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Review: The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes (Channel 4)

Rachel Cooke is gripped by a high-wire account of a terrorist conspiracy.

Just as I was beginning to wonder why Channel 4 still exists – the only thing I watch on it regularly at the moment is the preposterous American import Homeland – it screens a documentary so well-made that, at 80 minutes long, it felt almost too short. You will, I’m sure, remember the liquid bomb plot of 2006, in which a group of British Muslims planned to bring down seven planes over the Atlantic using explosives stored in soft-drinks bottles. 

I certainly remember it. On the day the plotters were arrested and all hell broke out at Heathrow, I was trying to get to the US to do an interview. It took me 18 hours to complete this journey and without the company of so much as a paperback: hand luggage was restricted to our keys and wallet. When I finally arrived in New York, scratching at myself with boredom, my interviewee – oh, all right then, it was Martin Amis – shook his head and said sadly: “So now they [the terrorists] have stopped us reading, too.” 

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes (26 April, 9pm) used interviews and dramatic reconstructions to trace the MI5 investigation that foiled the plotters. The fascination of it lay in the detail. The leader of the cell, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, had, for instance, been put under 24-hour investigation following visits he’d made to Pakistan that were not entirely for, as one copper put it, “the purposes of leisure” (he’d met Rashid Rauf, the al-Qaeda operative reportedly killed by a US missile strike in 2008). But it was only when Ali and his accomplice, Assad Sawar, were seen lying face-to-face on their stomachs on the grass in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, that MI5 knew they were involved in something serious: lying in this position is, apparently, an indication that someone is highly trained in counter-surveillance. The juxtaposition, here, of the ordinary (Lloyd Park, with its ducks and dahlias) and the horrifying (these were the kind of men who considered taking their wives and children with them on their suicide missions) was dizzying, to put it mildly. 

The cell were given code names such as  “Lion’s Raw”, “Top Drawer” and “Rich Food”, and the flat where they were secretly filling bottles with explosives – via a tiny hole, so their seals remained intact – was broken into and a camera and bugs installed. At every stage of the operation, extreme anxiety. At HQ, a team could see an unidentified man heading in the direction of the flat even as the surveillance equipment was being installed. Meanwhile, outside a café, another agent had lost sight of one of the cell. Where had he gone? Was this him now, about to ruin everything? I could hardly breathe. And those Americans! A tight smile from Peter Clarke, former head of the Counter Terrorist Command, revealed that US involvement in the arrest of Rashid Rauf in Pakistan still rankles. At the time, it was the last thing the British police wanted. In London, Ali was waiting for Rauf’s instructions. Who knows what he might have done had he heard Rauf had been picked up?

For anyone with a black sense of humour, there were a couple of choice reminders of our former great leaders. Apprised of the situation, George Bush was calm, this being far from his “first rodeo”. Tony Blair – natch – was on holiday, at Cliff Richard’s house in the Bahamas. But I, for one, didn’t feel much like laughing (and not only because, at this point, I had tried and failed to picture Laura and Cherie frantically stuffing their deodorant, face cream and toothpaste into a small, clear plastic bag). 

The film, for all its Spooks-style excitements, impressed on me not only the gravity of the plot – it could so easily have been successful – but also the bottomless idiocy of those behind it. Yes, in a practical sense, they were quite cunning. But when, at the end of the film, you saw the suicide video of another of the plotters, a convert called Umar Islam, you realised he could hardly string a sentence together, let alone a coherent argument – even after dogged coaching by Ali. 

This was what I found most frightening: the expansive ignorance, the sheer lack of imagination. When stupidity shades into wickedness, the brakes of conscience and empathy are quickly and easily released.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master