Police in Britain uncover suspected terrorist plot

Friday, August 11, 2006

Police at the scene of one of the raids, on Forest Road, Walthamstow, London.

The Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist branch and security service in London have claimed that a terrorist plot to detonate bombs on nine planes travelling mid-air from the United Kingdom to the United States has been thwarted.

Details of plot emerge

The bombs were to be smuggled onboard in passengers' hand luggage. The planned attacks might have been the biggest terrorist attacks since 9/11, government officials have said. Information gathered after recent arrests in Pakistan convinced British investigators they had to act urgently to stop the plot. The original information about the plan came from the Muslim community in Britain, according to a British intelligence official. The tip resulted from a person who had been concerned about the activities of an acquaintance after the July 7, 2005 terror attacks in London, the official said.

The counter-terrorism operation took several months to complete. Scotland Yard said twenty-three people are in custody, and were arrested in north and east London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. An undercover British agent infiltrated the group, giving the authorities intelligence on the alleged plan, several U.S. government officials said. The men had not bought plane tickets, the officials said, but they were in the process of perusing the Internet to find flights to various cities that had similar departure times. Pakistani officials have said two Britons were arrested last week, and that five Pakistanis have been detained on suspicion of "facilitating" the plot. As many as 50 people were involved in the plot, an internal Department of Homeland Security document said.

Speaking on the day after the arrests, UK Home Secretary John Reid said although officials believed the main suspects were in custody, the UK threat level remained "critical", the highest level. He said UK citizens faced a "common threat" and appealed for tolerance and resilience. He also added that Britain was grateful for Pakistan's cooperation in breaking up the suspected plot.

After the arrests, Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner, said: "We are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and to commit, quite frankly, mass murder. We believe that the terrorists' aim was to smuggle explosives on to aeroplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight. We also believe that the intended targets were flights from the United Kingdom to the United States of America. I can confirm that a significant number of people are currently in custody and the operation is ongoing." U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, said it was unclear if all suspects were now in custody. U.S. and British officials said some suspects could still be on the loose and that investigations were continuing.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is currently holidaying in the Caribbean, paid tribute to the security services and the police. "I thank them for the great job they are doing in protecting our country. There has been an enormous amount of co-operation with the U.S. authorities which has been of great value and underlines the threat we face and our determination to counter it," he said in a statement.

The White House has said the plot had been a direct threat to the U.S., and security officials there say aspects of the plan were suggestive of al-Qaeda. Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said two factors pointed to the influence of al-Qaeda. He said the organization is "obsessed" with commercial aviation, and he added that the timing of the plot was "very interesting." "It's not clear when this was going to be implemented ... but we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. They do want to make a big statement," he said.

U.S. intelligence officials said the plotters hoped to stage a dry run by August 10, and the actual attack would have followed days later, the officials told the Associated Press. It is believed that terrorists planned to detonate explosives on three U.S. airliners. A U.S. administration official said the plot targeted Continental Airlines, United, British Airways and American Airlines flights to New York, Washington and California.

A senior U.S. intelligence official suggests that those arrested are British citizens, and some have links with Pakistan. Among those arrested were a Muslim charity worker and a Heathrow Airport employee with an all-area access pass, according to Britain's Channel 4. The suspected terrorists had been under surveillance in Britain since last December, the channel reported. According to ABC News, five more suspects who are still at large in Britain are being "urgently sought". At a press conference at the afternoon on August 10, Home Secretary John Reid said the police believe the "main players" are accounted for. Two of the suspects left "martyrdom tapes," according to Pakistani sources familiar with the details of the British investigation.

A senior U.S. congressional source said it is believed the plotters planned to mix a British sports drink with a gel-like substance to make an explosive that they would possibly trigger with an MP3 player or cell phone. The sports drink could be combined with a peroxide-based paste to form a potent "explosive cocktail," if properly done, said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "There are strong reasons to believe the materials in a beverage like that could have been part of the formula," the official said. "What makes it frightening is the sophistication to turn relatively common materials into a dangerous bomb," said a U.S. intelligence official.

Two of the suspects held in connection with the alleged plot to down commercial jetliners with explosives may have had contact with a Pakistani suspected of being an al Qaeda operative, government officials in Britain and the United States said. The officials allege that Matiur Rehman, described as an explosives expert in Pakistan who is now at large, met two of the British suspects in Pakistan. But officials, who say the plot displays signs of al Qaeda participation but are still investigating that angle, do not know whether Rehman was involved in the plot. After the two people returned to Britain, they received a wire transfer of money from Pakistan, the officials said.

Michael Chertoff, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, said the plan was reminiscent of the 1995 plot by 9/11 coordinator Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who envisioned detonating bombs on 11 airlines possibly traveling over the Pacific Ocean. He also said that the plotters were "getting close to the execution phase".

