Mother of Satan: Inside History’s Largest Counterterrorism Probe

Assad Sarwar needed to hide his expanding cache of hydrogen peroxide. He couldn’t risk having all his chemicals and gear inside his home, because he still lived in his family’s semi detached house in the town of High Wycombe, halfway between London and Oxford. He had been buying bottles of it at health food stores in and around England and Wales at a steady clip, but he now had to store it somewhere off-site.

It was the summer of 2006, and Sarwar was serving as the quartermaster for what was quickly becoming the largest terrorist conspiracy in the post 9/11 era. He, along with several men in London, were trying to build several explosives for a mission that would devastate the West. It was an extremely tense time, especially for the British; less than a year beforehand, two other Pakistan-trained al Qaeda terrorist cells of suicide attackers had struck the Underground during the morning rush hour. The first became the worst terror strike in London’s history, killing 52 commuters and injuring hundreds more, and is now known as the “7/7 attacks.” The second, where a separate cell also struck transportation targets, literally fizzled when all the suicide bombers’ explosives failed to detonate because they had botched the chemical recipe. But what was especially concerning was that both terrorist cells had built their weapons and carried out their plans—completely under the noses of the authorities. They simply had little idea what these cells were up to, until they saw it on television.

That same day, he placed an order for four glass containers, conical flasks, beakers, and a measuring cylinder from the Hop Shop store in Plymouth. He needed this to manufacture the hmtd that would serve as the spark for a larger explosion. Al Qaeda’s mastermind in Pakistan, Rashid Rauf had been adamant the last time they met in South Asia that he needed concentrated hydrogen peroxide at 80 percent mixed with some aluminum powder, along with an hmtd detonator.

Sarwar kept a notebook in his bedroom, where he’d scribble down hardly-in-code items like “get more hp” and “80 hp” and “get black hp.” After his meeting with some of the other members of the cell, he wrote: “Investigate in Bact, th, Coryton, Fawley, Kingsbury and Haven.”

This was not in code, since it was just for himself. These were all energy terminals around Great Britain: Bacton, Theddlethorpe, and Kingsbury were gas terminals, while Coryton, Fawley, and Haven were oil refineries. He had been researching Britain’s gas and electricity grid on his home computer as well.

aki peritz disruption

On that day, Sarwar checked out a wooded area near his home called Booker Common Woods, as well as an enclosed area called King’s Wood—almost two hundred acres of ancient beech woodland and flowering plants, encroached by suburban sprawl. Sarwar drove to the edge of a spur, where a tract of houses dead-ended into the Wood. He jumped out a hundred feet from the entrance with a large green bag in his left hand and walked along the main path. He walked another six hundred feet into the Wood, near freshly cut grass in the shape of a semicircle, and continued along the path to the right. Then he abruptly turned around and started back toward his car, tightly clutching his bag.

Sarwar returned to his car and drove to a triangular parking area by the entryway to the Wood closest to his home. Again holding his green bag, he entered through a gate and then walked straight on into the wooded area, approaching a three-way fork. He followed the center path, which then dipped into a shallow gulley, and then disappeared into the forest.

It was still daylight outside, but the undercover Thames Valley Police (tvp) officers tailing Sarwar had to be careful to remain out of sight since there were few people wandering around the Wood at that time. Luckily, the officers were far enough back to remain unnoticed after his first stop but now, at the second, they were stuck as he disappeared from their view. Victims of unfavorable topography, they would have walked in from a rise in the ground. Had Sarwar turned around, he would’ve seen them. tvp didn’t have any aerial support to watch him from above, which wouldn’t have helped much anyway because of the dense tree cover. Frustrated, the officers decided that their best course of action was to hold their ground, even if they didn’t have eyes on the target.

Half an hour later, Sarwar reemerged from the densely wooded area, but without his green bag. What his tail didn’t realize was that he used it to mark a tree deep in the Wood as a suitable place to dig a hole. All the tvp knew was that he went into the Wood with a bag, and then returned without it.

Early the next morning, Sarwar returned to the Wood, this time with the shovel and silver suitcase he had purchased the day before. Within the suitcase, Sarwar had packed his probe thermometer, syringes, pyrex flasks, food coloring, plastic bottles, citric acid, and a Saxa salt container that contained a bag of hexamine—the science kit required to build hmtd detonators. He found his plastic bag in the dense forest under a tree. It was maybe four or five in the morning, before the dogwalkers and other joggers would pass through the area. Quite a plan, Sarwar thought to himself. He started to dig.

