LONDON — The FBI has uncovered intelligence that al Qaeda terrorists are plotting to hijack a plane in Britain over the next two months and fly it into a major building, informed sources said yesterday.
British Airways and other major airlines operating in and out of Britain have been put on alert after the warning was passed to the security services.
The most likely targets are planes taking off from Heathrow and Gatwick airports in London, the sources said.
The FBI and the U.S. Department for Homeland Security circulated a warning to U.S. and British airlines on July 30, saying that terrorists working in teams of five were likely to try to hijack planes using “common items carried by travelers,” such as cameras, to disguise weapons.
The warning, which has been seen by the Sunday Telegraph, said: “Recent reporting on al Qaeda from intelligence sources indicated that terrorists might try to modify electronic items for use as weapons in order to circumvent improved security screening.”
During the hijack they intend to tell passengers that it is an old-style hijacking and ransom operation, not a suicide mission, in order to prevent any heroic attack by passengers, such as the one that brought down a hijacked plane on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania, before it could reach its target — thought to be the White House.
The specific targets of the planes in Britain are not known, although al Qaeda has targeted the Houses of Parliament in London in an aborted plot.
American officials said the intelligence was collected during a raid on an overseas al Qaeda residence in recent months.
A suspect in the May bombings in Saudi Arabia is understood to be behind the warnings. Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi (also known as Abu Bakr al-Azdi), whom U.S. counterterrorism officials describe as “a leading al Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia,” surrendered to Saudi authorities on June 26 and has been interrogated by the CIA.
Intelligence officials said intercepted terrorist communications have corroborated his assertions.
Al-Ghamdi is believed to have coordinated the suicide bombings on residential compounds inhabited by Westerners and other foreigners in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Thirty-four persons, including nine bombers, died in the attacks.
During a raid on his house, agents found that he had a special interest in converting camera flash attachments into stun guns or explosive devices. Another al Qaeda experiment focused on disguising a detonator and explosive inside a camera.
“This is a real threat and shows we have to be vigilant,” one British security service official said.
Earlier this month, British Airways suspended its flights to Saudi Arabia after intelligence information that terrorists planned to attack British planes with missiles.
A similar attempt narrowly missed an Israeli charter plane taking off from Mombasa airport in Kenya in November. Simultaneously, a bomb attack on a hotel frequented by Israelis killed 16 persons, including 13 Israeli tourists, in the city.
An FBI spokesman said information about potential attacks had also identified Italy, Australia and the United States as ground targets. “At least one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer,” he said.
“Recognizing changes in aviation security measures since September 11, 2001, al Qaeda is looking for new ways to circumvent enhancements in aviation security screening and tightening immigration requirements,” the spokesman said.
Britain is thought to he a particular concern because of its support for the war in Iraq.