UK says foils ‘mass murder’ plane bomb plot

‘This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation’ — Bush

LONDON (AP) — British authorities said they averted “mass murder” in the skies by thwarting an alleged plot to blow up passenger planes bound for the United States — a plan some say has the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and would have caused carnage on an “unimaginable” scale.

The arrests Thursday triggered worldwide security alerts, and could herald a “new age of terrorism” where attackers have access to explosives that are easy to carry and to conceal.

Emergency security measures provided a stark vision of the possible future of air travel.

Mothers tasted baby food in front of airport security guards to prove it contained no liquid explosives. Liquids were banned from flights. Travellers repacked their luggage in airports, stowing all but the most necessary items in the hold and carrying meagre belongings through security in clear plastic bags. Long lines snaked through the terminals of airports, as screens showing some of the hundreds of flights that were cancelled.

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said authorities believed the alleged terrorists planned to detonate liquid explosives. Security experts warned it was possible attackers could hide their bomb ingredients in containers for talcum powder or medicine bottles and then assemble the weapon once behind a locked restroom door.

Early Thursday morning, British police and security services arrested 21 people in what they said was a plot to simultaneously blow up several aircraft bound for the United States by using explosives smuggled in hand luggage.

US countrerterrorism officials said United, American, and Continental airlines were targeted by the terrorists.

Raids were carried out at homes in London, the nearby town of High Wycombe and Birmingham, in central England.

Searches continued throughout the day, and police had cordoned off streets in several locations.

“We are confident that we’ve prevented an attempt to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” London’s deputy police commissioner Paul Stephenson said.

The suspects were “homegrown,” though it was not immediately clear if they were all British citizens, a police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. He said authorities were working with Britain’s large South Asian community.

In Paris, French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy said the group “appears to be of Pakistani origin,” but did not give a precise source for the information. Britain’s Home Office, which announced the arrests, refused comment.

The British government raised its threat assessment to its highest level — critical — which warns that a “terrorist attack” could be imminent. The US government, fearing the plot had not been completely crushed, raised its threat assessment to its highest level for commercial flights from Britain to the United States.

Britain’s home secretary said the threat level would remain at critical as a precaution.

“Whilst the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for, neither they nor the government are in any way complacent,” John Reid said. “This is an ongoing, complex operation.” Prime Minister Tony Blair briefed US President George W. Bush on the situation, but his Downing Street office said there were no plans to cut short his Caribbean vacation.

Blair issued a statement praising the cooperation between the two countries, which “underlines the threat we face and our determination to counter it.” In Wisconsin, Bush placed the blame for the plot on “Al Qaeda style terrorism”: “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation,” he said.

In British airports, extreme security measures were put in place, with laptop computers, cellphones, and portable music players banned from being carried on board. Liquids and gels, such as drinks and hair care products, were also barred. Only the minimum — passports, wallets and essential medications — were allowed in airplane cabins.

The security procedures were to remain in place at least through the weekend, British Airports Authority Chief Executive Tony Douglas told reporters at Heathrow.

The measures at one of the world’s largest aviation hubs sent ripples across the globe. Heathrow airport was closed to most flights from Europe, and British Airways cancelled all its flights between the airport and points in Britain, Europe and Libya. Low-cost airline easyJet cancelled all flights from London’s Gatwick, Luton and Stansted airports.

Most European carriers cancelled flights to Heathrow because of the massive security delays.

Douglas said most carriers planned to try and clear their backlog of flights on Friday, but warned that cancellations and long waits were still likely.

The months-long investigation into the suspected terrorist plot had global dimensions and involved unprecedented surveillance, police anti-terrorist chief Peter Clarke said.

The New York Police Department had been kept apprised of the terrorist investigation for the past several months, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference.

In San Francisco, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent the National Guard to bolster security at California’s airports, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced he would send troops to Logan International Airport — the first time that’s happened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And New York Gov. George Pataki’s office said there would be an increased National Guard presence at New York City’s two airports, LaGuardia and Kennedy International.

The fact that drinks and other liquids were confiscated led to a widespread assumption — not yet confirmed by British authorities — that the plot involved a liquid explosive.

Chertoff noted that benign-looking components could get past security and then be mixed together to create a bomb.

He said security was analysing to see how to protect against such a threat.

Explosives experts said several designs were possible: Bombs based primarily on the liquid explosive nitroglycerin soaked in cotton balls, or more likely ammonium nitrate in powder form, rendered explosive with the addition of sulfuric acid, liquid acetone or both.

To avoid detection, the detonator could be filaments from a light bulb. The trigger could be an electrical impulse from a digital watch or a cellphone.

British and US anti-terrorist authorities declined to describe the bomb design — whether they were primarily liquid or, more likely, contained liquids in a more complex ingredient list.

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