WASHINGTON — The United States issued its highest terrorism alert for commercial flights from Britain and raised security for all air travel Thursday after a major terror plot was foiled in London. The Bush administration said the scheme was “suggestive of an al-Qaida plot.”
The terrorist attack foiled by British authorities on Thursday was aimed at blowing up as many as 10 airplanes on trans-Atlantic flights, and plotters had hoped to stage a dry run within two days, U.S. intelligence officials said. The actual attack would have followed within days.
The test run was designed to see whether the plotters would be able to smuggle the needed materials aboard the planes, these officials said. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Heightened security measures quickly produced long lines at airport checkpoints as the government banned passengers from carrying nearly all liquids and gels aboard flights. The ban extended to toothpaste, makeup and suntan lotion. Baby formula and medicines were exempted.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said the alleged plotters envisioned blowing up multiple aircraft using bomb components brought on board in a benign state and combined once the planes were aloft.
These officials described a threat aimed at United, American and Continental Air Lines, and flights to the major summer tourist destinations of New York, Washington and California.
“We were really getting quite close to the execution phase,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told an early morning news conference.
Virginia’s deputy homeland security director, Steven Mondul, said that in a morning conference call, federal officials pointed to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Los Angeles International and Dulles Airport outside Washington as “major destinations for flights originating from the United Kingdom.” No specific warnings were issued for these facilities, he added.
Severe risk of attack
The decision to raise the threat level for flights from Britain to “red,” indicated a severe risk of terrorist attacks. The change requires airlines to give the government in advance the names of all passengers aboard planes headed to the United States from Britain. Currently, the names must be provided within 15 minutes of take-off.
All other flights in the United States were put under an “orange” alert — one step below the highest level.
President Bush personally approved raising the terror alert on Wednesday, according to his spokesman, Tony Snow. “It is safe to travel,” but “there are going to be some inconveniences,” Snow added.
The president, in brief remarks from Green Bay, Wis., said the events showed that “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.” Administration officials said that most of the 21 plot suspects arrested by English authorities were British citizens of Pakistani descent and Muslims.
National Guard troops activated
In addition to the federal government, state and local authorities responded to word of a thwarted plot.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced plans to activate National Guard troops to help with security at Boston’s Logan Airport for the first time since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
In Miami, police officers who normally come to work in plain clothes were told to don their uniforms. The subway system in the Washington, D.C., area got a security upgrade, too, in the form of an increased police presence in and around stations.
Federal officials released few details of the reported plot, first made public by authorities in Britain.
Sophisticated plot, suggestive of al-Qaida
Chertoff said there was no indication of plotting in the United States but said officials cannot assume that the terror operation in Britain had been completely thwarted. He said the plot appeared to be engineered by al-Qaida, the terrorist group that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attack against the United States.
“It was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope,” said Chertoff, who spoke at a news conference also attended by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and FBI Director Robert Mueller. “It was in some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot.”
He added, however, that “because the investigation is still under way we cannot yet form a definitive conclusion.”
Gonzales said the operation could “potentially kill hundreds of innocent people.” Britain said 21 people had been arrested, including the alleged “main players” in the plot.
One aviation security expert, Douglas Laird, said the thwarted plot eerily resembled a 1994-1995 plan code-named “Bojinka” that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had overseen to blow up 11 airliners simultaneously.
In that plot, al-Qaida sympathizers had planned to mix liquid explosives undetectable by most security equipment, smuggle them aboard planes in a contact lens solution bottle and then set them off using a Casio watch as a trigger, FBI documents show.
“I’m surprised they’ve waited that long to try this, 10 or 11 years, when the current system still has no way to detect such liquid explosives,” said Laird.
At the news conference in Washington, Mueller also pointed at al-Qaida. “This had the earmarks of an al-Qaida plot,” he said.
The alleged plot was “as sophisticated as any we have seen in recent years as far as terrorism is concerned,” Chertoff said.
‘A real threat’
There were no commercial passenger planes in the air from Britain to the United States when the red alert was issued, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said. She said three cargo planes aloft from London — two Lufthansa and one UPS plane — were allowed to continue because the threat was focused on passenger planes.
The U.S. Northern Command, the military headquarters established in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was “monitoring and ... a little bit more vigilant today,” said spokesman Michael Kucharek, declining to be more specific.
“I’m not going to say it’s business as usual,” he said. “We’re looking at all sources of information — this is a real threat to the nation.”
The plot was not believed to be connected to a group of Egyptian students who disappeared in the United States more than a week ago before reaching a college they were supposed to attend in Montana. Several of the 11 have since been found, although the FBI has said none of the group is believed to be a threat.
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