Three Men Jailed For Watford Bomb Plot

23 August 2011, 13:39 | Updated: 23 August 2011, 14:41

Three men have been jailed for a total of 16 years for a bomb hoax and robbery at a bank in Watford.

Muhammed Qasim Salam, who worked for the bank, caused a terrorist alert with an elaborate bomb plot that led to a three hour stand off with armed police.

The fantasist, who was obsessed with Hollywood films, had what looked like a genuine bomb strapped to his leg while his accomplices escaped with £161,000 in what a judge described as a "bank robbery without violence."

The 23 year old devised the crime from watching - Ocean's 11, Heat and The Inside Man.

When he dialled 999 to say a man with a gun had attached the bomb to his leg the police sealed off the town centre in Watford, Herts.

Armed police lay siege to the Co-operative Bank in Market Street while the bomb squad and trained negotiators were called up.

He finally gave himself up and, after being remanded in custody, took the police to bushes near Bradgers Hill Road, Luton where a bag containing all the money, a black plastic gun and black clothing was discovered.

Prosecutor Peter Shaw said: "He stated that all of the planning had been based on movies such as Ocean's Eleven, Heat and the Inside Man. There was never any intention to commit any violence. He did not expect to cause mass disruption in Watford and was 'extremely upset' by his actions."

Muhammed Salam of Bracknell Close, Luton and his friends and accomplices Imran Khalifa, 23, of Maidenhead Road, Luton and Faizan Rehman, also 23, of Havelock Road, Luton appeared for sentence having pleaded to conspiracy to steal and conspiracy to commit a bomb hoax.

Salem's role at the bank was to open accounts and advise customers about financial products. He was a key-holder and was able to open internal doors. "He used his knowledge of the bank's systems and working practises in order to carry out the theft," said Mr Shaw.

Steps were taken to ensure two other male employees were away from branch on June 2 this year. Financial advisor Robert Hodgson was contacted by one of the defendants who said he wanted to invest £300,000 over a five year period in high risk accounts. A meeting was set up for 9.45am in Rickmansworth, but nobody was there when Mr Hodgson arrived.

Salam discovered the address in Staines, Middlesex of the manager Ivor Meyrick. Between 2.30am and 3am that morning one of his car tyres was slashed, ensuring he could not get to work on time. Mobile telephone evidence put the defendants in the area at the time.

To ensure there was more cash than usual on the premises Salam had earlier told Mr Meyrick that a customer had requested to make a £40,000 cash withdrawal on 2 June.

CCTV also showed Salam and Khalifa bought a second hand phone from a shop in Luton on May 27. Its receipt was found at Salam's address. It was used to call for a taxi and to make a call to the bank in the hope that it would not be traced.

When the bank opened 9.30am Feizan Rehman entered, wearing a long dark jacket and a hat. Salam directed him into a side office telling colleague Claire MacDonald that he man wanted to open a premier account.

Ms MacDonald was then told a customer on the telephone wanted to complain about the service he had received from Mr Salam. "The caller kept leaving the phone, ostensibly to look for a pen. Later Ms MacDonald thought the call must have been a ruse to keep her distracted," said Mr Shaw.

The hoax bomb was strapped to one of Salam's legs and he took Rehman downstairs to the safe and removed £161,000. It was placed in a bag and Rehman left unchallenged as none of the other staff knew what had happened.

Rehman took the taxi that had been waiting for him back to Khalifa who was waiting in their hired getaway car. The two made their way back to Luton.

Salam had gone to bank's foyer and dialled 999 saying : "Right ok. I have got something strapped to my leg." He claimed the person responsible said it was a bomb and that he would make it blow up if he heard the theft broadcast on the radio.

Mr Shaw went on: "He said he had been told it would be deactivated after 20 minutes if there was no news of the incident at the time. He stalled giving the police the details of his location so as to afford Mr Rehman the maximum opportunity to escape with the stolen cash."

In the branch Salam, who appeared to be sweating and worried, banged on a desk and shouted: "Get out - everybody leave now." He was seen leaning over a counter with his shoes off and a trouser leg rolled up to the knee. Attached was a black box with a memory board and two wires protruding.

