Close friends of 7/7 bombers cleared of scouting attacks

Jury's acquittal of three suspects triggers fresh calls for an inquiry into the bombings and the police's possible prior intelligence about them. Cahal Milmo reports

Three men who were close friends of the 7/7 bombers were yesterday cleared of helping to plan the suicide attacks after a jury decided an alleged "hostile reconnaissance mission" in London was simply a harmless sightseeing tour.

The acquittal of the men after a three-month retrial means that no-one has been convicted of involvement in the worst atrocity in peacetime Britain despite an exhaustive four-year police investigation. The verdict prompted renewed calls for a public inquiry into the bombings, which resulted in the murder of 52 people on London's public transport system in 2005.

Waheed Ali, 25, Sadeer Saleem, 28, and 32-year-old Mohammed Shakil admitted sharing some of the extremist views of the 7/7 bombers but insisted that they had been shocked by the suicide attacks and denied being part of a trusted circle of ideologues recruited by Mohammed Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the plot.

Ali and Shakil, who attended a terror training camp with Khan in 2003 where he revealed himself to be an expert marksman, were convicted on a separate charge of plotting to visit Pakistan for terrorist training when they were arrested by police in 2007. Both men were about to board an aircraft carrying military-style survival equipment and details of militant enclaves in Pakistan.

The trio made little effort during the trials to conceal their sympathy for the international jihadist movement, in particular the Taliban. Ali told the jury he considered British soldiers in Afghanistan to be "legitimate targets" and that if he had been involved in 7/7 he would have been "unstoppable". Mr Saleem wrote in a letter that he wanted his children to grow to fight "filthy kafirs" (unbelievers), while Shakil spoke of the thrill of firing rocket-propelled grenades during his visits to Pakistan.

They will be sentenced today after jurors at Kingston Crown Court in west London spent six and a half days deliberating at the end of the retrial, which was ordered when a previous trial last year failed to produce any verdicts against the men. The estimated cost of both sets of proceedings is £12m.

During the retrial, evidence emerged of links between Ali and Shakil and Omar Khayam, who was convicted in 2007 of leading a plot to use fertiliser bombs in an attack on a shopping centre or nightclub. Ali was watched by MI5 as he met Khayam along with Khan and another of the 7/7 bombers, Shahzad Tanweer, in early 2004.

As the verdicts were delivered, Shakil, who along with Ali is likely to be freed after spending three years in prison on remand, placed his hand on the glass wall surrounding the dock and mouthed "thank you" to the jury. Ali smiled broadly and Saleem wiped his eyes.

The jurors heard that the trio, all from the Beeston area of Leeds, had travelled to London in December 2004 for a two-day visit to the capital which included visits to prominent attractions including the Natural History Museum, the London Eye and the London Aquarium. A trip to London Zoo was abandoned because of bad weather, which Ali said meant "the baboons would be inside their little houses".

The group were joined by Hasib Hussain, 18, and 19-year-old Germaine Lindsay, who within seven months of the trip took part in the 7/7 bombings, murdering 39 people on board a number 30 bus in Tavistock Square and a Piccadilly Line train between them.

Prosecutors said the presence of the two future bombers on the visit was part of a compelling jigsaw of circumstantial evidence which proved the real purpose of the apparent sightseeing tour by a group of young Muslim Britons was to "scout" for targets in the capital. Using painstakingly reconstructed mobile phone records, investigators retraced the route of the group, which police said bore a "striking similarity" to the final targets. Jermaine Lindsay spent 40 minutes at King's Cross station, where the 7/7 bombers split up to carry out their attacks, and had three mobile phone conversations with Ali and Shakil.

The jury was told that 10 days after the trip, Ali and Mr Saleem flew to Pakistan to join Khan and Tanweer, who were already attending a militants' training camp, to share information about the security arrangements and numbers of visitors at each of the locations. Neil Flewitt QC, prosecuting, said it was clear the London trip was "an important first step in what was, by then, a settled plan to cause explosions in the UK".

