What did this plot involve? British authorities said they stopped a terrorist plot in its final stages aimed at blowing up U.S.-bound airplanes simultaneously over the Atlantic Ocean. The plot involved smuggling liquid explosives disguised as beverages and detonators that looked like electronic devices or other common devices into carry-on luggage. The attackers apparently hoped to have different people carry bomb components aboard each plane and assemble them once airborne.
How was it uncovered? British officials did not provide specifics. But two Pakistan officials said their country's intelligence helped British security agencies crack the plot after an Islamic militant was arrested near the Afghan-Pakistan border several weeks ago.
Where were the flights headed? New York, Washington and California, all departing London's Heathrow Airport. Some law enforcement officials said the attackers pinpointed flights operated by American, Continental and United.
Who was arrested? Police say they arrested at least 24 people in London, its suburbs and Birmingham. British police declined to name the suspects. They were said to be British-Muslims, some of Pakistani origin.
Was al-Qaida involved? The plot had the earmarks of al-Qaida, which was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FBI director Robert Mueller. But Mueller said there was no direct evidence linking the group to the plot.
Were all of the suspects arrested? That's unclear, but U.S. officials said as many as 50 people may have been involved. Neither the United States nor Britain could say all were caught.
Was the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 a target date? That's unclear, but a U.S. intelligence official said the plan was a mere "days away" from being enacted.
Any similarities to previous plots? In 1995, officials halted a plan by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a cohort of Osama bin Laden, and Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In a Manila apartment, the pair mixed chemicals they planned to smuggle onto 12 planes headed to Seoul and Hong Kong and then to the United States. The plot was ruined when fire broke out in the apartment. Yousef was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Mohammed was captured in 2003 and is being held by the CIA.
U.K. Foils Plan to Bomb Planes; Terror Alert Raised (Update6)
Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- London's anti-terrorist police said they foiled a plot to blow up airliners traveling to the U.S. using explosives smuggled in hand luggage, prompting the operator of Heathrow airport to cancel incoming flights.
U.K. authorities arrested a number of people overnight, police said today in an e-mailed statement, adding that flights between the U.K. and U.S. would have been "particularly" targeted. The U.K. and the U.S. raised their terror alerts to the highest level. Sky News said six aircraft had been targeted and as many as 20 individuals were arrested in London.
"We carried out a major counter-terrorism operation to disrupt what we believe was a major threat to the U.K. and international partners," Home Secretary John Reid said in a televised briefing. Authorities "are investigating an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-air explosions causing considerable loss of life."
Britain raised its terror alert to "critical," the highest category in a five-point scale, indicating an attack is expected "imminently," according to the Home Office Web site. Airports were instructed not to permit hand baggage aboard flights, the U.K. Department of Transport said. BAA Plc, the world's largest airport operator, said Heathrow will be closed to incoming flights until further notice.
U.S. Threat Level
European airline shares slumped, the pound fell and U.K. bonds rose. British Airways stock dropped as much as 6.4 percent to 365 pence ($6.93) in London. Oil dropped on expectations of a reduction in air travel, with the price of a barrel of crude for September delivery down as much as 72 cents to $75.63 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The U.S. raised the threat level for flights from the U.K., to "severe," or "red," the highest in a five-step scale, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an e-mailed statement. The security level for other flights to or within the U.S. was raised to orange, or high, the second level.
"British authorities have arrested a significant number of extremists engaged in a substantial plot to destroy multiple passenger aircraft flying from the United Kingdom to the United States," Chertoff said. "Currently, there is no indication, however, of plotting within the United States. We believe that these arrests have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted."
The pound fell the most in two weeks against the dollar at $1.9005 at 8:54 a.m. in London. The benchmark FTSE 100 stock index fell as much as 1.3 percent to 5783.60 points. U.K. bonds rose, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year gilt falling 3 basis points to 4.65 percent.
The plot comes almost five years after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. when hijackers flew planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. A U.K. parliamentary committee said in May that an unspecified number of terrorist attacks had been thwarted in Britain since then, including three following last year's suicide bombings on London's public transport system.
Four suicide bombers on July 7, 2005, killed themselves and 52 other people on three London Underground subway trains and a bus in the capital's deadliest terrorist attack.
An airplane was the target of Britain's deadliest terrorist attack, when a Pan Am jetliner was blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988, killing all 259 passengers and crew as well as 11 people on the ground. Libya later admitted responsibility for the attack.
