The plot had been in the works for months, and its goal was horrific. One after another, planes would have exploded in the sky, sending hundreds of men, women and children to their deaths.
Counterterrorism officials said Thursday the plan thwarted in London appears to bear the fingerprints of al-Qaida, and may even have been “the Big One” they have been dreading since Sept. 11, 2001, particularly as the five-year anniversary of the attacks on the United States approaches.
More than 20 people have been arrested, terror threat levels have been raised to some of their highest levels and hundreds of flights have been canceled worldwide.
“In terms of scale, it was probably designed to be ... a new Sept. 11,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French private investigator who works with lawyers of many Sept. 11 victims. “It involved the same tools, the same transportation tools and devices.”
Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said everything known so far points to involvement by Osama bin Laden’s terror group.
“It is a classic al-Qaida tactic. It is a hallmark of al-Qaida to carry out coordinated, simultaneous attacks and the aviation domain is certainly known to al-Qaida,” he said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller echoed those sentiments, saying: “This had the earmarks of an al-Qaida plot.” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff added that the plan was “sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope.”
There have been dozens of thwarted plots around the world since the Sept. 11 attacks, and several were murderously successful. Suicide bombers killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005, 58 in two attacks in Istanbul, Turkey in 2003, and 202 in Bali in 2002. Islamic radicals killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004, then blew themselves up days later as police closed in.
While al-Qaida’s call for global jihad clearly acted as inspiration, there has been no direct evidence that bin Laden or his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, had advance knowledge of those attacks, that they helped plan them, or that they provided financial or logistical help to those who carried them out.
The group’s failure to match the destruction it inflicted on Sept. 11 has led to speculation that a global dragnet that has forced bin Laden into hiding and ensnared many of his most trusted deputies may have degraded al-Qaida’s abilities.
Analysts said Thursday that is a theory to be believed only at the world’s peril.
‘This was really serious’
The plan thwarted by the British had the potential to dwarf the attacks of recent years — killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.
It also appears to have involved far more extensive planning and expertise.
Counterterrorism agents have been tracking the alleged plotters for months and made arrests in London and its suburbs, as well as in Birmingham, England. A British police official said the suspects appeared to be “homegrown,” though it was not immediately clear if they were all British citizens.
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Sweden’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies who has done extensive research on al-Qaida’s recruiting efforts in Europe, said the foiled plot in Britain “could very well have been an attempt at ’the Big One.”’
He warned against doubting the gravity of the threat.
“This was really serious. Police have no reason to play politics. I think one should take what they say very seriously,” he said.
Official: Subway attacks in comparison ‘child’s play’
Andrea Nativi, a researcher at the Rome-based Military Center for Strategic Studies, said the plot resembled the Sept. 11 attacks in ambition and was entirely different in scope from other terror schemes of recent years.
“By comparison, the London subway attacks look like child’s play,” he said.
Rodolfo Mendoza, a police intelligence official in the Philippines, said the “modus operandi” is the same as al-Qaida has used in the past — and he should know.
Mendoza was among the law enforcement officers involved in thwarting a scheme by al-Qaida terror mastermind Ramzi Yousef to use liquid explosives to blow up a dozen airliners in 1995 as they flew across the Pacific to U.S. destinations, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and New York.
Like al-Qaida’s decade-long effort to bring down the World Trade Center in New York, first in 1993 and then, disastrously, in 2001, the latest plot to blow up commercial airliners reveals the group’s unwavering resolve, Mendoza said.
“These people are obsessed,” he said. “They will try and try and try again to accomplish their mission.