British authorities have arrested 24 suspects in their investigation into an alleged plan to blow up as many as 10 aircraft bound from London to the United States, using liquid chemicals carried in hand luggage. Many, if not all, of the suspects are believed to be British citizens of Pakistani origin.
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Two dozen people are in custody and the British government says the investigation is still going on. British police say the terrorist plot they foiled aimed to simultaneously blow up as many as ten aircraft headed to the United States. Police say the explosives would have been carried in hand luggage.
News of the arrests and intense new security measures caused delays and cancellations at airports in London and throughout Europe, as well as in this country. We'll hear about the American response to the alleged plot in a few minutes and hear about the scene at a couple of U.S. airports today.
First, NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
Britain woke up to the news of the arrests this morning, and soon airports full of people heading on vacation were in gridlock, as the police implemented stringent new security measures. Home Secretary John Reid held a news conference to explain what had happened.
Mr. JOHN REID (Home Secretary, Great Britain): As I said this morning the police, acting with the Security Service MI5, have carried out a major counterterrorism operation overnight to disrupt an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions. Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale.
GIFFORD: Reid called the investigation complex and ongoing. He and senior police officers were cautious in their statements so as not to comprise any operations or future legal proceedings. Police sources in London, however, said that as many as ten planes had been targeted, perhaps to be blown up simultaneously, perhaps in three waves as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
Police sources also said they believed the attackers planned to use some kind of liquid chemicals, carried in hand luggage and assembled into a bomb on board the planes. This meant that at airports across Britain, all hand luggage was banned from flights as a precaution.
There was a massive disruption at Heathrow, with incoming and outgoing planes down to a minimum. Several senior police officers held news conferences about the alleged plot. Head of the antiterrorist branch of London's Metropolitan Police Peter Clark said the arrests were the result of months of surveillance.
Mr. PETER CLARK (Metropolitan Police Antiterrorist Branch): I can tell you that during the investigation, an unprecedented level of surveillance has been undertaken. We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people. As is so often the case in these investigations, the alleged plot has global dimensions.
GIFFORD: Inevitably, there has been speculation about who the suspects are. The areas of London and Birmingham where the arrests were made have large multi-racial communities. Other suspects were arrested in the town of High Wickham near London.
But police have been treading very sensitively, giving no background information, bearing in mind often delicate relations with the Muslim community since four young extremists killed themselves and 52 others on the London transport system last July. Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Paul Stephenson was at pains to stress this was nothing to do with any specific community, or any specific faith.
Commissioner PAUL STEPHENSON (Metropolitan Police): This is not about communities. This is about criminals. This is about murderers. People who want to commit mass murder. This is not about anything to do with any particular community. This is about people who might masquerade within the community behind certain faiths, but this is about people who are desperate, desperate people, who want to do things that no right-minded citizen of this country or any other country would want to tolerate.
GIFFORD: A Homeland Security official in the United States said the U.S. government had been told, but all those arrested were British citizens. Sources in Britain say that at least some of those detained were of Pakistani origin. A foreign office spokeswoman in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said that some arrests have also been made in Pakistan itself, in coordination with the arrests in Britain.
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There are approximately 106 flights per day between the United Kingdom and the United States. The Department of Homeland Security is taking a number of heightened protective measures to ensure the continued safety and security of international and domestic air travel.
No liquids or gels of any kind will be permitted in carry-on baggage. Items must be in checked baggage.
This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, toothpaste, hair gel, and other items of similar consistency.
Exception: Baby formula, breast milk, or juice if a baby or small child is traveling; prescription medicine with a name that matches the passenger's ticket; and insulin and essential other non-prescription medicines.
Beverages purchased in the sterile area must be consumed before boarding because they will not be permitted onboard the aircraft.
Passengers traveling from the U.K. to the U.S. will be subject to a more extensive screening process.
The Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) will provide expanded mission coverage for flights from the United Kingdom to the United States.
These measures will be constantly evaluated and updated when circumstances warrant.
Travelers can assist security agencies by:
Packing lightly, without clutter to facilitate easier screening.
Checking with your air carrier well before your flight departs for information on when you should arrive at the airport.
Cooperating with TSA personnel at all checkpoints and gates, because TSA Security Officers will be checking carry-on baggage at the gate.
Being attentive and vigilant to any suspicious activity.
Passengers stranded at London's Heathrow airport.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Passengers stranded at London's Heathrow airport.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
British officials announced Thursday that they had foiled an advanced plot to blow up airliners headed to the United States with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on bags. The news prompted heightened security efforts in the United States and Britain, and long lines and delays at airports in both countries.
One U.S. official told NPR that the suicide attackers planned to use a peroxide-based solution that could ignite when sparked by something as simple as a camera flash or other portable electronic device. And according to reports in the Associated Press, U.S. intelligence officials say the terrorist plotters hoped to stage a dry run of the attack within two days and follow up with the real thing a couple of days later.
President Bush called the thwarted plot a stark reminder that the nation is at war with "Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us that love freedom." Bush spoke briefly from Wisconsin, where he had traveled to give a previously scheduled speech on the economy.
The president thanked British Prime Minister Tony Blair and British security agencies for stopping a terrorist plot that officials have described as being in the final planning stages. President Bush said the United States is "safer than it was prior to 9/11" but added that "it is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America."
A Plot to Commit 'Mass Murder'
British officials believe the plot centered around liquid explosives that were to be assembled and detonated on nine or 10 planes bound for the United States from London's Heathrow airport.