Unfortunately, Sarwar hadn’t realized how much earth he’d have to displace to bury a well-sized suitcase into the ground. He also hadn’t reckoned how hard the ground would be in the Wood. He grunted and sweated and struggled to dig for the better part of half an hour. The English soil refused to yield, and so he gave up, abandoning his new shovel in the dense underbrush.

Maybe he didn’t have the right technique, Sarwar thought. Perhaps digging a hole in the ground required some sort of expertise; a proficiency in the manual arts he lacked. Therefore, he returned home and googled “how to dig a hole.” He took notes. And then he went back the next day, again around four or five in the morning, to keep digging. Again, he exerted great energy before eventually giving up. Hiding the chemicals was proving to be more difficult than he thought.

He went back to the Wood a third day in a row. Sarwar’s Google research indicated the earth could be clay and that by moistening the soil it may become easier to dig. He brought a bucket of water from his house—again, in the dark hours of the early morning—and dumped it onto the area where he had started to dig a small, nonsuitcase-shaped hole. He peered inside, hoping to see the earth below it melt to reveal a hiding spot. It didn’t. Feeling disheartened and somewhat tired, Sarwar gave up, drove home, and crawled back into bed.

Later that afternoon Sarwar returned, now for the fourth time. The unwilling land refused to yield to the quartermaster. He wandered around some more in the Wood, and, after a few minutes, saw a downed tree. At the foot was a large cavity, perfect for his suitcase-related requirements. He returned early the next morning, again in the morning hours, and dumped his suitcase there.

But the hole at the base of the fallen tree was too small for the suitcase, so its top part stuck up from the ground. Luckily, there were fallen leaves nearby, so Sarwar drove to Homebase on August 7 and purchased a garden rake.

The police didn’t know what was happening. During the middle of the night, the Thames Valley Police inserted units into the Wood to try to find the stash, using rudimentary and ultimately ineffective technical means to track Sarwar. What the authorities had also completely missed were the other locations Sarwar had used to hide his stockpiles throughout the area. That’s because he had been squirreling away bags of hydrogen peroxide and hmtd precursors for months, in another ancient beech forest called Fennels Wood—originally the property of the Knights Templar of Bisham Abbey, just across the River Thames in Buckinghamshire—and also within his garage.

Evidence photo showing bottles stashed in the woods.

Evidence photo showing bottles stashed in the woods.

Meanwhile, Sarwar’s cellmates were hard at work at a safehouse in East London. The London Metropolitan Police and MI5 had just performed a daring nighttime covert entry into the upstairs flat on the bustling Forest Road, installing hidden microphones and cameras throughout the premises. These tiny devices now began to capture the comings and goings of the men, as well as some of their conversations. Far from Hollywood’s high-tech version of twenty-first-century counterterrorism efforts, surveillance technology was not as crisp or as sharp as one would hope. There was a lot of muffled, disjointed, distracting crosstalk on the audio. Furthermore, external noise from outside of the flat, like the honking of car horns, made the experience of this programming tiresome.

Nevertheless, the officers with the large headphones in their secure rooms could hear other distinct noises. A rattling kitchen boiler. The sound of drilling.

Much of the verbiage was garbled and indistinct, which made this process difficult. The listeners weren’t quite sure what was being said. Did one conspirator say “so burned” or “so bad”? Did he say “mission” or “the machine?” There was also a lot of muffled talk that just didn’t make much sense.

The London cell were a motley group of men in their 20s from across East London, but the man running the show was named Abdulla Ahmed Ali. He and his crew knew they had to hide the detonators; batteries were chosen as innocuous casings for the hmtd. They had discovered the Energizer batteries bought from local stores were difficult to slice open and then reassemble; however, the cheap batteries made for the domestic Pakistani market were flimsier and could be taken apart easily.

Ali and his number two, a 20-something year old named Tanvir Hussain, experimented with plastic bottles filled with the Lucozade sports drink, removing the contents by drilling the bottom, and then putting new clear liquid in. They were attempting to replicate the Lucozade’s orange hue by by dropping Tang powder into the water. What they discovered was that at first, the liquid became opaque, taking on the appearance of the original sports drink. However, if left out for a day or so, the powder separated from the water.

