5 plead guilty in airline plot, but trial will go on

Five of eight men accused of plotting suicide-bombing attacks on several trans-Atlantic airliners with explosives disguised in soft-drink bottles changed their pleas at the last minute on Monday, pleading guilty to lesser charges but maintaining that they never intended to attack the flights.

The guilty pleas came as closing legal arguments began at Woolwich Crown Court in London, where the case is expected to go to the jury within days.

The prosecutor, Peter Wright, dismissed the changed pleas, saying the guilty pleas sought to disguise the men's “true motive” of committing “wholesale murder above the skies of Europe and North America.”

The guilty pleas did not of themselves alter the main case against the eight men that will go to the jury.

They are charged with conspiring to murder thousands of people by carrying out the attacks on passenger jets bound for North America.

If found guilty, they face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The alleged plot, if proven in court, would be one of the most serious conspiracies by Islamic terrorists anywhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, as measured by the number of potential victims.

After the police announced they had disrupted the plot in its final planning stages in the summer of 2006, there was a worldwide tightening of airport security measures to limit passengers from carrying on board liquids and creams, restrictions that mostly still apply.

At the London trial, which began two months ago, the prosecution has told the court that the men's plans included identifying seven specific flights from Heathrow Airport's Terminal 3, which is a base for several airlines that fly trans-Atlantic routes.

The prosecution has said that the plot leaders had searched flight guides and identified seven flights as potentially vulnerable – to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, Montreal and Toronto – but that no specific flights or dates or flights had been selected.

On Monday, three of the men pleaded guilty to conspiring to cause explosions with a stockpile of soft-drink bottles and hydrogen peroxide, a substance capable of being the basic component of a bomb. It is commercially available in Britain and many other countries.

Two of the men — Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, and Assad Sarwar, 28, who were joined in the guilty plea by Tanvir Hussain, 27 — admitted in court previously that they intended to set off bombs, but said they shifted their target to airline offices at Terminal 3 after security at the original target, the Houses of Parliament in central London, had proven to be too tight.

The men contended in their testimony that they intended to set off nonfatal explosions, possibly in garbage bins outside American airline offices at the terminal, as a propaganda gesture to draw attention to their grievances, which included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.