Britain Eases Terror-Threat Alert Level

The British government says the country's terror-threat level is taking a step down from "critical" to "severe." The slight improvement comes days after more than 20 people were arrested for an alleged terror plot against airlines. London continues to suffer flight cancellations related to the increased security.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The British government says the country's terror threat is taking a step down from critical. The slight improvement comes after more than 20 people were arrested last week. They're suspected of planning to attack U.S.-bound flights. But the official British threat level remains at severe. The country's top law enforcement official says intelligence agencies are investigating up to two dozen suspected plots.

NPR's Guy Raz is following this story from London. And, Guy, what does the change in that one word mean for British citizens?

GUY RAZ reporting:

Well, in practical terms, I think it means that thousands of passengers, who've been stranded in Britain for the past five days, can go home. On average, British Airways has been canceling up to a third of its flights everyday since last Thursday. And the lines, Steve, just to get into the airport terminals at Heathrow and at Gatwick have been daunting. Yesterday, passengers were waiting in the rain for up to three hours just to get inside of the terminal, and that's before they have to go through additional security checks.

Now those restrictions are going to be eased a little bit, and that announcement came just a couple hours ago by Britain's top law enforcement official, John Reid, the Home Secretary. Let's take a listen to what he said.

Mr. JOHN REID (British Home Secretary): The change in the threat level does not mean that the threat has gone away. The public needs to know that there may be other people out there who may be planning to attack against the United Kingdom. That is why there are a number of other security service operations underway. There is still a very serious threat of an attack.

RAZ: And Steve, basically, based on what he's saying, the atmosphere, at least in the airports, is still pretty vigilant. Even early this morning, a New York-bound flight from London turned around in midair after a cell phone went off on the plane. Nobody had claimed ownership of that phone, and cell phones are still being banned on U.K. flights.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Guy, how much information or evidence has come out about these suspects?

RAZ: Well, not so much. I mean, it's becoming increasingly likely that there is a strong Pakistan connection, for example, to the suspected plotters. What we do know is that most of those arrested have either family ties or other ties to Pakistan. Some of the suspects are thought to have been at training camps in Pakistan in the past 12 months.

And basically what British intelligence agents are following up now is the possibility that some of the suspects perhaps helped raise money for victims of last year's earthquake in Kashmir. Some of that money may have been diverted to use for this alleged plot to blow up airlines using liquid explosives.

The man that intelligence are focusing on is a guy called Rashid Rauf. Now, he was arrested in Pakistan last week. He's British-born. He's been in Pakistan since 2002, and he is now apparently believed to be the ringleader of this. Apparently, he has admitted to having ties to some al-Qaida-affiliated group in Pakistan. And his brother, Taieb(ph), is actually one of the suspects in British custody right now. He was arrested in Birmingham last week.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess one of the reasons I ask about the evidence - elsewhere in this program, a British Muslim leader is saying that he is skeptical of the charges and of the arrests because British police have been wrong before; they've arrested people and had to admit that they were mistaken. Is there widespread skepticism about the case against these men?

RAZ: Absolutely. And it's not just in the British Muslim community. I mean, one of the problems for Tony Blair's government is that Mr. Blair himself is deeply unpopular in the country. This is a prime minister who essentially operates outside of public consensus. The public opinion ratings for Mr. Blair are so low; they are so dire. And, of course, there's this carryover effect from the Iraq war and the sense among most people in this country that the government put forward false intelligence.

That being said, there has been something of a backlash among government officials. Over the weekend, senior Muslim officials did release a letter essentially tying British foreign policy to extremism in the Muslim communities. And, essentially, some British government officials came out and said, you know, that's blackmail. You're essentially telling us that our foreign policy needs to be changed or else we will be attacked. So it is causing quite a bit of tension now between the Muslim community and the government.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Guy Raz in London, where the threat level has been downgraded from critical to severe.

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