There was more drilling over the audio, obscuring the conversation. Finally, it stopped, and they could hear Ali more clearly, “It’s over there. Should have gone and checked out all of these, yeah. Yeah, all of them foreign birds do you think, orange, or our own, yeah, we’ve got our virgins so very good, perfect.”

Foreign birds. Virgins. The usual patter of men talking about women. While they chatted, Ali and Hussain continued to experiment with injected liquid in the bottom of the soda bottles. They then closed the holes made by their needles with a plasticine material that appeared to be part of the bottle’s fabrication process. It now looked like a perfectly sealed bottle.

To detonate the bombs, the men planned to connect the bottles to small light bulbs via metal wires. When each bulb went off, so too would the detonator, and then the larger explosive itself. It was a simple, elegant solution. What security guard would bother to closely examine an unopened soda bottle?

Ali exclaimed, “Oh shit, that will come off. Look at that completely, the head off. There’s two of them—No, don’t joke—You can use these for the attack then, hey, yeah.”

The duo found that if they weren’t careful when piercing tiny holes in the lightbulbs, the glass head would come apart in their hands. Sometimes it would break, but the filament would remain intact. They used their multi-meter to see if the filament stayed whole; the meter would make a bleeping noise if so. If the filament within the bulb remained unviolated, it would still light up when charged. That would mean it worked.

jars evidence terrorism plot

Evidence photos showing jars of batteries.

As they tested the electrical circuits, Ali took the time to trash one of his conspirator’s videos which they had shot several days beforehand in that very room. This video was meant to be released to the press following a suicide attack. Still, Ali had opinions about his colleague’s performance. “I mean, when we first practiced it, he did a really bad job,” he told Hussain. The would-be suicide bomber was “stuttering all over the place. He just did a quick rush job.”

Hussain agreed. “He doesn’t take it seriously.”

Ali agreed. In his view, his suicide bomber colleague simply didn’t take anything seriously. Ali had personally written the script for him, and all he had to do was read it for the camera, but he wasn’t the brightest. He kept getting confused and couldn’t focus on the task at hand.

They then drifted off and talked about other things, like George Galloway getting fired from Talk Sport, about political gadfly and Islam convert Yvonne Ridley, and about a couple being caught having sex on an airplane.

Ali mentioned to Hussain, “We’ve got six people, innit? Me, Omar B., Adnan, Ibo, Aro, Waheed.”

“I thought you had six?”

Ali responded, “That’s seven.”

They then listed everyone on the team: Ali, Tanvir Hussain, Adnan (Adam) Khatib, Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Khan, Umar Islam (a.k.a. Omar B), and Waheed Zaman.

“So seven?”

“There’s another three units.”

“There’s another three units, three groups. Uh . . . ?” Ali was getting a bit confused.

Hussain then counted: “Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, that’s fifteen, eighteen. Phew, think of it. Yeah, all right. One man more.”20

Imagine the shock of the officers listening with the large headphones to their conversation. Ali and Hussain had just revealed there could be up to eighteen suicide bombers somewhere in London. At that point, only this cell—perhaps several people, along with a number of other peripheral individuals—were under twenty four-hour surveillance.

Other audio crackled from the feed, “One man more . . . so what do you want to do . . . is there any more batteries in there?” A boiler rattled in the background.

As for the precise nature of the attack, Ali hadn’t quite decided, even though he was getting pressure from Pakistan to set a date. So he told Hussain, “Still moving, something closer at the end of the year.” It all depended on how quickly they could build their weapons and secure their passports.

And then: “Texas, thinking I’ve got Dallas or Chicago or North Carolina, South Carolina . . . that California anyway?” And then, “California, beaches, innit, Los Angeles, yeah, I’m going.”

And: “This mission is a great mission, you know that. It’s not easy man, you know what it is.”

Nearly everyone in the security establishment felt that sinking feeling that they were always playing catch-up with these jihadists. They needed more personnel to grapple with this metastasizing crisis. The clarion call thus went out across the land: officers with surveillance experience were needed—immediately. As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, if a team of ten officers worked an eight-hour shift, then each suspect required about thirty cops watching him for a twenty-four-hour cycle, making the total need a force of 240 officers for eight suspects. By the beginning of August, hundreds of officers from all over England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland converged on the capital.

