"real Deal' Foiled

Bid to blow up U.S.-bound planes halted, British say

War On Terrorism

August 11, 2006|By TODD RICHISSIN | TODD RICHISSIN,SUN REPORTER

Plans to blow airplanes out of the skies between Britain and the United States were described yesterday as more advanced than any plots officials have made public so far, and within days could have become the most deadly attacks on Americans since Sept. 11, 2001.

At least 24 people were arrested by authorities in England yesterday in raids thwarting the alleged attacks, as part of an investigation that reached around the world and carried at least three particularly chilling warnings - that planning of the attacks on up to 10 flights was well advanced if not complete; that the plotters had the means to carry out the attacks; and that if the plot had succeeded, hundreds and perhaps thousands of passengers would have been lost to explosions over the Atlantic, including many Americans returning from summer vacations.

As sketched by officials, the plot would have targeted flights leaving Britain on their way to the United States.

ABC News quoted unidentified U.S. officials who had been briefed on the plot as saying five suspects were at large and being urgently hunted.

"We cannot assume that the threat has been completely thwarted." Michael Chertoff, the U.S. head of homeland security, said yesterday.

The arrests and unveiling of the plot caused delays and cancellations of flights involving tens of thousands of passengers around the world, put the British and U.S. governments on their highest alerts, and tightened aviation security to levels not seen since all commercial flights in the United States were grounded after the 2001 attacks.

"This was obviously the real deal." said Robert Ayers, vacationing in Annapolis from his job as an intelligence and security expert at Chatham House, a think tank in London. "Every sign points to that, including the fact that the Metropolitan Police and British security services wouldn't otherwise have brought the transportation industry to its knees during the height of tourist season."

Georgetown University terrorism expert William Daddio said, "This is obviously more real for a number of reasons. The main reason is this is a British operation, and they don't tend to make an nouncements like this unless they're sure of what they're dealing with."

The arrests came after a long-running investigation reached a 'critical point." according to the head of the counterterrorism branch of the London police, Peter Clarke.

U.S. officials offered no hard evidence implicating al-Qaida but stressed that the global scope of the plot was consistent with that group, still thought to be led by Osama bin Laden.

A member of the House of Lords who is of Pakistani origin said he had been informed that all of those arrested were British Muslims with ties to Pakistan - like the four men who bombed London's transportation system in July 2005, killing themselves and 51 other people. An American counterintelligence official told the AP that the suspects range in age from 17 to their mid-30s.

The Associated Press reported that the plot's unraveling began with a tip from Pakistani authorities, who have arrested "two or three" suspects in that country, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokes man Tasnim Aslam said.

"Cooperation in this particular case was spread over a period of time. There were some arrests in Pakistan which were coordinated with arrests in the U.K.." she said.

The AP quoted a senior Pakistani government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment on the matter, as saying that "two or three local people" suspected in the plot were arrested a few days ago in Lahore and Karachi.

In London, Clarke told reporters that the investigation had "already lasted for several months and will undoubtedly last long into the future." The investigation was wider in scope than any be fore it in British history, he indicated, involving "an unprecedent ed level of surveillance."

"We have been looking at meetings, movement, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people." the counterter rorism chief said.

A U.S. intelligence official said the plotters had hoped to target flights to major airports in New York, Washington and California.

Paul Stephenson, a deputy police commissioner at Scotland Yard, said, "We think this was an extraordinarily serious plot, and we are confident that we've prevented an attempt to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale."

In the United States, federal officials raised the warning level for flights arriving from the United Kingdom to its highest level and a notch below for all other aviation. It is the first time the red alert level in the Homeland Security warning system has been declared. The agency defines red alert as designating a "severe risk of terrorist attacks."

Chertoff said that until further notice, all passengers are banned from bringing gels and liquids aboard domestic and foreign flights.

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