The men admitted in a London courtroom to hatching the plan and preparing to carry it out, though they had not gotten as far as buying explosives by the time of their arrest. The plotters took their inspiration from Anwar Awlaki, the radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric who preached militant jihad and who was killed in Yemen last year in an airstrike by an American military drone.
The four would-be attackers were among nine people charged with terrorist offenses following a major police sweep in December 2010 across Britain -- in London, the northern English city of Stoke-on-Trent and the Welsh capital of Cardiff. Scotland Yard officials said the coordinated raids and arrests were "absolutely necessary in order to keep the public safe."
Bombing the stock exchange formed part of what authorities allege was to be a larger terrorist plot at Christmastime in 2010 that included possible attacks on Big Ben, the London Eye (the Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames), Westminster Abbey and various pubs. In addition, police said they found the addresses of the U.S. Embassy, London Mayor Boris Johnson and two rabbis on a list of potential targets.
But on Wednesday, as a jury trial was due to begin, the defendants switched their pleas. Four of the men -- Mohammed Chowdhury, Gurukanth Desai, Abdul Miah and Shah Rahman -- admitted to plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors accepted the four men's contention that the attack was meant to strike fear and incur economic losses, not to cause death and injury.
The other five defendants pleaded guilty to lesser terrorism-related offenses, including attending planning meetings, raising funds for the operation and possession of documents for terrorism purposes. The plotters owned a copy of Inspire, a magazine put out by Al Qaeda, that contained instructions on building a homemade bomb.
Though of South Asian descent, all nine men are British citizens, stoking fears that Britain remains vulnerable to attack by "homegrown" terrorists, such as the suicide bombers who killed 52 people on the London public transport system in 2005.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: The London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, was a potential target of terrorist plotters who pleaded guilty in a London court Wednesday. Credit: Kerim Okten / EPA