Forensic examination of the bomb factory used by Khan and his fellow conspirators in Leeds uncovered DNA belonging to Ali and Mr Saleem as well as a key to Shakil's Mitsubishi car. The trio also took part in a scam to defraud builders' suppliers which prosecutors alleged was used to fund terrorism abroad.

Evidence suggested a close relationship between the three men and the bombers. Shakil had known Khan for a decade while Ali and Tanweer were childhood friends who played cricket together on the night before the attacks. Ali sent a text message to Khan in 2003 which read: "Gates of memories I will neva close. How much I will miss you no one knows. Tears in my eyes will wipe away but the love in my heart for you will always stay."

But the men insisted the trip to London was an innocent enterprise to allow Ali to say goodbye to his sister before heading to Pakistan. The jury was told that they were being asked to convict the men of conspiracy to cause explosions, which carries a life sentence, on the basis of nothing more than "guilt by association" with the bombers.

"Despite my condemnation, the police chose to prosecute me in the strongest terms. In my view the police wanted somebody, anybody, to pay for the murder of 52 people. Had I been convicted this would have led to injustice upon injustice."

The verdicts represent a blow to Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command, which spent tens of thousands of police hours examining the aftermath of the bombings. Investigators studied 90,000 phone calls, collected 13,000 exhibits and took 18,450 statements in their attempt to uncover a support network for the bombers.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner John McDowall, head of the Counter Terrorism Command, defended the "complex and painstaking" investigation and said officers still believed individuals who helped plan the attack remained at large. He said: "While those directly responsible for the bombings died in the attacks, we remain convinced that others must have been involved in the planning."

Survivors and relatives of victims of the attacks called for a public inquiry, saying the trials had reopened questions about whether surveillance of Khan and Tanweer prior to the bombings could have prevented them.

Robert Webb, whose 29-year-old sister Laura was killed by Khan in the Edgware Road Tube bombing, said: "We need an independent inquiry into what happened. What possessed young men, brought up in a democratic society like ours, to go and murder their fellow citizens." Graham Foulkes, whose 22-year-old son David was killed by Khan at Edgware Road Tube station, said: "We believe that crucial lessons need to be learned. If mistakes have been made, they should be put right, not covered up."

The acquitted

Sadeer Saleem

The 28-year-old father of threegot to know the men who became 7/7 bombers through his work at an Islamic bookshop and a community centre in Beeston. After leaving school with two GCSEs, he drifted through a number of jobs as a supermarket shelf stacker and a call centre worker before becoming interested in Islam. He met Waheed Ali in 2001, approaching him on a bus and inviting him to attend prayers at the Iqra bookshop. After getting a part-time job as a caretaker at the Hamara Community Centre, also in Beeston, Saleem came into regular contact with Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, taking part in martial arts lessons. In 1999, Saleem was hit by a bus and suffered a serious head injury. He has an IQ that borders on a learning disability.

Mohammed Shakil

After meeting Mohammed Siddique Khan as youth workers at the same Beeston mosque in 1996, Shakil and the 7/7 ringleader became close friends. In 2003, the two men met a fellow British radical, Omar Khayam, in Islamabad Airport while on a "fact finding mission" to sending volunteers to join extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A year later, Khayam, a convicted terrorist, was recorded meeting Khan and Waheed Ali to discuss committing fraud to obtain funding for terrorism overseas. The men from Leeds were all considered "clean skins" of peripheral interest to the UK security services. Shakil, 32, a taxi driver, was caught with Ali on 22 March 2007 trying to board a flight to Pakistan where the two men planned to become jihadi fighters.

Waheed Ali

The 25-year-old knew Shehzad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, from childhood after the pair grew up in the same street in Beeston. Born in Bangladesh, Ali, aged four, saw both his parents die within six weeks and was cared for by strict foster parents. At the age of 17 he became interested in Islam after a chance meeting with Mr Saleem. After attending the Iqra bookshop he was given extremist propaganda and started attending the same gym as Mohammed Siddique Khan, who he came to consider as his mentor. In July 2001, the two men travelled to Pakistan to attend a training camp before unsuccessfully trying to enter Afghanistan and join the mujahideen. He played cricket with Tanweer, who he called Kaki, on the night before the 7 July bombings.

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