Four men have been convicted of planning a “Lee Rigby-style” terrorist attack that aimed to murder members of the police or military using a pipe bomb and meat cleaver.
MI5 set up a fake delivery company employing two of the men as they investigated the plot. Three of the men, who are all from the Midlands, called themselves the “three musketeers” as they exchanged encrypted messages on the app Telegram as part of their conspiracy.
Counter-terrorism officials believe it is one of the most significant plots they have thwarted in the past year.
A jury of three men and eight women convicted Naweed Ali, 29, and Khobaib Hussain, 25, both from Birmingham, and Mohibur Rahman, 33, and Tahir Aziz, 38, from Stoke-on-Trent, of planning terrorist acts between May and August 2016. Ali, Hussain and Rahman have previous terrorism convictions, prompting calls after the verdict for a further crackdown on the spreading of jihadist ideology in prisons among those convicted of terrorism offences.
The defence had asked for the trial to be postponed after the 22 March terrorist attack on Westminster, arguing it could prejudice the jury. During the course of the trial the Manchester Arena was bombed and the London Bridge terrorist attack took place.
The men were arrested on 26 August 2016 after a bag of weapons, including a pipe bomb, an air pistol and a meat cleaver with the word kafir (unbeliever) scratched on it, were found under the driver’s seat of Ali’s car. In Aziz’s car they found a samurai sword bought from a sex shop in Stoke for £20.
The court heard the bag was discovered in the course of a sting operation, in which West Midlands police and MI5 set up a fake courier company in Birmingham and hired Ali and Hussain. The bag was found as MI5 attempted to bug Ali’s car on his first day in the job.
The prosecution said the four defendants were likely to have been planning an imminent “Lee Rigby-style” attack on a police or military target, but the details were unclear as they had taken extreme care to avoid surveillance.
The defence claimed the weapons had been planted by rogue undercover officers to frame the suspects and accused them of falsifying their notes and lying in the witness box.
No fingerprints were found on the bag, but a partial DNA sample found on a roll of duct tape inside was established during the trial to belong to Hussain. The pipe bomb, which was not fully operational, was found to be made from a type of pipe Hussain had worked with when he trained as a gas fitter.
The jury sat through days of messages and online searches that indicated what the prosecution described as the defendants’ “hateful beliefs” – but the judge, Mr Justice Globe, told them they could not convict based on “mindset evidence” alone.
Gareth Patterson QC, for the prosecution, told the jury: “It is the prosecution case that the four defendants shared the same radical belief in violent jihad and had reached a stage where they were planning to take action.”
The trial faced multiple delays and at one point was halted so the police officers’ mobile phones could be seized and their private messages read out to the court in a complex case. The trial ran for twice the 10 weeks it had been expected to.
The jury went down to 11 members in the final week of the trial, after a juror was discharged when it emerged she had “jokingly” asked court staff three times whether a police witness was single. This came to light only after a Guardian reporter overheard police discussing it. The defence questioned why police had not raised it with the prosecutor.
As he was taken down to the cells, Rahman shouted: “I hope you’re happy with your lies. Lying scumbags.”
DCS Matt Ward, the head of West Midlands counter-terrorism unit, said more should be done in prisons to counter violent extremism. “This is the second time three of these individuals have been convicted of terrorism offences after planning an attack. Although much work is being done in prisons and following the release of individuals, it is clear that more needs to be done,” he said.
He said the claims of wrongdoing against police officers were “groundless”.
Rahman and Aziz are understood to have visited the extremist Anjem Choudary in May 2016, while he was on bail charged with urging support for Islamic State, for which he was later convicted.
The 11 jurors deliberated for more than 22 hours to reach their verdicts, which were all unanimous. Sentencing is scheduled for 10am on Thursday. The maximum sentence is life in prison.
Having become suspicious about the men, the domestic intelligence service MI5 and police from the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit launched a sting operation.
Ali, Hussain and Rahman were watched for months before their arrests. From May 2016 onwards, officers observed them meeting in Birmingham, Stoke and London. They were seen walking in a park and boating on a lake in what were believed to be attempts to evade monitoring.
They took care to avoid surveillance, the jury heard. Rahman bought mobile phones from eBay and had them delivered to Ali and Hussain, which the prosecution said were for “covert discussions”. He kept notes on his phone about avoiding surveillance and texted Aziz that he had two phones: one “hot” and one “clean”.Patterson told the jury: “These were men who were taking care to try to avoid detection of what they were doing and who wanted to pursue their plans secretly.”