The U.S. is also sending out more air marshals on flights between the UK and the U.S. President Bush said the arrests are a "stark reminder" that the U.S. is "at war with Islamic fascists." He thanked British Prime Minister Tony Blair for "busting this plot." U.S. government officials say there were two phone calls made from London to the United States recently by suspects. Those calls were tracked down and investigated, but there is no evidence of any involvement of people in America in the alleged plot.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on August 11 warned American citizens of possible terrorist attacks across India in the week from August 14 to August 20.

Flights disrupted

MI5, the British internal security service, has raised the threat level to critical, meaning "an attack is expected imminently and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK".

As a result, increased security at all British airports have been implemented, leading to delays in departing flights. Significant disruptions include:

  • At Heathrow Airport, incoming short-haul flights have resumed. However, long-haul services are still delayed and numerous outbound flights have been cancelled.
  • At Gatwick Airport, all EasyJet flights have been cancelled
  • All flights from Brussels Airport to the UK have been cancelled.

Air passengers across Europe faced a second day of delays on August 11, though the situation had eased from the previous day when London's Heathrow Airport was closed to many incoming flights.

Security restrictions

The alleged plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto planes has led to drastic new security measures at airports around the world.

All airlines departing from UK airports have told their passengers that they are not permitted to carry any hand baggage on board any aircraft departing from any airport in the UK.

Only the following items are permitted in the cabin, and must be carried in transparent bags:

  • Wallets and purses, plus their contents.
  • Travel documents, including passports and travel tickets.
  • Prescription medicines, but not in liquid form, unless they can be verified as authentic.
  • Essential medical items, such as a diabetic kit.
  • Glasses and sunglasses, but not in their cases.
  • Contact lens holders, but with no bottles of solution.
  • Baby food and milk, but contents must be tasted by accompanying passenger.
  • Sanitary items for babies.
  • Female sanitary items, unboxed.
  • Handkerchiefs and tissues, unboxed.
  • Keys, but with no electric key fobs.

No fluids at all are allowed onboard. "We hope that these measures, which are being kept under review by the government, will need to be in place for a limited period only," said a statement issued by the Department for Transport.

Weblog journalists have criticized whether the physical handling of potential explosive liquids reflects the threat authorities claim. In response to CNN reporting, "Because the plot involved taking liquid explosives aboard planes in carry-ons, passengers at all U.S. and British airports, and those boarding U.S.-bound flights at other international airports, are banned from taking any liquids onto planes." XOPL observes, "And then they have the photo of the TSA guy dumping a tub of confiscated possibly explosive liquids into a garbage can in a crowd of people. ... Nevermind that the plot specifically mentions mixing chemicals and/or nitroglycerin... which explodes if handled too roughly." Responding to "A.J. Leoni, pours the last of her drink into the receptacle while in line for the security checkpoint at the Asheville Regional Airport," in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Gabriel Meister writes, "Pour it into a receptacle? Don't you think that some of these potentially explosive liquids might be more dangerous when, I don't know, mixed in a big vat in the middle of an airport?"

The United States Department of Homeland Security said in an email: "The U.S. threat level is raised to Severe, or Red, for all commercial flights flying from the United Kingdom to the U.S. The U.S. threat level is raised to High, or Orange for all commercial aviation operating in the U.S., including international flights. Flights from the U.S. to the U.K. are also Orange. PROHIBITED ITEMS CHANGE: All liquids and gels are now prohibited at the screening checkpoints. For more information please visit www.tsa.gov." Continental, Delta, Northwest and United Airlines advised passengers to arrive three hours before takeoff for domestic and international flights, according to the airlines' Web sites. American Airlines advised passengers to allow for "extra time." Passengers in the U.S. faced a second security check starting August 11.

The nation's overall terror threat level has not been altered. August 10 2006 was the first time the Department of Homeland Security has raised the threat level for a specific group of flights. British Airways canceled all short haul flights in or out of Heathrow Airport for August 10, 2006, and delays were stacking flights up at airports across Europe.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ordered the National Guard to Boston's Logan Airport, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the National Guard to airports in his state.

The United States on August 11 renewed its warning to U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Pakistan amid rising concerns over terror activity that would be directed against U.S. interests.

Bank accounts frozen

The Bank of England has notified financial institutions to freeze accounts of 19 people under terrorist financing laws, according to a statement on the Bank's web site. The individuals were identified as Ali Abdula Ahmed, Ali Cossor, ALI Shazad Khuram, Hussain Nabeel, Hussain Tanvir, Hussain Umair, Islam Umar, Kayani Waseem, Khan Assan Abdullah, Khan Waheed Arafat, Khatib Osman Adam, Patel Abdul Muneem, Rauf Tayib, Saddique Muhammed Usman, Sarwar Assad, Savant Ibrahim, Tariq Amin, Asmin, Uddin Shamin Mohammed, and Zaman Waheed.


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