable house in West London.
The prosecution of Abu Qatada was problematic because the Jordanian cleric’s activity was essentially ideological. In contrast, investigators insist, there is little doubt about the top operational role the Algerian suspect played after arriving in Britain in 1996 and requesting asylum on grounds that he faced persecution at home.
During the next five years, the Algerian shuttled between Europe and Afghanistan building the networks, according to a Foreign Office note provided to the Special Immigration Appeals Court last year.
“Senior position in a . . . training camp in Afghanistan,” the note reads. “Direct links to UBL [Osama bin Laden] and other senior AQ figures. Involved in supporting terrorist attacks, including those involved in the planned attack on the Strasbourg Christmas market in 2000, and an earlier plan to attack Los Angeles Airport.”
Ressam, one of four convicted in the LAX case, told investigators that he discussed the plot with Abu Doha, the Algerian, at the camp, according to the U.S. indictment. From London, the Algerian directed Ressam and others in Montreal in setting the plot in motion and planning escape routes to Europe and North Africa, the indictment said.
The Algerian also was implicated in a parallel plot to bomb hotels in Jordan, U.S. officials said at the time.
Despite all the allegations, Western prosecutors do not seem eager to go after him again. Much of the case was built on the statements by Ressam, who stopped cooperating and is serving a 22-year sentence, or on intelligence that cannot be used in court, investigators said.
“Everybody talked about Doha in the networks. He was a point of reference,” said veteran Italian prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso, who investigated the Algerian network and questioned Ressam in U.S. custody. “And the intelligence implicated him. But in terms of evidence, there was not direct proof.”
Public attitudes toward terrorism and the powers of law enforcement have changed as three years have passed without a successful attack in Europe, Dambruoso said.
“What do you prefer, security or freedom?” he said. “In a democracy, you will face this kind of trouble. As time goes by in Europe without an attack, the emphasis on freedom becomes stronger.”