Foiled mid-air terror attack cripples London airport

Cops say 21 people have been held in connection with the plot in London and Birmingham, most of them UK-born.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 14:34 IST

A suspected Al-Qaeda plot to simultaneously blow up 10 US-bound flights from London using explosives smuggled in handbags was foiled by the British police, triggering a worldwide security alert and chaos at airports on Thursday.

Police arrested 21 people in London, Birmingham and Thames Valley overnight in an ongoing operation. They are believed to be British citizens, many of whom are Pakistanis by origin.

The US said the plan was "suggestive" of an Al-Qaeda plot and issued its highest terror alert ever for commercial flights from Britain besides banning all liquids and gels from aircraft.

Security officials here suspected that some liquid explosives could be mixed during the flights into a lethal concoction. They said the terrorists had planned simultaneous attacks on US-bound aircraft.

The plot was "very significant" and was designed to "bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions causing a considerable loss of life", British Home Secretary John Reid said.

"It amounted to a major threat to the UK and international partners" and the police were confident that the main players had been accounted for, he said.

Reid said the scale of the terror plot was potentially bigger than the September 11 attacks in the US. "Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale."

British Intelligence agency M15 said the current threat level is critical-- the highest possible-- meaning thereby "an attack is expected and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK".

Security at all major airports across the globe was increased causing long queues and chaos at security checkpoints.

At Heathrow airport, the busiest in Europe, additional security measures were put in place. The airport was closed to all incoming flights that were already in the air while several outbound services were cancelled causing inconvenience to thousands of travellers worldwide.

"The plot was intended to be mass murder of unimaginable scale," Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson said adding "we believe that the terrorist aim was to smuggle explosives onto aeroplanes in hand baggage and to detonate these inflight.

He said the terrorists had planned to bomb ten transatlantic planes and went on to add that the plot involved blowing up passenger planes flying between UK and the US.

"This is about people who are desperate....Who want to do things that no right minded citizen of this country or any other country would want to tolerate," Stephenson said.

Domestic news agency Press Association quoting unnamed senior police sources said majority of those arrested were believed to be of Pakistani origin but most, if not all, were British.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised the terror threat to the highest level of "severe" or red for commercial flights originating in the UK and bound for US. It also prohibited any liquids, including any beverages, hair gels and lotions, from being carried on aircraft.

In addition, the threat level has been raised to high for all commercial flights operating or coming to the United States, a DHS statement said.

US Homeland Security Secretary Michale Chertoff said the plot appeared to be engineered by Al-Qaeda, which was the mastermind of the September 11 terror strikes in the country.

"It was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope...It was in some respects suggestive of an Al-Qaeda plot," Chertoff said.

However, he said as the investigation was still continuing, we cannot yet "perform a definite conclusion."

He said the plotters were in the final stages of planning before execution.

FBI director Robert Mueller also said that the plot had the "earmarks" of Al-Qaeda.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is holidaying in Barbados, discussed the situation with US President George W Bush.

At airports in London, people have been advised to carry only the barest essentials-- including passports and wallets-- on board aircraft in transparent plastic bags. There are no changes to current hold baggage security measures.

British Airways said any of its passengers who failed to comply with the Government's restrictions on luggage and other items would not be allowed on its planes.

A spokesman said passengers were advised that no electrical or battery powered items including laptops, mobile phones, iPods and remote controls could be carried in the cabin and must be checked in as hold baggage.

"Regrettably, significant delays at airports are inevitable. Passengers are being asked to allow themselves plenty of extra time and to ensure that other than the few permitted items listed above, all their belongings are placed in their hold baggage and checked in," a Metropolitan Police spokesman said.

First Published: Aug 10, 2006 12:10 IST