LONDON (Reuters) - Up to 18 suicide bombers may have planned to take part in an Islamist terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners which could have killed more than 1,500 people, a London court heard on Thursday.
Prosecutors said a gang of Britons planned to simultaneously explode passenger aircraft in mid-air between London’s Heathrow airport and the United States and Canada.
They were close to putting their scheme into action when they were arrested in August 2006, the court was told.
“It is the prosecution case that these men and others were engaged in a deadly plan designed to bring about, what would have been if they had been successful, a civilian death toll from an act of terrorism on an almost unprecedented scale,” said prosecutor Peter Wright.
“These men were ... indifferent to the carnage that was likely to ensue if their plans were successful. To them the identities of their victims was a complete irrelevance. All in the name of Islam.”
The alleged plot involved homemade liquid explosives, hydrogen peroxide-based mixtures, hidden in soft drink bottles. The devices would have been put together on board and detonated when the planes were in mid-air, Wright said.
Eight men are on trial. Wright said the plot appeared to centre around seven transatlantic flights, carrying more than 200 passengers each.
But recorded conversations among the suspects suggested up to 18 suicide bombers and other terminals might have been involved, he added.
“From the evidence you hear you may conclude these men were almost ready to put this plot into practice,” Wright said.
“They are men with the cold-eyed certainty of the fanatic.”
The eight British citizens on trial at Woolwich Crown Court, a maximum security site in east London, are Abdullah Ahmad Ali, 27, Assad Sarwar, 27, Tanvir Hussain, 27, Mohammed Gulzar, 26, Ibrahim Savant, 27, Arafat Khan, 26, Waheed Zaman, 23, and Umar Islam, 29. All are charged with conspiracy to murder.
They are also accused of plotting “to commit an act of violence likely to endanger the safety of an aircraft.”
The men -- one from north London, another from High Wycombe to the west of London, and the rest from east London -- deny the charges. They sat in the dock, dressed smartly and flanked by guards.
The suspects were arrested in August 2006, just over a year after four British Islamists killed 52 commuters in suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport system. The arrests led to a big increase in security measures, bringing chaos to airports.
Ali, Sarwar and Gulzar were the ringleaders, Wright said. A computer memory stick found on Ali allegedly contained detailed information about flights and airport security.
Seven flights to six North American destinations -- Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, Washington, New York and Chicago -- were highlighted. The planes were 777s, 767s, and 763s, capable of carrying 241-285 people each.
More than a thousand flights were cancelled in the aftermath of the arrests. The U.S. and Britain imposed restrictions on the carrying of liquids onto planes by passengers.
Editing by Andrew Roche and Andrew Hough