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British Airways worker guilty of al Qaeda-linked terror plot

By Andrew Carey, CNN
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Al-Awlaki seen as key terror planner
  • Rajib Karim gave information to radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a court finds
  • Al-Awlaki was seeking to blow up a plane in the United States, decrypted e-mails show
  • Karim admitted to other terror-related charges
  • He will be sentenced March 18

London (CNN) -- A British Airways employee was found guilty Monday of four terror-related charges, including plotting to blow up an airplane, a court in London said.

Rajib Karim, 31, worked as a software engineer for British Airways in the northern English city of Newcastle. He used his position to pass on information to al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, including to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, jurors in the four-week-long trial in London were told.

Karim, who was arrested last year, admitted offering himself for terrorist operations, making a jihadi recruitment video and fundraising for terrorism, but denied knowing that information he gave al-Awlaki would be used for terrorism.

Prosecutors said he passed on information that would have been useful for terrorists plotting to blow up a plane and also information that could have been used to help plan a "disruptive" cyber attack on British Airways.

Al-Awlaki is thought to be hiding out in Yemen, and was recently described by U.S. President Barack Obama's counterterror chief, Michael Leiter, as posing a bigger threat to the U.S. homeland than Osama bin Laden.

A key part of the prosecution case was a series of heavily encrypted messages between al-Awlaki and Karim, in which al-Awlaki pressed for information about Karim's job and his knowledge of airport security.

"I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you ... can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems?"

Karim replied: "The kuffar (a derogatory term for non-Muslims) are planning to install full body scanners across UK airports. This allows them to see things under clothes."

But he warned al-Awlaki to be realistic: "You are probably hoping that I work at the airport, but the fact is I don't. I personally know two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practising brothers and sympathize towards the cause of the mujahedeen."

Replying, al-Awlaki got straight to the point:

"Our highest priority is the U.S. Anything there, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have is it possible to get a package or person with a package on board a flight heading to the U.S.?"

Karim, who was born in Bangladesh and is now a British citizen, had been in the UK three years at that point, prosecutor Jonathan Laidlaw said.

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said this communication confirmed what U.S. intelligence officials had been saying for some time: "This trial has presented Awlaki not only as the charismatic driving force behind al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula but also a key operational figure in the group, a guy who is orchestrating plots against the West."

The exchange of messages took place in January 2010 and February 2010, just weeks after AQAP was blamed for a failed bomb attack on a Delta Airlines transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, had trained with AQAP in Yemen before attempting to detonate explosives sewn into his underpants, according to U.S. officials.

AQAP has also been widely blamed by western intelligence officials for twin foiled attacks on cargo aircraft last October.

One device, hidden in a printer cartridge and described as "viable" by British officials, was uncovered on a UPS plane after it landed at East Midlands airport in the United Kingdom. The other -- also hidden in a printer cartridge - was found on a FedEx plane at Dubai airport.

British investigators say they have no evidence that links Karim to either of these plots. They describe him as "dedicated to the terrorist cause," though they say there was no imminent danger of him launching an attack himself.

Police have also refused to say where the original tip-off about Karim came from, saying only, "We had some information that made him of interest to us."

Karim is due to be sentenced March 18.