LONDON - Three Britons were jailed for life on Monday for plotting a terrorist outrage on the scale of the September 11 attacks by blowing up transatlantic airliners bound for North America using bombs made from liquid explosives.
The suspected al Qaeda plot, which British detectives said was just days from being put into operation, had huge worldwide ramifications leading to tight restrictions on the amount of liquids passengers could take on board aircraft.
The bombers intended to destroy at least seven planes, carrying over 200 passengers each, in mid-flight between London's Heathrow airport and the United States and Canada in August 2006 using explosives hidden in soft drink bottles.
They were arrested that month following the largest counter-terrorism operation ever carried out by British police.
The intention was to perpetrate a terrorist outrage that would stand alongside the events of September 11, 2001 in history, the judge, Justice Richard Henriques, told London's top security Woolwich Crown Court.
He said it was the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction.
The guilty trio, all Muslims, were jailed for life.
Ringleader Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, was told he would serve a minimum of 40 years behind bars; Assad Sarwar, 29, was jailed for at least 36 years; and Tanvir Hussain, 28, received a minimum term of 32 years, the Press Association reported.
The men's lawyers told the court the plot was not imminent and stood little chance of success.
But the judge said the plan, had reached an advanced stage in its development and that the men had amassed chemicals to make 20 homemade bombs.
VIABLE AND METICULOUSLY PLANNED
This was a viable and meticulously planned conspiracy and I conclude it was imminent, the judge said, adding it would have resulted in massive loss of life.
Prosecutors said the plot centered on seven flights from Heathrow's Terminal 3, each capable of carrying between 241 and 285 passengers.
Recorded conversations suggested other terminals and possibly 18 suicide bombers might have been involved, while targets such as gas terminals and oil refineries were mentioned.
Police believe the plot was hatched by senior al Qaeda figures in Pakistan and Henriques said emails showed there was no doubt that the ultimate control lay there.
The court was shown martyrdom videos made by some of the men in which they stated the planned attacks were in revenge for U.S. and British interference on Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian territory.
However, Henriques said the plot was not an attempt by Ali to change foreign policy, but an act of revenge inspired by extremist Islamic thinking and aimed at the governments of several allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The extent of harm would have been unprecedented, he said.
A fourth man, Umar Islam who was cleared of planning to blow up planes, was jailed for at least 22 years after being found guilty of conspiracy to murder.
Britain's Director of Public Prosecution said on Friday he would seek a third trial in the case of three other men, cleared of the airline suicide plot, after the jury failed to reach a verdict on the conspiracy to murder charge.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Sophie Hares)