London, Aug. 10: The alleged plot was an audacious one, even more ambitious in scope than the attack by two aircraft on the Twin Towers in New York.
Up to 10 passenger airliners on their way from the UK to the US were to be blown up simultaneously over the Atlantic using liquid explosives by suicide bombers who would assemble the bombs on board before setting them off.
Today, amid the chaos of hundreds of cancelled flights at Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world, 24 people accused of the plot were in police custody.
They had been arrested either last night or early today from addresses in London, High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and Birmingham.
Although their identities have not been released, senior police sources have indicated most of those detained are British Muslims of Pakistani origin.
If that turns out to be the case, the British government’s decision to join America in the invasion of Iraq and more recently its apparent reluctance to do more to prevent the Israeli bombing of the Lebanon will be advanced as underlying causes for the terrorist actions.
The people of Britain woke up today to find that the security forces had been up through the night involved in the biggest operations of its kind. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister who is on holiday in the Caribbean, had discussed the dragnet being thrown across Britain with President George W. Bush, who was at his ranch in Texas.
The first details were provided by a grim looking John Reid, the home secretary, who went on television and told the nation: “The police, working with the security service, MI5, have carried out a major counter-terror operation overnight to disrupt an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions.”
He added: “Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale.”
Reid also said: “While the police are confident the main players have been accounted for, neither they nor the government are in any way complacent. This is an ongoing and complex operation.”
Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson told reporters at New Scotland Yard that the plot was designed to cause “untold death and destruction”.
“This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” he, too, confirmed.
The deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist branch, said the terrorists were planning to blow up the jets leaving the UK using devices smuggled on board in hand baggage.
The arrests of 24 people had followed an “unprecedented level of surveillance” over several months involving meetings, movements, travel, spending and the “aspirations of a large group of people”.
In Britain, the alert level was raised to “critical”, the highest possible, while in America, it was “red”.
The American authorities provided several details which the British had withheld, probably for legal reasons, since some of those arrested may have to be tried in court.
For example, according to US homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, the would-be terrorists plotted to carry on the explosive material and detonating devices disguised as drinks, electronic devices and other “common objects” on “multiple commercial aircraft”.
This would explain why the British were taking mobile telephones off passengers at Heathrow, which handles over 2,00,000 passengers and 650 flights a day, and other UK airports.
“This operation is in some respects suggestive of an al Qaida plot,” Chertoff surmised. “They had accumulated and assembled the capabilities that they needed and they were in the final stages of planning for execution.”
It was announced that US air marshals were being sent to the UK to provide increased security on flights bound for America.
“While this operation was centred in Great Britain, it was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope,” Chertoff said. “This plot appears to have been well planned and well advanced with a significant number of operatives.”
In London, transport secretary Douglas Alexander said today: “Earlier this morning, all UK airports and all airlines operating into and out of the UK were asked to implement a heightened level of security and this step has been taken to ensure maximum security on all flights so people can go ahead with their travel arrangements.
“However, ensuring maximum security unfortunately will involve immediate and severe disruption for passengers with significant delays likely at all UK airports.”
British Airways cancelled all its short haul flights to and from Heathrow, and similar action was taken by the low-cost carrier, Easyjet, which operates from Luton and Gatwick. There was widespread chaos and long delays at all airports today, though long haul flights already in the air were allowed to land.
The department for transport announced that, with immediate effect, all cabin baggage would be processed as check-in baggage and carried in the hold of passenger aircraft departing UK airports.
Passengers were being allowed to carry only transparent plastic bags on board containing a limited number of items, such as travel documents, wallets, spectacles and sunglasses (but without cases) and contact lenses (but without bottles of solution). Milk for babies was being permitted but mothers were being made to taste them to show it really was milk.