A Global Probe
Tip Followed '05 Attacks on London Transit
Friday, August 11, 2006
It all began with a tip: In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on London's transit system, British authorities received a call from a worried member of the Muslim community, reporting general suspicions about an acquaintance.
From that vague but vital piece of information, according to a senior European intelligence official, British authorities opened the investigation into what they said turned out to be a well-coordinated and long-planned plot to bomb multiple transatlantic flights heading toward the United States -- an assault designed to rival the scope and lethality of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
By late 2005, the probe had expanded to involve several hundred investigators on three continents. They kept dozens of suspects under close surveillance for months, even as some of the plotters traveled between Britain and Pakistan to raise money, find recruits and refine their scheme, according to interviews with U.S. and European counterterrorism officials.
Precise details of the plot -- how many planes, their destinations and the date -- remain unknown. The shape of the operation changed regularly as the would-be bombers considered which transatlantic flights to target and prepared for a practice run, which was expected to take place in the next few days, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
Investigators eventually pieced together enough information from a blizzard of stakeouts, tips and wiretaps to make clear that something big was in the works, and that the plotters' preparations were nearing an end.
"It's not like three weeks ago all of a sudden MI5 knew about this plot and went to work," added a U.S. law enforcement official, speaking of the British security service. "They'd had a concern about these guys for some time -- for months. Details started to emerge, and it became clear over the last couple weeks the nature of the threat and the individuals," said the official, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity.
A law enforcement bulletin issued Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI described the conspiracy as "international in scope" but said there was no evidence that the plotters or any accomplices had set foot in the United States. "This plot appears to have been well planned and well advanced and in the final stages of preparation," the bulletin stated.
One U.S. intelligence source, however, said some of the British suspects arrested had made calls to the United States.
Investigators believe that the London operation was composed of three distinct cells, whose members may not have been aware of the others or the extent of their assignment, U.S. officials said.
British officials suspect that as many as 50 participants and accomplices were involved, U.S. law enforcement officials said. Internet searches made by the suspects suggested they had considered targeting as many as 10 flights, investigators said, although there was no evidence that those arrested had bought tickets or made reservations.
"It's fair to say they were aiming for multiple flights, and some of the exact data of who they would deploy, and how many might be in one deployment, are somewhat ambiguous," said Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. "There were different data sets about their intentions over time that evolved over the period of time that we were following this. It did seem in more recent days to have centered upon carriers that had direct, nonstop flights between the U.K. and U.S.
"The real focus was to blow up airliners and the people on them," he added.