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.
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.
Travelers swarmed ticket counters, awaiting word on their flights. Thousands of stranded passengers flooded local hotels and jockeyed for seats on crowded trains to France, Belgium and Switzerland.
"This is the way of life now," said Craig Burgess, a UNICEF employee who got stranded at Heathrow and went into London to try to catch a train to Paris or Geneva so he could continue on to New Delhi to join his family. "I understand the caution and the safety. You'd rather have this happen than something tragic," he said.
Muslim community leaders in Britain expressed skepticism that a grand plot by Muslims had been discovered. They noted that most other alleged conspiracies announced by British police unraveled for lack of proof. Leaders said they feared a renewed Islamophobia.
Mohammad Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque -- close to the scene of some of Thursday's raids -- said the community reaction was "dismay and anxiety. People have lost trust in politicians. All we are asking for is proof."
Ahmed Versi, editor of Britain's Muslim News, said hate mail had already started pouring into his office over the Internet on Thursday morning, saying Muslims were unwelcome in Britain. "Muslims are worried they may face physical attacks," he said in a telephone interview.
On quiet two-lane Walton Drive in High Wycombe, west of London, police raided a two-story brick duplex. Police officers stood sentry on either end of the block and in front of the house at No. 36 throughout the day; blue-and-white police tape kept people off the small patch of lawn and flowers in front of the glass front door. Inside, investigators in light-colored hazard suits inspected the home.
People on the street said at least six people lived in the house, including two brothers in their twenties who frequently played soccer at a local park. The people in the house were described as pleasant, if reserved.
"They don't seem like terrorists, they are family people. They never had any trouble with the neighbors," said neighbor Kamran Haider, 25. "I wouldn't suspect them to be involved in any criminal activity."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writers Dafna Linzer, Anushka Asthana and Dan Eggen and researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondents Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, and Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.