Updated: Thursday, 21 Feb 2013, 5:37 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 21 Feb 2013, 8:00 AM EST
LONDON (AP) — They were very ordinary would-be terrorists, with big plans but bad luck.
On Thursday, a London jury convicted the three young British men of being ringleaders of an al-Qaida-inspired plot to explode knapsack bombs in crowded parts of Birmingham, England's second-largest city. The men had pleaded not guilty, but were recorded discussing plans for attacks that one said would be "another 9/11."
The trial exposed how the trio — Ashik Ali, 27; Irfan Khalid, also 27; and 31-year-old Irfan "Chubbs" Naseer — were foiled by a mix of police intelligence, personal incompetence, and lousy luck as they tried to spread terror.
They attempted to recruit others to their cause, but four young men they dispatched to Pakistan for training were sent home within days when the family of one man found out. Those four have since pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses.
The plotters initially raised cash as street collectors for Muslim charities. But when Rahin Ahmed, an alleged co-conspirator described as the cell's "chief financier," tried to boost the group's budget on the financial markets, he lost the bulk of the funds through his "unwise and incompetent" trading, prosecutor Brian Altman said.
Among the pieces of evidence at the four-month trial was a sports injury cool pack, which prosecutors said Naseer had mistakenly believed would contain ammonium nitrate, a key bomb-making ingredient.
The group considered a variety of outlandish attacks, including tying sharp blades to the front of a truck and driving it into a crowd. Naseer was heard talking about the possibility of mixing poison into creams such as Vaseline or Nivea and smearing them on car handles to cause mass deaths.
Despite the amateurish nature of some of their efforts, officials said the group was serious about sowing chaos.
The men were "the real deal" and, if successful, would have perpetrated "another 9/11 or another 7/7 in the U.K.," said Detective Inspector Adam Gough, the case's senior investigating officer, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 people, as well as the July 7, 2005, London transit bombings, which killed 52 commuters.
Prosecutors described the men as a home-grown terror cell inspired by the anti-Western sermons of U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.
Among evidence found by investigators was a partially burned note written by Naseer detailing how to make what an expert witness said would have been a viable bomb — although no evidence of such an explosive was recovered.
Prosecutors said the men ultimately gravitated toward a plan to detonate up to eight knapsack bombs — either on timers or in suicide attacks — in a bid to bring mass carnage to Birmingham.
Judge Richard Henriques told the men they face life in prison when sentences are imposed in April or May. "It's clear that you were planning a terrorist outrage," he said at London's Woolwich Crown Court.
Police said the terrorist conspiracy was the most significant uncovered in Britain since a plot to blow up airliners in mid-air was foiled in 2006. However, no specific targets had been chosen and no bombs built when the men were arrested in a police swoop in September 2011. Twelve suspects were arrested in all, several of whom have pleaded guilty to terrorism offenses.
Prosecutors traced the plot's origins to Naseer and Khalid, who had traveled to Pakistan for terror training and learned details of poisons, bomb-making and weaponry. The pair also made "martyrdom videos" justifying their planned attacks.
On their return to England in July 2011, prosecutors said they began their recruitment and fundraising drive, and also began experimenting with chemicals, aided by Naseer's university degree in pharmacy.
Fatally for the plot, by mid-2011 the men were under surveillance by police and the intelligence services. Their car was followed and their safe house bugged.
Naseer was recorded talking about knapsack bombs going "boom, boom, boom everywhere," while Khalid said the attack would be "revenge for everything, what we're doing is another 9/11."
On the recordings, the trio spoke of themselves as martyrs and jihadi warriors — but also, tellingly, compared themselves to the hapless protagonists of the 2010 British comedy film "Four Lions," which tells the story of four clueless jihadists whose attempts to wage holy war degenerate into tragic farce. In the movie the bombs go off.
Ali was recorded saying to his ex-wife: "Oh, you think this is a flipping 'Four Lions.' We're one man short."
Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the foiled plot bore the hallmarks of a decentralized al-Qaida, in which local cells operate independently, often after receiving rudimentary training.
He said that "the time spent training foreign fighters by al-Qaida or affiliated networks is now being constrained because there is the threat of drone strikes" on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
"The command and control element is drawing back," he said. "It has a negative impact on their capacity to launch attacks because people aren't being trained as well. There is sometimes a clownish element to it."