Salam also rang a colleague in Luton telling him a bomb was strapped to his leg. When the man, who knew Salam could handle himself as he was trained in martial arts, asked how the bomb got onto his leg, he said: "He had a gun."

He said: "This is really bad. I think I am going to die. I'm getting dizzy. I am going to die. I've got a bomb strapped to my left. I can't get it off. I don't know what to do. No-one's helping me."

Salam also referred to a bank heist of 2003 when a pizza delivery man entered a US bank with an explosive device around his neck and pretended to be an innocent man being used as a hostage by others.

The staff were evacuated at 10.18am. Some were seen running from the bank crying and the bank was surrounded by the police.

When negotiators talked to Salam on the phone they became suspicious because he was walking around inside with the 'bomb' attached to leg.

He finally gave himself up and wasled from the bank in handcuffs by firearms officers at 1.35pm.

Mr Shaw said: "The device was examined by Forensics Officer who described it as an elaborate hoax improvised explosive device. It contained red brown particulate - which had the appearance of wood shavings. It also had magnets and lengths of red/black twin flex with. She described the item as having the appearance of a genuine explosive device."

On 12 August police visited Salam at Bedford jail. He said Khalifa had told him where the money was and he directed them to the bushes.

Khalifa had been arrested at midnight on 2 June when the police discovered his phone had been in contact with Salam's. He had also made the bogus 18 minute complaint call to Ms MacDonald.

He told the police Salam had said stealing money from the bank was easy, saying he was going to be the getaway driver and get 10 per cent of the spoils.

Reham was arrested the following day.

Mr Shaw described the chaos caused by the alert. He said: "The police initially believed they were dealing with a terrorist incident which dictated a thorough response with police helicopters being brought into use. "

For Salam Timothy Clark said: "The plot followed the script of the film The Inside man. Mr Rehman came into the bank with two bags. The plan was to hide the money in one bag in the ceiling of the bank for Mr Salem to collect it later. But the ceiling space was not large enough and the co-defendant had to leave with the money."

He said Salam was of previous good character but  "obsessively viewed Hollywood films". He said: "Most of his crime was based on The Inside Man, Heat and Ocean's 11."

Mohammed Hossain, defending Rehman, said the crime had been devised by Salam who was a "self-confessed fantasist." He said his client was a university graduate of good character who had followed Salam's instructions describing the crime as "an amateurish operation."

Matthew Sherratt for Khalifa said he had not organised the conspiracy. He said the business studies graduate had wanted to use his proceeds of the crimes to start his own business. He was also of good character and was sorry for what he had done.

Judge Andrew Bright QC described their crimes as: "A bank robbery without violence."

He told the three bespectacled defendants: "I have seen a photograph of a rather impressive mock up of a bomb."

The judge went on: "The bomb hoax struck hearts and minds of bank employees and members of the public alike. Police numbers had to be mobilised to deal with the hoax. The cost has to have been many tens of thousands of pounds."

Salam was jailed for 6 years, Rehman and Khalifa each received a total of 5 years.

Speaking after the case, Detective Inspector John Dick from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit led the investigation said:  "The actions of these men brought Watford town centre to a standstill for number of hours and understandably caused a lot of concern within the community. They had no concern about the impact it would cause and were driven purely by greed. Thankfully their planning did not pay off and I am pleased they have seen the sense to plead guilty. I would once again like to thank members of the public for their co-operation on that day."

Thames and Chiltern Complex Casework Unit Head, Adrian Roberts, said: "The three defendants have accepted their responsibility for an incident that went well beyond a theft from the bank and caused enormous distress to members of staff and the public, as well as massive disruption to Watford town centre. This was a very serious offence and these young men have thrown away many years of their lives on a plot to steal from the bank that was relatively easy for the police to unravel. As a result of their actions they now face long custodial sentences."

A spokesperson from The Co-operative Bank said: "We are pleased with the outcome of the police investigation, and the subsequent recovery of the stolen money. Our priority throughout the incident and thereafter has been to ensure the safety and wellbeing of affected staff, customers and members of the general public. We would like to thank Hertfordshire Police for their support, expertise and professionalism over the last few months whilst dealing with this case."