The Department of Transport said travel documents, pocket- sized wallets, purses and items such as baby food, contact lenses and some medications, are permitted on flights, while handbags, cell-phones, laptops and media players must be checked in.
"We're advising customers to check in as normal: clearly under these circumstances they would be wise to expect delays," Paul Marston, a spokesman for British Airways Plc, the U.K.'s main carrier, said in a telephone interview.
Today's arrests follow the return of an American Airlines Inc. flight to Boston from London on Aug. 7 to Heathrow Airport after takeoff due to an unspecified security issue.
Four passengers detained by the authorities were later released after being questioned.
Reid held meetings of Cobra, a U.K. emergency committee that deals with national crises, during the night and again at 5 a.m. in the morning, a spokeswoman for the Home Office said in a telephone interview. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in charge while Prime Minister Tony Blair is on holiday in the Caribbean, was briefed on the situation, she said.
Blair is "in constant contact" with the situation in the U.K. and briefed US President George W. Bush overnight, a Downing Street spokesman said.
August 10, 2006
One of the 'no liquid' posters put up at US airports this morning (Henny Ray Abrams/AP)
The United States reacted quickly today to news that a major terrorist plot had been foiled by British security forces, slapping the highest terrorism alert on commercial flights from the UK and tightening security precautions for all departures from US airports.
Michael Chertoff, who heads the Homeland Security Department set up after the terror attacks of 9/11, told an early morning press conference that the alleged plot in the UK was "suggestive of an al-Qaeda plot". He added: "We were really getting quite close to the execution phase."
Mr Chertoff and other US security chiefs had been kept well briefed by their British counterparts both before and after the overnight swoop in which 21 suspects, believed to be British citizens of Pakistani origin, were arrested.
Those contacts included a telephone call last night between Tony Blair, who has joined his family on holiday in Barbados, and President Bush, on vacation at his Texas ranch.
US officials even supplied some extra details about the plot, said to involve simultaneous mid-air explosions on multiple commercial aircraft cross the Atlantic from the UK.
Counter-terrorist experts quoted by the Associated Press named three of the airlines targeted as Continental, United and American. The flights in question were thought to be travelling to New York, Washington and California.
They also explicitly confirmed what was only hinted at by British officials - that the explosives could involve liquids that were innocuous on their own but deadly when mixed.
"Certainly one of the considerations or concerns that we've had is the possibility of bringing on board a number of different components of a bomb, each one of which would be benign but when mixed together would create a bomb," Mr Chertoff said.
He added: "Some of the threats which led to this investigation had been pursued by British authorities for some considerable period of time. However it is only recently, certainly within the last two weeks, maybe less, that the investigation revealed that this planning was taking the direction of targeting the United States.
"This is not a circumstance where you have a handful of people sitting around coming up with dreamy ideas about terrorist plots. The conception, the large number of people involved, the sophisticated design of the devices that were being considered and the sophisticated nature of the plan, all suggest that this group that came together to conspire was very determined, and very skilled, and very capable."
Mr Chertoff said there was nothing to suggest the target date was September 11, the fifth anniversary of 9/11. "Nor can I tell you that they would have waited that long," he added.
He said that the plot was reminiscent of one hatched by the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the 1990s to detonate bombs on airliners travelling over the Pacific Ocean.
Asked about the threat to airliners travelling from the UK to the US now, he said: "There's sufficient uncertainty about whether the British have scooped up everybody that we do think it's prudent to regard this particular route as still being at the highest level of risk."
The US administration raised the threat level for flights from Britain to "red", designating a severe risk of terrorist attacks - the first time that it had raised an airline threat status to the highest level. All other flights, including all domestic flights, were put under an "orange" alert - one step below.
Heightened security caused long lines and delays at airport security checkpoints. The government banned passengers from carrying all liquids and gels, including toothpaste, makeup, suntan lotion. Baby formula and medicines were exempted.
At Dulles International airport outside Washington, Homeland Security put up hastily printed signs warning passengers in all-red capital letters: "No liquid or gels permitted beyond security."
The signs were taped up at ticket counters as well as the security checkpoints. Passengers dumped liquids into large trash cans that were being emptied every couple minutes. People threw away water bottles, juice boxes, makeup and even a bottle of tequila.
Catherine Philp, a Times correspondent in Washington, said from the Dulles airport that passengers were being allowed to take on hand baggage - unlike in Britain where only the bare essentials were being allowed aboard.
Queues were up to 300 metres long and some passengers, who had not expected the extra security, had missed their flights. "There's no sign of panic or anything," she said. "Nobody seems overly fearful."