And it couldn’t just be any cop on the force. The individuals most successful at this sort of work have two general traits: they are ordinary, forgettable-looking people, and they are willing to let their job take over their life. They have to be willing to be out at all hours of the night, on the weekends and holidays. They miss birthdays and anniversaries. Funerals too. It is a hard job to maintain stable relationships, because one was never home.

Crushing this conspiracy—now codenamed OVERT—became a 24/7 operation. Officers stopped going home to their wives, husbands, and children. Some were living in hotels and only seeing colleagues on the force. They bought clothing and toiletries as needed. Many had little idea of the plot’s full scope, or what was happening, or what the Americans were up to in Washington dc or in Pakistan. Many were staying in accommodations near the Paddington Green Police Station, an unpleasant-but-centrally located 1960s-era cement edifice for high-security terror threats. Thames Valley Police remained responsible for monitoring Sarwar and a few others out in High Wycombe.

These highly trained men and women had to ensure they weren’t spotted by the suspects or their friends—a complex task made more challenging by the increasingly paranoid group of men. Their work was grinding and boring, punctuated by short bursts of activity. In East London, surveillance vans, static and mobile teams contended with crowded streets and thoroughfares in places tightly bound by kith, kin, and faith. But in recent years, the police tried to hire different types of people to be more representative of the communities they served, which helped them to fit in and remain out of sight.

LONDON, ENGLAND APRIL 3: A composite of undated handout images from the Metropolitan Police shows (L-R Top) Umar Islam, Waheed Zaman, Assad Sarwar, Mohammed Gulzar; (L-R Bottom) Arafat Khan, Abdullah Ibrahim Savant, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, and Tanvir Hussain. 8 men accused of plotting to blow up transatlantic passenger aircraft travelling to the United States. The Jury at Woolwich Crown Court has heard April 4, 2008, eight men deny conspiring to murder and endanger other passengers on aircraft travelling to the United States and Canada in 2006. (Photo by Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)

A composite of undated handout images from the Metropolitan Police shows (L-R Top) Umar Islam, Waheed Zaman, Assad Sarwar, Mohammed Gulzar; (L-R Bottom) Arafat Khan, Abdullah Ibrahim Savant, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, and Tanvir Hussain. 8 men accused of plotting to blow up transatlantic passenger aircraft travelling to the United States. The Jury at Woolwich Crown Court has heard April 4, 2008, eight men deny conspiring to murder and endanger other passengers on aircraft travelling to the United States and Canada in 2006.

Metropolitan Police/Getty Images

Over eight hundred officers eventually worked the case, pulled from just about every surveillance team in the country. The British government even pulled teams from Northern Ireland from monitoring splinter ira groups, as well as from the uniformed military. “If the Boy Scouts had a surveillance team,” the Met’s surveillance chief Steve Dryden dryly noted, “we’d have used them as well.” But Great Britain was running out of teams. Nigel Inkster, the former deputy chief of mi6, noted that by this time mi5 was, like the Met, being stretched to the limit.27

At the Thames Valley Police headquarters in Oxfordshire, the force was running on all cylinders. Officers were working continuously, sometimes twenty-four-plus hours straight. Some tried to catch a nap on the floors and the various couches inside the station, often with little success. The officers were also beginning to grow weary from the never-ending pace of operations, for there was no real end in sight. Burnout, and the sloppiness that would accompany it, was a very real challenge. tvp tried to stave off the inevitable slip-up by giving officers a day off every so often to catch up on sleep, say hi to the missus, and play with their kids. But that was more the exception than the rule.

Tens of thousands of bits of data flowed in, from multiple surveillance teams working across many venues and targets. Top secret data was streaming in from the Americans, much of which most cops weren’t allowed to see. The threat data was voluminous: they had to systematize, validate, cross-check, and then organize the information as it came in, in almost real-time. There were senior working-level meetings at least three times daily just to deconflict all the bits and bobs from the case. Some officers would work double or triple shifts to keep it going, both for mobile surveillance and static teams. The strain was compounded by senior policymakers, including the Home Secretary and the prime minister, as well as the heads of mi5 and mi6, who needed to be updated and informed on a continual basis. Overt had become a national crisis.

When the audio probe intelligence indicated the terrorist cell was bandying about place names like “California” and “Dallas” and “Chicago,” the results were exactly what the British expected and feared.

The Americans lost their minds.

