Plot to Bomb U.S.-Bound Jets Is Foiled

By John Ward Anderson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 11, 2006

LONDON, Aug. 10 -- A plot to simultaneously blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on luggage was foiled with the arrest of 24 suspects, British and U.S. officials said Thursday. Tough new security measures snarled air traffic through the day and filled departure lounges in Britain and the United States with crowds of frustrated travelers.

British authorities had been secretly watching the alleged conspirators, most of them British citizens of Pakistani origin, since late last year, officials said, and moved in to make arrests after concluding they were close to trying to stage their suicide attacks. Officials warned that some members of the plot may remain at large.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security increased its threat level for U.S.-bound commercial flights from Britain to "red" -- the first use of this highest terrorism alert signaling imminent attack, invoked in this case out of prudence to conform with a British alert. Officials said they had no information that the plot was to include attacks in the United States.

At the Washington area's three main airports, many flights were canceled and security screening lines grew long and slow-moving as passengers underwent special inspections after drinks and most other liquids and gels were banned as carry-on items. At British airports, carry-on bags were prohibited altogether, with passengers allowed to take aboard only essentials such as wallets, eyeglasses and baby formula.

By day's end, commercial aviation was returning to normal. Officials said that people boarding flights from the United States to Britain and on some other routes could continue to face extra screening Friday and that restrictions on carry-on items would remain in force for the time being.

"Put simply, this was a plot to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale," said Paul Stephenson, deputy commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, describing a plot that if successful could have rivaled the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in death toll.

The plot "was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters. He said the suspects planned to smuggle bombs and detonators disguised as beverages, electronic devices and other everyday objects onto planes.

He expressed concern that components, each benign on its own, might be brought aboard, then mixed together to create a bomb.

Intelligence officials and private analysts expressed suspicion that the plot was an al-Qaeda operation, but said there was no confirmation. News that all of the suspects were British citizens fit with some analysts' view that future Islamic terrorism attacks will be organized by locally based groups acting largely on their own, with inspiration but not direction from Osama bin Laden.

Many young Muslims in Britain are angry with the U.S. and British governments over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of the four suicide attackers who killed 52 passengers in London's transit system last summer were British citizens of Pakistani origin, investigators concluded. The fourth was identified as a Jamaican-born convert to Islam.

President Bush called Thursday's arrests "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."

British officials did not announce the suspects' names, and other basic details of the alleged plot remained unknown. Officials speaking not for quotation by name offered sometimes conflicting partial information.

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