- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

3:51 p.m.

LONDON — Police crushed what they called a plot to commit “mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” arresting 21 persons who planned to use liquid explosives smuggled in hand luggage to blow up jetliners flying from Britain to the United States.

Security officials said the terrorists planned to target at least three major U.S. airlines in a wave of attacks involving at least nine planes and possibly a dozen.

U.S. counterterrorism officials identified the three carriers as United Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines, Associated Press reported.

As Britain went on high alert, anti-terror police swooped down on homes and businesses in London, Birmingham and the Thames Valley west of the capital.

News reports quoting police sources identified most of the suspects as young British Muslims of Pakistani extraction.

Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency for the first time raised the security threat to the highest level, from “severe” to “critical,” which it said meant “an attack is expected imminently.”

The United States also raised its terrorist alert level, to code red, for flights from Britain.

The security clampdown precipitated mass chaos and confusion at British airports, forcing cancellations or delays of hundreds of flights that affected hundreds of thousands of travelers.

Heathrow, the nation’s largest airport, was particularly hard hit at the height of the tourist season, when it handles 180,000 to 200,000 passengers daily.

Waiting lines stretched half a mile or more for planes. Passengers were forced to surrender hand-carried luggage.

The “ripple effect” immediately spread to Europe as authorities halted all incoming air traffic from the Continent.

London Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson said the plot was designed to cause “untold death and destruction” and that it was “intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

In Washington, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said the plot appeared to have the hallmarks of Osama bin Ladens al Qaeda terrorist organization and that the plotters “were really getting quite close to the execution stage.”

Al Qaeda last month urged Muslims to strike at those who backed Israels attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon and warned of attacks if the United States and Britain refused to withdraw their forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Times newspaper in London quoted senior police sources as saying up to 12 trans-Atlantic flights were to be targeted simultaneously, probably later this summer.

Other reports, citing intelligence sources, said the plans were to destroy nine jetliners in three waves, three at a time.

Reports that most of the would-be attackers were young British Muslims evoked memories of a series of suicide attacks 13 months ago that killed 52 passengers on London’s rail and bus system.

The four bombers, who also died, were young Muslims of Pakistani origin who were born in Britain.

The new plot was unearthed in the wake of a survey by the polling organization NOP that indicated nearly a quarter of Britains Muslims believed the London attacks were justified.

The most hard-line views were held by Muslims under age 24 who had gone to school in Britain and had grown up surrounded by Western culture.

Home Secretary John Reid said those arrested included the purported “main players” in the plot.

Scotland Yard said it believes the attacks were to have been triggered by terrorists carrying liquid explosives in their handbags.

It issued an immediate order banning all handbags and containers of liquid, including hair- and eye-care products, from airliners flying from British airports.

Andy Oppenheimer, editor of the respected Janes Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Directory, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that some “very common materials” used in perfumes, cosmetics and drain cleaner can be used to manufacture homemade explosives.

“These materials are easy to obtain and hard to detect,” he said, “and could be smuggled in small amounts in small containers, because it doesn’t take much to blow an aircraft up.”

At airports across Britain today, travelers were forced to surrender bottles of water, soft drinks and other liquids — even the solution used by contact lens wearers.

Bottles of milk for babies were allowed, but only after the passenger taste-tested it in front of inspectors.

Further delays and frustrations developed as airport staff hand-searched every passenger.

Baby strollers, canes and other walking aids also were X-rayed, and only wheelchairs provided by the airport were permitted to pass screening points.

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