April 4, 2008 -- As the London trial for the alleged plotters of the foiled 2006 U.K. plane bombings gets underway, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff blasts what he calls minimal press coverage of the "disturbing" and "chilling" case, which led to a ban on liquids brought on aircraft for 18 months.
In a post to the department's blog, Leadership Journal, Chertoff criticized the focus on "celebrity peccadilloes and microscopic analysis of political comments," charging that the media is overlooking "a very significant story that tells us a lot about why we need some of the moderately inconvenient security measures with which we live" — a reference to the limit on liquids allowed on board flights, and other airport security requirements.
On trial are eight men who, according to the prosecution, planned to strike at least seven jetliners bound for North America on United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada flights into New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto.
According to the prosecution, and first reported on ABC News in August 2006, the plotters intended to smuggle explosive liquid peroxide, colored with dye, inside sport drink bottles, to assemble the bombs on the aircraft.
The new restrictions on liquids were a result of the thwarted attack, but "because we couldn't say more without violating British legal rules, some of you may have wondered whether the plot was all that serious," Chertoff wrote.
"The details being unfolded are riveting — and chilling," he continued. "Unfortunately, the trial is not getting much play in our domestic news outlets, but the evidence should be required reading for those who travel by air."
According to media reports and prosecutors, the group recruited as many as 18 members for the suicide operations, which could have killed thousands on the U.S.-bound planes filled with people on summer travel.
In an August 2007 interview with ABC News, Chertoff said, "If they had succeeded in bringing liquid explosives on seven or eight aircraft, there could have been thousands of lives lost and an enormous economic impact with devastating consequences for international air travel."
The eight men on trial have denied the charges. Because of U.K. law, officials there have not openly discussed the alleged plot, since it was disrupted and publicly announced.
U.S. officials have been cautious about linking the plot to al Qaeda's traditional type of operations with direct command over the operation and timing of the event, as was the case of the 9/11 attacks. The men have family links in Pakistan, and appear to have been inspired by al Qaeda.
The Associated Press reported Friday that martyrdom videos made by the men where shown in the London courtroom Friday. On the tapes, the defendants cited their hatred for the U.S. and the U.K. for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The AP quoted one of the defendants, Umar Islam, as saying on the tapes, "This is revenge for the actions of the U.S. in the Muslim lands and their accomplices — the British and the Jews ... I say to the nonbelievers, as you bomb, you will be bombed. As you kill, you will be killed."
Another man charged in the case, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, said on the tape, "Now the time has come for you to be destroyed," according to the AP.
"Not much imagination is required to conceive of the horror that would have been experienced when word of the first explosion reached crews and even passengers of other transatlantic flights," Chertoff wrote.