U.K. foils plot to bomb U.S.-bound planes
THURSDAY, AUGUST 10, 2006
LONDON The British authorities said Thursday that they had thwarted a terrorist plot to launch a wave of attacks on airplanes flying between Britain and the United States that would have caused what one senior police officer called "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
The plotters had planned to use liquids in beverage bottles, smuggled in hand baggage, to combine into explosive cocktails aboard flights high over the Atlantic, British and American officials said. Britain raised its terror threat assessment by one notch to its highest level - "critical," meaning that an attack was imminent.
The British announcement, reinforced by warnings in the United States, triggered a massive security alert that grounded hundreds of flights and turned London's Heathrow Airport into a maelstrom of stranded, complaining, but often resigned passengers. Flight schedules were left in turmoil.
At least 24 people, said to be mainly British-born Muslims, some of Pakistani descent, were arrested in nighttime police raids on homes as far apart as east London's Walthamstow district; High Wycombe, west of the capital; and Birmingham, in the Midlands. By early evening, no detainees had been identified by name.
[Pakistan made an undisclosed number of arrests in coordination with those in Britain, The Associated Press reported from Islamabad late Thursday, citing Pakistani government officials.
[A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, declined to give details, including the number of suspects, their identities and when they were arrested. But a senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The AP that "two or three" suspects had been arrested a few days ago in Lahore and Karachi.]
In the United States, President George W. Bush said the plot showed that the United States was "at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."
Peter Clarke, the head of the London counterterrorism police, said "the alleged plot has global dimensions."
British police officials said the attacks had not been planned for Thursday.
[U.S. intelligence officials said the plotters had hoped to stage a dry run within two days, The AP reported from Washington. The actual attack would have followed within days.
[One official said the suicide attackers had planned to use a peroxide-based solution that could ignite when sparked by a camera flash or another electronic device. The test run was designed to see whether the plotters would be able to smuggle the needed materials aboard the planes, these officials said.]
Clarke indicated that the bombs had not yet been made.
"The intelligence suggested that the devices were to be constructed in the United Kingdom and taken through British airports," he told reporters.
For the first time, the U.S. threat assessment level on trans-Atlantic flights was raised to its highest - "red" - and stringent new security measures were enforced, as in Britain. Under hastily introduced measures to counter the perceived new threat, passengers in London were told they could take nothing with them as hand baggage except their passports, wallets, baby formula and boarding passes. Airline staff members insisted that parents taste baby milk before it was allowed on planes.
Coming weeks after Londoners commemorated the July 7, 2005, bombings that killed 52 commuters on the capital's transport system, the alert revived the specter of homegrown terrorism centered on a Muslim minority in Britain of some 1.6 million. The sense of living with terror spread from Britons to thousands of Americans whose journeys were disrupted, delayed or canceled.
"This is the new way of life," said Arleen Malec, 60, a homemaker from Chicago who arrived in London from the United States.
The reported conspiracy again raised the question of how closely British-born terrorists are linked to Al Qaeda. In the United States, the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller 3rd, said the plot had "all the earmarks of an Al Qaeda plot" but cautioned that there was no direct evidence of this.
Also in the United States, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, said new restrictions imposed on travelers seeking to bring fluids onto flights reflected a belief that the plotters planned to use liquids "each one of which would be benign, but mixed together could be used to create a bomb."
"This was a very sophisticated plan and operation," Chertoff said at a news conference in Washington. "It was not a handful of people sitting around and dreaming."
The BBC said 9, or possibly 10, planes would have been attacked in three waves of bombing.
"We are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction," said Paul Stephenson, a deputy commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police. The aim, he said, had been "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
Referring to the 24 people arrested under counterterrorism laws, John Reid, the British home secretary, told reporters that the police were "confident that the main players have been accounted for."
He described the planned attacks as "a significant and substantial threat to life in considerable numbers through a wave of attacks on airplanes in midflight." The loss of life to innocent civilians would have "been on an unprecedented scale," Reid said.
He acknowledged similarities to a plot hatched by Al Qaeda operatives 12 years ago to simultaneously blow up airliners over the Pacific. The conspirators in that plot were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was starting his climb to become a top Al Qaeda operative, and Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The plot was financed by Osama bin Laden.
