Friday, August 11, 2006

LONDON — Police crushed a plot yesterday to commit “mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” arresting 24 Muslims who planned to blow up more than 10 jetliners bound for the United States using liquid bombs hidden in handbags and assembled on board.

Officials said they were confident that they had nabbed the primary terrorists in the planned attack, which could have matched the death toll of September 11, 2001, had it been successful.

However, five suspects remained at large and were the subject of an intense manhunt, intelligence officials told The Washington Times.

British officials said 24 suspects had been arrested. Most were thought to be young Britons of Pakistani origin. Pakistan said that it had played a key role in uncovering the plot and that it had made several arrests.

“This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation,” President Bush said.

The plan, said to be ready for a dress rehearsal within days, would have used liquid or gel-like explosives in carry-on luggage to blow up jetliners headed for Washington, New York and California.

Security officials said the terrorists planned to target at least three major U.S. airlines — American, Continental and United.

“We think this was an extraordinarily serious plot, and we are confident that we’ve prevented an attempt to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” said Paul Stephenson, deputy commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police.

The plot appeared to have the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization, and the plotters “were really getting quite close to the execution stage,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

CNN reported that at least two of the suspects had made “martyrdom” recordings, to be played after their deaths.

British anti-terror police swooped down on homes and businesses in London, Birmingham and the Thames Valley west of the capital beginning Wednesday night and into yesterday morning.

Britain and the United States issued heightened terrorist alerts and imposed rules restricting carry-on baggage and banning liquids such as water and soft drinks, as well as cosmetics such as lipstick.

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 security clampdown precipitated chaos at airports in Europe and the United States, forcing cancellations or delays of hundreds of flights.

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

Lines stretched a half mile or more for planes, and passengers were forced to surrender carry-on luggage.

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

Late yesterday, British Airways banned carry-on bags from all its flights between the United States and Britain.

Earlier in the day, carry-ons had been barred from U.S.-bound flights to keep passengers from carrying liquids onto aircraft. Later, the ban was extended to all flights between the two countries.

British Airways spokesman John Lampl said the airline was acting on instructions from the British government.

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

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.

Three of the four suicide bombers were young Muslims of Pakistani origin who were born in Britain. The fourth was a Muslim convert from Jamaica.

Scotland Yard said the attacks were to have been carried out by terrorists carrying liquid explosives in their handbags.

U.S. officials gave additional details, saying the terrorists planned to use a peroxide-based liquid or gel explosive hidden in the false bottom of a sports drink, to be detonated on board with a camera flash, cell phone or other electronic device.

Britain issued an immediate order banning all handbags and containers of liquid, including hair- and eye-care products.

Andy Oppenheimer, editor of Jane’s 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 and the U.S., 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 if the passenger tasted 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.

Authorities did not say how long the security measures would last, but the plot demonstrated that terrorists had adapted to existing rules, such as having passengers take off their shoes for inspection.

“We are taking the step of preventing liquids from getting into the cabin to give us time to make adjustments,” Mr. Chertoff said.

• Bill Gertz contributed to this report from Washington.

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