- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Homeland Security Department officials are beefing up protection of specific overseas flights after the arrest of a London man linked to last year’s terrorist plot to blow up planes over the U.S. and the discovery of 31 liquid bombs designed for such an attack.

More armed federal air marshals are guarding multiple flights out of Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports since the discovery of the bombs in Lebanon was revealed late last month. It was followed by the arrest of a 27-year-old man from the borough of Waltham Forest on Feb. 27.

“If you drained the pond, you would be up to your neck in air marshals,” said one federal air marshal. “It’s pretty hairy right now; we’re very aware of what transpired last year, so [Homeland Security] is very aware of that and doing everything they can possibly do to ensure the safety of air travelers coming into the U.S.”

“This is the most effective response to a threat I have ever seen the department do,” the air marshal said.

U.S. airline pilots who are trained to carry weapons in the cockpit are not permitted to carry guns on overseas flights. One flight attendant said every flight she’s flown since the end of February has been protected by a team of air marshals.

Conan Bruce, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, confirmed that the number of oversea flights being protected has increased but said it has been consistent with the initial surge in August.

“There is a continued level of heightened security for both domestic and international flights,” Mr. Bruce said.

However, another Homeland Security Department official confirmed “the thwarted plot continues to pay dividends,” and another official said it’s not just who has been arrested, but who has not been arrested, suggesting additional suspects have not been apprehended.

Although British authorities frown upon handguns and British airline pilots have threatened to strike if U.S. pilots are allowed to fly armed, officials in Britain’s Revenue and Customs, Metropolitan Police Service and Department of Transport have provided crucial and tactical cooperation, marshals said.

“We’ve been dealing with those folks on a person-to-person basis, not just phone calls, for years and years and that’s why we are able to react and surge our capacity and have the host country support us on that,” Mr. Bruce said.

Lebanon’s Naharnet News reported the Feb. 26 confiscation of the deadly explosive devices that British officials have searched for since the plot to blow up a dozen planes over U.S. soil unfolded in August.

Police raids by Scotland Yard on Aug. 10 netted two dozen suspects, of which 10 including the recent arrest are charged with the plot to blow up airplanes using the liquid bombs over U.S. airspace.

The incident sparked an overnight reorganization of airline security in the U.S. that banned all liquids from flights, and the Homeland Security terrorist threat level was raised for the first time to “red” or severe. The current threat level for air travel is “orange” or high, while the national threat level is at “yellow” or elevated.

The Washington Times reported on Sept. 4 that the arrests prompted a rash of airline-security incidents that diverted or delayed 23 flights worldwide, forcing 11 emergency landings or flight diversions, four of them escorted by military jets, and 16 arrests.

The majority of disruptions occurred on domestic and inbound international flights.

A Lebanese police report said the bombs they recovered were made up of two tubes filled with blue liquid, fitted on a board and connected to a timer-detonator. The sets included “sophisticated electro-chemical timers-detonators that can be timed to explode after as late as 124 days” that would have been “smuggled and used in terrorist acts.”

Despite increased security measures at airline screening posts, “it is not an adequate system for detecting liquid explosives or certain other kinds of explosives, like certain types of plastic explosives,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate panel Thursday.

However, Mr. Chertoff told the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security his department is “continuing to push forward on new technology” to detect liquid bombs.

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