But senior British officials have declined to ascribe the bombing specifically to Al Qaeda. Clarke, the head of London's counterterrorism police forces, spoke only of a plot "to blow up a trans-Atlantic passenger aircraft in flight. The intelligence suggested that this was to be achieved by means of concealed explosive devices smuggled onto the aircraft in hand baggage."
He suggested that some event had emerged Wednesday night that led the authorities to carry out the arrests. "The investigation reached a critical point last night when a decision was made to take urgent action in order to disrupt what we believe was being planned," Clarke said.
He called the police inquiries so far "a major operation that has already lasted several months and will undoubtedly last long into the future."
"We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people."
At Britain's airports, chaos spread rapidly as airlines closed down flights. For much of the day, British Airways canceled all short-haul flights to European destinations, and many European airlines canceled flights to London. Travelers on the Heathrow Express train from London's Paddington Station heard a recorded female voice announcing: "You can take tissues on the plane, but only if they are unboxed. You can also take baby food and milk on board, but the contents of the bottle must be tasted by the accompanying passenger."
At Terminal 3 in Heathrow Airport, hundreds of passengers jammed into the terminal building and airline officials handed out clear plastic bags to passengers for their limited carry-on.
Many passengers said airline officials refused to tell them what was going on.
"It's been terrible," said Joanne Weslund, 68, a retired schoolteacher from Hubbardston, Massachusetts. "The only thing BA has said is it's a security breach. If there is a threat, people should not be on planes, but how they handled this is atrocious."
The OAG transport industry information company said that up to 400,000 people would be affected by the security alert. Officials at airports across Britain, including Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Birmingham, reported delays as flights were canceled or held up by extended security searches of passengers.
In Paris, after an emergency cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that France had increased its security alert to "red" - one degree below the maximum level. He said France had stepped up airline security measures and was introducing new steps for flights bound for Britain and Israel, including thorough searches of all hand baggage.
Airports in France were crowded with thousands of stranded passengers. Flights leaving for Britain were canceled during most of the day, but air traffic bound for the United States was close to normal, spokesmen for different airlines said. At train stations and airports, uniformed police and military, often accompanied by dogs, increased their patrols.
In Spain, only about 10 percent of 800 flights to London took off, leaving thousands of vacationers stranded, according to Aena, the main operator of Spanish airports. Spain is one of the most popular destinations for British vacationers. The prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, told reporters that the Spanish authorities had "ordered the tightening and strengthening of all the controls that affect the security of the airports in our country."
Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, left for a Caribbean vacation last weekend after delaying his plans because of the Lebanon crisis. His office said that he had briefed Bush on the situation. British politicians in general refused to be drawn into what has become a familiar public debate about whether Britain is targeted by terrorists because of its alliance with the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and the diplomacy relating to Lebanon.
In High Wycombe, west of London, residents said the police seemed to have raided two places and a wooded area, where the police gathered material in plastic bags. "It's shocking when it's so close to us, on our doorstep, not on the other side of the country," said Sue Needham, a 36-year-old homemaker near the wooded area.
In Walthamstow, east London, John Weir, 50, said he lived opposite one of the houses raided in London that had been sold recently. "It was sold overnight," he said. "One day it was up for sale and the next it was gone." He said two men moved in the following weekend but the house often seemed empty.
Reporting was contributed by Karla Adam and Pamela Kent of The New York Times in Britain; Stephen Grey and Marlise Simons of The Times and Katrin Bennhold of the International Herald Tribune in France; Renwick McLean of the IHT in Madrid; and Raymond Bonner of The Times in Jakarta.
By Alan Cowell and Dexter Filkins The New York Times
SOURCE:- 2006 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
Plot said for multiple suicide attacks
Thu Aug 10, 2006 9:44 PM BST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Thursday the airline plot foiled by British police would have included coordinated, multiple suicide bombings.
"The plan was to have multiple suicide bombings on aircraft, essentially at the same time," Chertoff said in an interview on CNN.
"They were days away," a U.S. intelligence official told Reuters separately. "They were a couple days from a test, and a few days from doing it."
SOURCE:- U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, Reuters