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Tip Followed '05 Attacks on London Transit
Counterterrorism officials said the basic outline of the conspiracy was known for several months. Investigators from New York to Islamabad, Pakistan, said they were briefed by their British counterparts late last year.
British and U.S. law enforcement authorities decided against breaking up the cells right away in the hope that they could learn more about the origins of the network and assemble evidence for prosecutors.
Some U.S. counterterrorism officials said plans originally were to allow the conspiracy to develop even further. But U.S. and British investigators made a sudden decision this week to close down the operation after they became increasingly worried that there were other bombers they had been unable to locate or identify, U.S. officials said.
British Home Secretary John Reid said that "the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for" and are in custody. But U.S. and European authorities said the widespread ban on carrying liquids onto flights was imposed because investigators were worried more conspirators could be at large.
British police conducted numerous searches and raids Wednesday and Thursday as they detained at least 24 people in three cities. British officials would not say if they were able to recover any physical evidence or bomb-making materials. Neither would they describe what kind of liquid explosives the suspects were allegedly planning to use.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said the explosive was a peroxide-based compound, but would not give further details. One reason, they said, is that the chemicals are easy to obtain and difficult to detect by airport security screeners.
Authorities are trying to "figure out how to prevent something similar from getting through," said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "We're learning what you can about this material, whether it opens another hole in our security, and we have to figure out how to close it."
Counterterrorism analysts said there were parallels between the airliner plot and the July 7, 2005, subway and bus bombings in London. In both cases, the alleged perpetrators were primarily British Muslims of Pakistani descent aiming to cause widespread carnage on public transportation systems with homemade explosives.
At the same time, analysts said, those behind the airliner plot were planning a more ambitious and difficult operation that likely required more technical expertise, money and leadership, as well as support from an international network.
"This has a far more global flavor to it and, I think, a different level of sophistication to the planning and the action," said John Carnt, a former deputy superintendent at Scotland Yard who now serves as managing director of the London office of Vance International, a private security and investigations firm. "You would think that given the scope and sophistication of this plot, it would be unusual if there wasn't some direction or influence from outside the U.K."
Pakistani officials said Thursday that they were informed about the plot by their British counterparts in December and that they actively assisted with the investigation. "We were in the loop since the blip appeared on the radar screen in London last year," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official.
Although Pakistani officials would not divulge how many people were detained in that country, they said the arrests were carried out simultaneously with police raids in Britain.
A second Pakistani intelligence official said the main suspects in the case visited Pakistan last year and drew financial and motivational support from a small militant Islamic group. "No doubt there was some stimulation from Pakistan, but almost all key players are British citizens with roots in Pakistan," he said.
Staff writers Dan Eggen, Spencer S. Hsu and Warren Bass and researcher Julie Tate in Washington, and special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.