Suspects Appear in U.K. Airliner Terrorism Case

On Tuesday, the first group of suspects charged in the foiled London terrorism plot appeared in court. Kim Sengupta, a reporter in London for The Independent, talks about the court proceedings, what is known so far about the investigation, and public sentiment in Britain.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Today the first group of suspects to be charged in the alleged plot to attack airplanes in mid-flight between Britain and the United States appeared in a London court. Eight were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Three others faced lesser charges related to terrorism.

For an update we're joined now by Kim Sengupta. He's defense correspondent for The Independent newspaper and joins us by phone from London. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. KIM SENGUPTA (Defense Correspondent, The Independent): Good evening.

CONAN: What do we know about the people who were charged in this case?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Neal, as you say, there are two separate sets of charges. There are eight people who are charged in effect plotting to be suicide bombers on board planes. They are charged with manufacturing and then plotting to smuggle on board components of an explosive device and detonating them. Now these people are all in their 20s, including a young woman of 23 who has a 6-month-old son. The others, the other three, which includes a 17-year-old youth, have been charged with offenses of not telling the authorities about the alleged plot, and this 17-year-old youth is also charged with being in possession of suicide letters and wills allegedly made by the would-be martyrs.

Now there are 11 others who are still being held in custody. The police will have to produce them before a district judge tomorrow to either ask for an extension or if they feel no charges can be made to stick, they will be freed.

CONAN: We're talking with Kim Sengupta of The Independent about the charges that were levied in London today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Unusually, at this time, the authorities in this case presented a fair amount of evidence in these hearings today.

Mr. SENGUPTA: It is unusual. The deputy assistant commissioner of the anti-terrorist branch of Scotland Yard, Peter Clarke, yesterday came up as you say with far more details than we expected. He said that as well as bomb-making material, the police have recovered videos, they have taken away computers, they have hard drives and he also said that they have got extensive evidence from surveillance carried out before the arrests were carried out on August 10.

So he was much more forward than one can expect him to be.

CONAN: British authorities are much more close-mouthed than their American counterparts can often be.

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, indeed. In fact, on this particular case there has been a fair amount of consternation over here about the level of details which are coming out from their American counterparts who had knowledge of this investigation. So especially in that light, what Mr. Clarke said was surprising.

I think what he was trying to do was to show what the police claimed is the sheer magnitude of this plot. He talked about global inquiries, he talked about months being taken to sift through the evidence and also I think it was to prepare the public for, you know, another plot in the future.

CONAN: Now was this also an attempt to deal with public skepticism? There have been instances in the past of allegations that proved unfounded.

Mr. SENGUPTA: Indeed. There is an element of skepticism. There's one case in particular where they raided a house in East London and in the course of which they shot - the police shot - a young Bangladeshi, Muslim guy, who they claimed that the two brothers involved who were manufacturing bombs.

Now they had to be freed on that particular allegation because no evidence was found, although the shot guy was subsequently arrested for alleged child pornography offenses of which he obviously hasn't been convicted yet.

So there is an element of skepticism. This is particularly so among the Muslim community, that they are convinced, many of them, far more than people perhaps expected, that not just this but other so-called plots are the brainchild of the British/American (unintelligible). And they are very, very much buying into conspiracy theories at the moment.

CONAN: And these alleged plotters have all been identified as British-born or very largely British-raised Muslims.

Mr. SENGUPTA: They're all British Muslims, the ones who have been arrested in this country. There have been some arrests carried out in Pakistan by the authorities there of Pakistani nationals. But the ones who have been arrested and also the ones who have been charged are all homegrown.

CONAN: And you talked about opinion in the Muslim community. What about Britain more widely? What are people saying about this?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, it's a mixture, really, in that there is, as we discussed, a level of skepticism, but that is not particularly widespread. There's a certain amount of apprehension, as well, and it wasn't that long ago that we had the tube bombings, so people are wary of what can happen.

CONAN: Just a little over a year ago.

Mr. SENGUPTA: A year ago.

CONAN: Are people convinced this plot would've really happened if the police had not intervened?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, that I think is what the police are trying to convince the public. But of course, you know ,as in all these cases, you know, it's very difficult to imagine for people what could've happened. Now if it transpires that the people charged get to trial and they've been acquitted, then I think there will be a huge groundswell of discontent and skepticism throughout the public.

CONAN: Tim Sengupta, thanks very much. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. SENGUPTA: Thank you.

CONAN: Kim Sengupta, defense correspondent for The Independent, a newspaper published in London. He was with us by phone from his office there. We promised to read you your letters today. We'll do that tomorrow. I apologize for that.

I'm Neal Conan, this is NPR News in Washington.

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