Britain Calls Terror Suspects 'Homegrown'

British officials describe the people arrested for an alleged aircraft bombing terror plot as "homegrown," but would not elaborate on what that meant. In the U.S., the government went on high alert and suggested the plot looked like an al-Qaida attack.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Today, British police announced they've foiled what they describe as a major terrorist plot to blow up aircraft heading to the United States using liquid explosives. They said the plot, had it been successful, would have caused murder on, quote, an unimaginable scale. Security has been heightened on flights between the U.K. and the U.S., and carry-on luggage has been banned. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke about the situation.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary of Homeland Security): We want to be as open as possible with the public about the facts. At the same time, it's important - I'm sure you'll understand - that we preserve confidentiality of matters that are necessary in order to complete this investigation.

MONTAGNE: And that was Michael Chertoff.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has been following the news this morning, as it has been breaking. And he joins us now.

And Ari, what more can you tell us about this plot?

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Well, Secretary Chertoff, who we just heard from, described it as well planned and well advanced. It apparently was going to involve multiple-timed explosions on transatlantic flights, as you mentioned. And the explosives were apparently going to be hidden in liquid ingredients disguised as beverages, lotions, gels, et cetera. Because of that, flights from the U.S. to the U.K. are now prohibiting carry-on liquids, carryon beverages.

We're hearing this described as the first stage of a multi-stage investigation. Apparently, 21 people have been detained in the U.K. and we expect that may grow as this continues.

MONTAGNE: And the United States has raised its aviation security level to severe or red on flights to the U.K., and that's the highest possible level and this is a first.

SHAPIRO: That's right, it is a first. Secretary Chertoff said there's no indication of plotting in the U.S. But these precautionary steps are being taken out of increased caution. The fact that this is the first time the flight alert has been - level has been raised to red for these transatlantic flights shows just how seriously officials in the U.S. and the U.K. and elsewhere in the world are taking these plots. They're speaking about it, as you mentioned, some very dramatic terms: mass murder on an unimaginable scale, British police have said.

MONTAGNE: Earlier this morning, the British police did say that the people who they arrested were homegrown, was the word they used. But have they made a link to al-Qaida at this point in time?

SHAPIRO: They've not made a formal link to al-Qaida. The phrase that Chertoff used was in some respects this is suggestive of al-Qaida. Experts who track terrorism networks talk about some of the hallmarks of al-Qaida as being multiple-timed explosions. We saw that in Madrid. We saw that in London. And of course in the September 11, 2001 attacks that seems to have been part of the plot here.

We also know that al-Qaida frequently returns to the same sorts of techniques that they've used in the past. And airplanes certainly seem to be a favorite tool of al-Qaida. So although no one is formally saying that this is al-Qaida, they're saying that it bears some of the hallmarks.

MONTAGNE: And what more have U.S. authorities said about the situation?

SHAPIRO: Well, they continue to monitor it. They understand that this is going to affect the lives of travelers today and that it will put a dent in people's plans in some respects, but they say this is an extremely serious situation, that some compromised freedom is necessary for maintaining security.

They're emphasizing that no arrests have been made in the U.S., but because of the seriousness of this plot - it looks to have plotted to attack planes between Europe and the U.S. - we're seeing flights cancelled, we're seeing flights delayed, we're seeing restrictions, so that people can't take carry-on bags into flights from the U.K. to the U.S., people can't take carry-on beverages on flights from the U.S. to the U.K. And those restrictions, I'm sure, will modify as the day continues.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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