- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

The British government yesterday warned citizens against travel to Saudi Arabia amid disputed reports that two small airplanes loaded with explosives were prevented from crashing into a British Airways jet.

Armed sky marshals are also being ordered onto some British airliners as a “responsible and prudent step” in response to U.S. terror alerts, said a top London official. The British Foreign Office travel advisory said terrorist attacks appear imminent.

Meanwhile yesterday, a U.S. congressman criticized French officials for saying too much about the terror-related cancellations of flights from Paris last week, and also said some changes were needed in the U.S. color-coded alert system.

The State Department issued a warning similar to Britain’s about Saudi Arabia on Dec. 17, just days before the Homeland Security Department put the nation on Code Orange, or high alert of a terrorist attack.

Free flights out of Saudi Arabia were offered to nonessential personnel and their dependents at the U.S. Embassy and consulates, and American citizens were advised to leave the country.

“Following terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May and November, we continue to believe terrorists are planning further attacks in Saudi Arabia and that these could be in the final stages of preparation,” the British advisory read. “We advise British nationals against all but essential travel to Saudi Arabia.”

Patrick Mercer, security-policy chief for the Conservative Party, told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that pilots planned to crash light planes packed with explosives into a Western jet as it taxied down the runway, and that British Airways was the likely target.

“My understanding is that [the light planes] were found on the flight line and that the plan was to fly them into a passenger jet either about to land or take off,” Mr. Mercer told the paper.

The two pilots were arrested, but Saudi officials tried to cover up the incident, Mr. Mercer said.

The newspaper report was disputed yesterday in a statement issued by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“A Saudi security official said that a report by the Mail on Sunday quoting a British politician as saying that Saudi authorities arrested two suicide pilots who were planning to fly two small planes into a packed British Airways plane is not true,” the agency said.

“It is unfortunate that some foreign newspapers have taken to publishing such baseless news, with the goal of sensationalism without respecting the responsibility of media reporting,” the agency said.

British Airways has not commented, citing security concerns.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said yesterday that the armed marshals will be undercover and are being added to British flights because of warnings from U.S. officials.

“It is essential that we take all responsible steps to deter terrorist activities,” Mr. Darling said in a statement.

Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles were canceled Christmas Eve and Christmas Day after reports that terrorists planned to hijack one of the six flights. French officials questioned 13 passengers but made no arrests.

French officials canceled the flights on the state-owned airline after reviewing information provided by U.S. officials, and acted in an “abundance of caution,” said Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Asked by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace whether there was a terrorist threat from one of the passengers, Mr. Cox said: “I think you can infer from the publicly available facts that there’s more to it than that. It’s not just these passengers.”

Mr. Cox echoed criticism from some U.S. officials that in announcing the cancellations, French officials may have inadvertently warned the terrorists to skip the flights.

“Here, there was a good law enforcement reason for not wanting to be too fulsome in what you make public, because we might have tipped people off that otherwise could have been taken into custody and questioned,” Mr. Cox said.

“As a general rule, what we want to do is tell people who can act on this intelligence what we know, and then simply report, for example, that an Air France flight was canceled for security reasons, without more” details, the California lawmaker said.

The Homeland Security Committee is urging the federal department to revamp the color-coded terrorist-alert system, which Mr. Cox called a “one-size-fits-all notion.”

“It applies to a quarter-billion people in America,” said Mr. Cox, who recommends threat information be targeted to specific cities.

“We can be certain that the country is not threatened in a homogenized way everywhere, the same way at all times,” Mr. Cox said.

With a blanket warning, the information goes “to an audience that includes an awful lot of people who really can’t do much with this information other than hand-wring and hanky-twist,” he said.

“We don’t want to scare people, not only because of that fear factor unnecessarily creating anxiety, but also because it raises the cost. The terrorists are playing a losing game. But if by making idle threats that are always taken seriously by people who are just scared, we can impose enormous costs on the country and the terrorists can impose enormous costs on the country. Then that turns their losing game into a winning game,” Mr. Cox said.

Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat and ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, said that refining the alert system so that specific locations or industries are targeted will help keep people from tuning out the threat warnings when they’re issued.

“We thought that over time if we continue to have this general-alert system that people would begin to ignore the alert, and even states and localities and local officials would find that it would be hard to justify the increased expense,” Mr. Turner said. “I think we owe it to local governments to be more specific when possible.”

The panel is considering bipartisan legislation to make these refinements.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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