Both U.S. and U.K. officials say the plot has many of the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation: the use of timed explosive devices and planes, sophisticated planning, an operation with international scope.
Paul Stephenson, deputy commissioner for London's Metropolitan Police, described the plot.
"We believe that the terrorists' aim was to smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in-flight," Stephenson said. "This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
A U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that the plotters had hoped to target flights from England to major airports in New York, Washington and California.
A Months-Long Intelligence Operation
Stephenson said that some two-dozen people had been arrested overnight in what he called the culmination of a months-long, unprecedented surveillance operation. He said British investigators had been tracking numbers of people on suspicions of terrorist plotting.
Stephenson said the operation came to a head Wednesday night. London Metropolitan Police officials said 24 people were arrested in raids just outside London and in the central British city of Birmingham.
British authorities have released few details about the people in custody, but they say the primary planners and leaders of the operation are among them.
While President Bush warned of "Islamic fascism" in his remarks on Thursday, British officials are being very careful not to mention any ties to a specific religion or community. Bush administration officials have said that most were Muslims of Pakistani descent.
Meanwhile, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said French security services were working closely with their U.K. counterparts, and that the suspects "appear to be of Pakistani origin."
Pakistan has claimed credit for helping British authorities crack the plot, and authorities there have arrested additional suspects. Tasnin Aslam, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, "Pakistan played a very important role in uncovering and breaking this international terrorist network."
British officials say this is just the first stage of what will be an ongoing investigation, and the possibility remains that some suspects or other terrorist cells with links to the plot could still be at large.
Deadly Explosives from Household Products
U.S. Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff early Thursday confirmed that the plot involved some kind of liquid explosive material that was to be disguised as beverages and other common products and then set off with detonators disguised as electronic devices.
Liquid explosives are easy to make, and the material easy to come by. They can be made from simple household items, such as nail polish remover and hair bleach (acetone and hydrogen peroxide). The most familiar liquid-explosive material is nitroglycerine, which can cause a great deal of damage in small amounts. Once smuggled onto a plane, the material could be detonated with small amounts of electricity, heat, friction or even light.
Scientists are working on technologies to detect liquid explosives, but to date, they are not in use in airports.
In the United Kingdom, mobs of stranded passengers have begun to thin out, but people are still struggling to repack checked luggage after security officials banned all carry-on bags.
Travelers delayed at London's Heathrow airport Thursday morning told NPR that they were willing to endure the inconvenience if it meant making them and other passengers safer.
Heathrow — which normally sees 1,250 departures and arrivals and 200,000 passengers a day — was closed to arriving European flights. The travel chaos rippled across Europe as many airlines, including Air France, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Iberia and Aer Lingus canceled flights to Heathrow.
Heathrow airport officials say they hope to resume normal service on Friday, but add that security restrictions will remain in force for the foreseeable future.
In the United States, passengers at airports around the country are repacking their own bags, trying to get rid of any unnecessary liquid items. A warning on the Web site for the Transportation Security Administration reads: "No liquids or gels of any kind will be permitted in carry-on baggage. Items must be in checked baggage. This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, tooth paste, hair gel, and other items of similar consistency."
Exceptions will be made for baby formula, breast milk or juice if a baby or small child is traveling; prescription medicine with a name that matches the passenger's ticket; and insulin and essential other non-prescriptions.
Kip Hawley, assistant secretary for the TSA, warned U.S. passengers to adhere to the restrictions.
"Declutter your bag," Hawley said. "If you let the TSOs have a clear view of what's in the bag with their X-ray, you'll move right on through. That is something very easy to do as you pack your bag. Leave the liquids at home. Drink them. Declutter your bag."
Passengers unloaded everything from sunscreen and cosmetics to water bottles and bottles of wine in accordance with the new rules. Most travelers took the delays and inconvenience in stride, saying that they understood the need to bolster security in the wake of the heightened threat.
Heightened Security Measures
Both the United States and Britain have raised security alerts on aviation to the highest levels. There are some flights departing from Britain's Heathrow airport, but most have been delayed or cancelled, affecting hundreds of thousands of airline passengers.
In the United States, the aviation security level was raised to "red" or severe for the first time. National Guard troops have been ordered to deploy at Boston's Logan airport and at airports around California. And U.S. air marshals have been sent to Britain to help with intensified security operations.
Despite the high-security precautions, Homeland Security officials say there is no indication that any of the plotting took place inside the United States and that U.S. air space is safe. It's not clear at this point how long the added security measures will stay in place.
Repercussions in Financial Markets
Shares of airlines and travel companies dropped sharply Thursday as a result of the alleged terrorist plot. Industry experts say long delays at European and U.S. airports could deal a severe blow to the aviation industry.
The plot had targeted airlines with direct flights from England to the United States. At a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Homeland Security officials said that three airlines — United, American and Continental — have been mentioned as possible targets only because they offer such direct flights, and not because of any evidence of a specific threat against them. Shares of those three airlines took a hit in early trading Thursday but recovered some ground by late morning.
The news sent European stocks down across the board, and major European airline shares were down about 4 percent. Analysts say the biggest financial impact on airlines in the short term will be the cost of delayed and cancelled flights. In the long term, the costs will come in the form of tighter and more expensive security systems, analysts say.
There's been uncertainty in U.S. markets, but overall, they have been stable. Experts say if there's any good financial news, it's that oil prices are down — as much as 2 percent. Analysts say the threat illustrated Thursday could mean fewer people will travel by air, which would lessen the need for fuel.
With additional reporting by Deborah Amos in London and Nell Boyce and Jon Hamilton in Washington, D.C.