The contours of the plan were now coming into view. The bombers were going to evade security and somehow get to the States. It was obvious they were going to take a flight, or multiple flights, to do so. For the Americans, everyone knew exactly where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Everyone knew the consequences of inaction. Everyone knew someone who perished that day. Al Qaeda was resurrecting an audacious plan, and the target was, once again, the United States of America.

Unlike the last time however, America might be able to get the drop on the enemy. But there were spidery cracks forming in the relationship. America viewed the fight against al Qaeda as a war against an implacable enemy, while the British generally viewed the group more as a criminal organization. This difference in perspective meant the Americans were more aggressive worldwide in confronting the threat than the British, who were attempting to build a case that could hold up in open court.

On behalf of the president, Fran Townsend took charge of White House communications with her British counterparts. The assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism’s ground-floor office felt like she and her staff worked on a submarine, as the office ceilings felt unnaturally low. This was no particular problem for the petite Townsend, but it seemingly obliged taller individuals like cia’s Steve Kappes to bend slightly on walking into her office. At this point, Townsend had more or less begun to sleep on her office couch at the White House, just in case she had to be there if events broke and she needed to be at her battle station.

Townsend peppered the British with questions like: how many people were actually in this cell anyway? With whom did they speak with? Did any one of these two dozen or so suspects have friends in the airline or transportation industry? Townsend was also concerned the British had not informed baggage screeners and security personnel across the transportation sector about this new threat. The bombs were shaping up to be new types of explosives, and the tens of thousands of screeners had little idea what hydrogen peroxide might look or smell like. Concentrated hp itself is a thick, viscous material, like syrup. The only way to make an accurate determination was to take the bottle and shake it to see if the liquids behaved the way soda normally would. The security screeners at Heathrow, jfk, O’Hare, lax or anywhere else wouldn’t particularly know what they’re looking for, and the powerful detection machines purchased and operating following 9/11 wouldn’t pick it up.

Very quickly, she ran into turbulence with the British and their desire to keep the investigation open-ended for the purposes of making a court case. The senior mi5 representative in Washington, an agreeable fellow with a prime perch from the UK embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, told Townsend that they had it under control. Everyone of any consequence was under surveillance. But when asked the very basic questions about airport security, he replied with a polite “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

High Wycombe, UNITED KINGDOM: A British police officer patrols the cordon in King's Wood, near High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire in southern England,14 August 2006. Detectives are continuing to question the 23 British terrorist suspects arrested in east London, Buckinghamshire and Birmingham last week. AFP PHOTO/GEOFF CADDICK (Photo credit should read Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)

A British police officer patrols the cordon in King’s Wood, near High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire in southern England,14 August 2006. Detectives are continuing to question the 23 British terrorist suspects arrested in east London, Buckinghamshire and Birmingham last week.

Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Over at Langley, cia director Michael Hayden and the rest of the Agency brass were clear-eyed about the plot and the potential ramifications of inaction. “We knew what al Qaeda was trying to do,” he said. “That’s good enough! Let’s arrest them.” As for the follow-on legal consequences, “You [British] figure it out.” Of course, mi6 pushed back on this, saying law enforcement still needed to build the case. To which Hayden replied, “No. Just arrest them. Because we were thinking sometimes on a Monday or Tuesday, if we didn’t think of this or this, and three planes went down. C’mon. Bring ’em in. Just bring them in.”

At the center of the spider web, hundreds of British officers were working a high-wire act. They knew the Americans were now hot, bothered, and demanding immediate action. “There was disquiet between our approach and the approach by the Americans in Pakistan,” recalled Steve Dryden, diplomatically. “The Americans took, and always do take, a different view. And they will spoil the plot, disrupt it, and deal with what they’ve got there and then.” In other words, the Yanks would blow the Met’s case to smithereens at the earliest possible moment.

Laughing about it later, Fran Townsend understood the British were “aggravated in the extreme from getting a lot of rudder from some lady in the White House—when it was their case.” But the planes were going to fly to America, and no one quite knew when or where an attack might happen, or how many plotters were in circulation.

She noted, “It felt like August 2001 on steroids.”

What America and Britain didn’t know was that al Qaeda had already successfully conducted a dry run of an operation. The group placed all the people and the components minus the explosives on a passenger flight somewhere in the world. “The purpose of the exercise,” al Qaeda’s Rashid Rauf later recalled, “was to test that none of the components would be checked manually.”

They weren’t.

Excerpted from Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History by Aki J. Peritz by permission of Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2021 by Aki J. Peritz.

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