The men’s electronic devices were “bursting” with extremist material, Patterson said, and the jury read thousands of messages between the defendants and their associates that he said proved they “shared an extremist belief in the duty to bring the fight to the kuffar [unbelievers]”.
Rahman, Hussain and Ali eventually set up a private Telegram group called “the three musketeers”, which the prosecution said was intended to serve for attack planning.
Ali and Hussain were next-door neighbours living with their families in redbrick terraced houses in Sparkhill, Birmingham. When the investigation started, Hussain, who had completed a year of a law degree, was doing a gas-fitting course at college. Ali, who the court heard had a stutter and had performed badly in school, was working at a cash-and-carry.
They were known to the authorities. In 2011 they travelled to a militant training camp in Pakistan’s tribal regions. But, dismayed by the spartan conditions, they soon contacted their families, who were furious and arranged for their return.
Their trip became known to police during the Operation Pitsford investigation, which resulted in 11 men from Birmingham being jailed for planning attacks that detectives said would have been the biggest in a generation. Ali and Hussain pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism, and were sentenced to 40 months each in 2013.
In prison they met their co-defendant Rahman, one of nine men prosecuted in connection with a plan to attack the London stock exchange, who was serving five years for owning copies of an al-Qaida magazine. On the witness stand, Hussain said Rahman was “domineering, paranoid, weird and had a lot of contact with MI5”.
The final defendant was Aziz, a takeaway delivery driver and contact of Rahman’s from Stoke. The father of two had recently split up with his wife. Though he only started taking an interest in Islam after his breakup, the prosecution said he was a hardliner who took an “obsessive interest in extremist material”. He was brought in as a “fourth man” to help carry out the plot.
In summer 2016, West Midlands counter-terrorism command launched Operation Pesage to gather intelligence on Hussain. They set up a fake company, Hero Couriers, complete with a city-centre depot, logo, vehicles and branded T-shirts for the drivers to wear.
An undercover officer, “Vincent”, posed as the boss, while two other agents, “Andy” and “Hajji”, acted as employees.
The company hired Hussain as a driver in late July 2016, offering him £100 a day cash in hand to deliver packages to airports and storage lockups. Vincent said Hussain could park his car in the depot, leaving the keys with him. Vincent soon mentioned that he was looking for more drivers, and Hussain put him in touch with Ali.
On Ali’s first day, 26 August, he arrived shortly after 7am and handed his car keys to Vincent so he could park it in the depot. Soon afterwards, Andy arrived with a group of MI5 agents, who carried out what the prosecution euphemistically described as a “technical operation”, bugging Ali’s car.
Under the driver’s seat, they found a multicoloured JD Sports bag, which contained items of concern: what appeared to be a pipe bomb, a pistol with a magazine taped to the handle, and the meat cleaver with “kafir” scratched on it. There was also a live round of 9mm ammunition, shotgun shells, rubber gloves and duct tape. MI5 bosses ordered the men to leave the depot urgently because of the pipe bomb.
The discovery prompted a security alert: all businesses on Florence Street were evacuated, and nearby Bath Row, a major Birmingham artery, was closed off as the army’s bomb disposal squad was summoned.
All four defendants were arrested that day, and in Aziz’s car police found a machete tucked beside the driver’s seat. All the defendants refused to answer questions, although Ali submitted a statement saying he was “baffled” by the items in the car, which he said were “nothing to do with me”.
The trial revolved around the defence’s claim that Vincent planted the bag..
Parts of the case took place in closed court, with the press and public shut out so jurors could hear sensitive evidence. Even in open court, undercover officers, including Vincent, gave evidence from behind a green velvet curtain using their undercover names.
During a combative 12 days under cross-examination, Vincent was accused by defence barristers of being an “underhand criminal operative” who had planted the bag. Vincent described the claim as an “interesting work of fiction”.
Ali refused to take the stand, but the others did. Hussain claimed his online messages aimed to stimulate debate, while Aziz claimed the “machete” found in his car was an ornamental sword he had bought for protection when delivering food to rough neighbourhoods.
The jury had to decide whose story they found more credible: that of Vincent and his police colleagues, or of the self-described “three musketeers”. They chose the police.