Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Plot to blow up aircraft thwarted
'Mass murder terror plot' uncovered
· Claims 10 planes were targeted
· Plot 'suggestive of al-Qaida tactics'
· Chaos at British airports
Mark Oliver and agencies
Thursday August 10, 2006
An alleged plot to kill thousands of people by detonating explosions on up to 10 transatlantic flights from UK airports was disrupted overnight.
The home secretary, John Reid, today said such an attack could have caused civilian casualties on an "unprecedented scale".
It is believed the intention was to set off near simultaneous blasts on flights, probably bound for the US, using explosives smuggled into passenger cabins inside hand luggage.
Police were holding 21 people in custody in London following overnight raids by anti-terror officers and MI5. A decision was made to move suddenly following months of surveillance.
There were no firm indications of plans for an attack to have been carried out today, but the US homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said it was a "well advanced" scheme. He said the plot was based in Britain but was "international in scope".
The US attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, said it was "suggestive of al-Qaida tactics".
Reports citing official sources said the apparent idea was to use a liquid-based explosive, and there were suggestions one explosive component was to have been hidden in bottles of fizzy drink.
British officials were slightly more circumspect about the background to the plot than their US counterparts, stressing that they had to be careful about what they said because there could be trials in future.
Mr Reid would not comment on claims that the detainees were British-born Muslims of Pakistani descent.
Officials also declined to confirm the number of flights believed to have been targets - sources said up to 10 - and the home secretary would only say the alleged intention was to carry out a "wave" of attacks.
Paul Stephenson, the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, spoke of the threat of "mass murder" on an "unimaginable scale".
Mr Reid said there was confidence that the plot's "main players have been accounted for", but added that officials were not being "complacent".
Emergency restrictions are in place at British airports, barring passengers from taking any liquids or other hand luggage, apart from travel documents and essential prescriptions, on board.
There is major disruption to flights in the UK, and European airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights into London. Flights at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports have been particularly disrupted.
Heathrow officials said all milk for babies would have to be tasted by an "accompanying passenger".
Most of the suspects detained overnight were arrested in east London. Two people were also arrested in Birmingham, and Mr Stephenson said there had also been an operation in the Thames Valley.
There were reports of anti-terror officers being deployed in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Mr Stephenson said a number of addresses were being searched. It is believed some explosive materials have been found, although this has not been confirmed.
Peter Clarke, the head of the Metropolitan police's anti-terror branch, said the operation had involved an "unprecedented level of surveillance" and had reached a "critical point" last night when officers move to "protect the public".
The focus of the long investigation had been on the "meetings, movement, travel pending and the aspirations of a large group of people", and the alleged plot had "global dimensions", he said.
At 2am, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre raised the UK terror alert from severe to critical - its highest level - for the first time. The Home Office website defines critical as meaning an attack is expected imminently.
The US government responded by raising its threat assessment to red, the highest level, for commercial flights from Britain. Passengers in the US have also been prohibited from carrying liquids or lotions on flights.
Mr Chertoff said the plotters had "planned to carry the components of the bombs disguised as beverages, electronic devices or other common objects". Components could then be mixed on board to create explosives, he said.
If 10 planes had been targeted, it would have been by far the most ambitious terror plot since the September 11 2001 attacks in the US killed more than 2,700 people.
US counter-terrorism officials told the Associated Press that three major US airlines - United, American Airlines and Continental - had been targeted in the plot.
Downing Street said Tony Blair, who is on holiday in the Caribbean, was being kept constantly informed of developments and had briefed the US president, George Bush, overnight.
The anti-terror operations were carried out with Mr Blair's "full support", No 10 said.
The restrictions were causing delays of up to five hours on some flights, and the problems were expected to last for several days. British Airways said it was temporarily halting all short-haul flights to and from Heathrow as airports struggled to process passengers through the heightened security.
All passengers must be hand searched, and their footwear and all items they are carrying x-ray screened. Laptop computers, mobile phones and iPods are among the items banned from being carried on board.
At Heathrow terminal one and Manchester airport, huge queues stretched the length of the departure lounge. Passengers were frustrated by the disruption, but reporters at the airports said most were waiting calmly.
News of the plot unsettled the City, causing airline shares to fall. BA shares were down 4.5% in morning trading.
Yesterday, Mr Reid said Britain was facing its most sustained period of serious threat since the end of the second world war and told critics of the government's controversial anti-terror tactics that they "just don't get it".
In recent months, officials have said several plots had been foiled since the July 7 London bombings, in which 52 people died.
Three days before Christmas 2002, Briton Richard Reid, who pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, tried to set off explosives in his shoes while on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.