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

Counterterrorism officials said the plotters intended to strike at United, American and Continental airline flights to New York, Washington and California. But law enforcement officials said that no specific cities were targeted, just the United States in general, and that the suspects were interested in nonstop flights between Britain and the United States, which would have made New York and Washington obvious candidates.

A U.S. intelligence official, who would not be quoted by name, said that British Airways flights were also targeted, although it did not appear that plans had progressed to "specific flights" on specific days. However, it was "certainly to the point of where it could have been carried out in the very near future. I'm talking about days or a few weeks. This month. They were very, very far along."

A senior U.S. law enforcement official said the working theory was that the bombs would be detonated in midair, similar to the so-called Bojinka plot, a code name used by bin Laden operatives for a 1995 plan to bomb 11 U.S. airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. The "similarities to Bojinka are striking, and are very much on everyone's mind," the official said. Simultaneous detonation would maximize the death toll in part by preventing authorities from grounding other planes carrying explosives.

U.S. and European intelligence officials said that the 24 people arrested by British police in London, the London suburb of High Wycombe and the city of Birmingham were all British citizens, in their twenties, and that most, perhaps all, were of Pakistani origin or had roots in Pakistan. Many had traveled to that country recently, the officials said.

[Early Friday, the Bank of England froze the assets of 19 people, naming them as people arrested Thursday in connection with the plan, the Associated Press reported.]

Pakistani officials said Thursday they had worked closely with U.S. and British intelligence since December to counter the plot. Tasnim Aslam, spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, said several arrests were made in Pakistan on Wednesday; security sources said the arrests took place in Punjab province.

Until recently, authorities believed they had the entire group of plotters under surveillance and were allowing them to continue their planning as police secretly gathered evidence for trial. But authorities became concerned in recent days that there might be additional unknown conspirators, according to two senior intelligence sources.

The lack of certainty forced authorities to begin the arrests sooner than anticipated, U.S. and European intelligence officials said, and to impose a ban on taking liquids aboard planes in case other plotters moved forward in response to the arrests.

"This is by no means over," said one U.S. intelligence source, who like others agreed to discuss limited elements of the plot on condition of anonymity.

The strict security measures caused cancellations, delays and congestion at Heathrow -- Europe's busiest airport with 186,000 passengers on a typical day -- and other large airports in Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted, north of London. The problems reverberated across Europe, as major carriers including Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Iberia canceled most or all of their flights to Britain.

Airline employees in Britain struggled to cope with crowds of frustrated, confused and sometimes worried and angry passengers who found their business and vacation plans suddenly disrupted, with few options for leaving the island.

Many were forced to repack in the middle of terminals, told that they could carry nothing on board but the most essential items, such as wallets, travel documents, medicines and eyeglasses. No liquids were allowed unless they could be verified, and mothers were forced to sample their babies' bottles in front of security guards to confirm their contents.


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