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British police said on Thursday they have thwarted a plot to blow up aircraft in mid-flight, arresting a number of people in the London area.
Police said the aim of the plot was to detonate bombs smuggled on board aircraft in hand luggage.
“A major terrorist plot to allegedly blow up aircraft in mid-flight has been disrupted in a joint, pre-planned, intelligence-led operation by the metropolitan police anti-terrorist branch and security services,” a police spokesman said.
He said police believes that the intention was particularly to target flights from Britain to the United States.
Police had arrested an unspecified number of people in London during the night. He gave no further details.
More details available from the Guardian and the BBC, indicating that security is being immediately stepped up at all UK airports, including an absolute prohibition on all carry-on baggage (except necessary personal effects) for all flights departing the UK.
Update 1 2:20 AM EST (8/10): The United Kingdom has raised its threat level to the highest level – CRITICAL. And here’s the Ministry of Transport’s official statement.
Update 2 7:54 AM EST (8/10): 21 people arrested in association with the plot. Flights targeted were headed from the UK to New York, DC, and California on United, Continental, and American. DHS makes an announcement: Code Orange for the U.S. aviation sector, Code Red for UK flights bound to the U.S. (the first time the U.S. has used Code Red). DHS press conference forthcoming. Airports are cracking down on carry-on luggage, focused on carry-on liquids. The BBC reports on major chaos in the global travel system. More to follow.
Update 3 8:10 AM EST (8/10): DHS holding their press conference now. Chertoff: “plot appears to have been well planned and advanced.” Using “liquid explosive devices” and detonators disguised as “beverages, electronic devices” etc. Suggestive of al-Qaeda plot, but not conclusively. Believes that the Brits have significantly disrupted the plot. Announced Code Red/Orange changes mentioned above. Will be temporarily banning all liquids as carry-ons in aircraft cabins on U.S. flights, with exceptions for baby formula and medicine. Additional new security measures for TSA. Extra air marshals en route to the UK for coverage. CBP stepping up screening & targeting measures. Indicates high-level of cooperation with the Brits on this (unclear since when).
Update 4 8:20 AM EST (8/10): TSA’s Kip Hawley: this was “a surprise to many of us.” Major changing to screening procedures is ‘no liquids’ in carry-ons.
Update 5 8:27 AM EST (8/10): Chertoff: an “advanced” plot, that was in the “final stages of execution.” United States became more involved in this investigation in the last two weeks, as new information emerged on the UK side. Chertoff says reminiscent of the Bojinka plot. Plotters were looking at different airlines, focused on U.S. carriers. The plot was evidently to bring on benign items, and assemble on the plane to make a bomb. FBI’s Mueller: this plot had “earmarks” of an al-Qaeda attack.
Update 6 8:33 AM EST (8/10): UPI: most plotters “were thought to be British citizens of Pakistani origin.”
Update 7 9:00 AM EST (8/10): Why the hell is BBC America showing “Cash in the Attic” and not the latest BBC news???
Update 8 9:33 AM EST (8/10): The U.S. government has apparently been briefed on this plot frequently by the Brits for at least the last two weeks. One news station reported that the decision to change alert levels in the U.S. was made yesterday.
Update 9 9:38 AM EST (8/10): MSNBC now says the plot was to blow up ten planes simultaneously, over the Atlantic. Definitely sounds like Bojinka redux. They’re also reporting that other countries, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, are making changes to their aviation security procedures, although I don’t see this reported in these countries yet.
Update 10 9:44 AM EST (8/10): UK home secretary John Reid says all of the “major players” in this plot have been apprehended, and says the threat alert change was a “precautionary measure.”
Update 11 9:57 AM EST (8/10): National Guard activated in Massachusetts for deployment at Logan Airport.
Update 12 10:05 AM EST (8/10): Canada announces changes to aviation security procedures: “liquids or gels in containers of any size are not permitted to be brought onboard by passengers; this includes liquids or gels in carry-on baggage.”
Update 13 10:07 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports that U.S. officials are privately saying that they are confident that they will find al-Qaeda links to this plot – a question dodged in the earlier press conference. Given the increasingly decentralized nature of al-Qaeda, it’s unclear what this would actually mean.
Update 14 10:10 AM EST (8/10): The stream of statements over the last few hours from Scotland Yard is available here.
Update 16 10:30 AM EST (8/10): Are there ties between this plot and the 7/11 subway bombings? No evidence so far, but it’s worth noting that two of the 7/11 bombers grew up in or near the town, High Wycombe, where some of the plotters were caught.
Update 17 10:36 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports, based an interview with a senior U.S. official, that the UK acted because “a tripline had been reached, they thought they were out of time.”
Update 18 10:45 AM EST (8/10): For more information on the UK terror alert system, which was just publicly announced last month, see this recent post. Also, UK Home Secretary John Reid gave a speech last night to a UK think tank eerily foreshadows today’s news.
Update 19 11:00 AM EST (8/10): A press release from Customs and Border Protection details their stepped-up response: “As part of the response to this heightened threat condition, CBP will perform intensive passenger screening, prior to departure from the gate, of all flights scheduled for departure from the U.K. and destined for the U.S, including the risk-based screening of manifest information. In addition, passengers on these flights and all other international flights will be subjected to heightened inspections upon arrival in the United States. Specifically, CBP will increase enforcement efforts in international arrival areas, using risk-based targeting and deploying special response teams including baggage and aircraft search teams, baggage x-ray equipment, specially trained canine units, and explosive detection technology.”
Update 22 11:44 AM EST (8/10): Wall Street reacts: Aviation stocks (AMR, UAUA, CAL) all down, but have recovered somewhat since the market opened. Key aviation security stocks (e.g. GE, LLL, ASEI, OSIS, VISG) all up, some sharply. The transparent plastic bag market is also likely to benefit, but ZipLoc is owned by privately-held S.C. Johnson.
Update 23 11:48 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports no evidence yet of ties to “core” al-Qaeda; instead looks at this point like a “franchise” plot. CNN also indicated a potential link to recent arrests in Pakistan.
Update 24 11:55 AM EST (8/10): A brief statement by Pres. Bush on the tarmac in Green Bay: “The cooperation on this venture was excellent.” “We’re safer than before 9/11, but obviously still not completely safe.” Says that traveler inconvenience is necessary. No new information in his statement.
Update 25 12:23 PM EST (8/10): Interpol has issued a press release congratulating the Brits. And the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, has issued a press release and a Q&A in response to the disruption.
Update 26 12:32 PM EST (8/10): Confirmation from the AP of stepped-up aviation security measures in Asia.
Update 27 12:36 PM EST (8/10): Fox News is reporting that the plot involved multiple attackers on the same flight, who would carry on components of the bomb separately, and then assemble on-board. Also reporting that the plotters were researching potential flights, but had not yet booked tickets.
Update 28 1:07 PM EST (8/10): TSA has posted a new FAQ on the changes to aviation security.
Update 30 1:56 PM EST (8/10): NORTHCOM on the plot: “Senior USNORTHCOM and NORAD officials were notified and began coordinating with Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to ensure full situational awareness and appropriate response posture because of this plot. “We continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant,” said Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, Director of Operations for U.S. Northern Command.”
Update 31 2:07 PM EST (8/10): The Guardian reports on the investigation of the houses where the suspects were arrested. The head of a major mosque in Birmingham is quoted as follows:
Dr Mohammad Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, said he remained circumspect about the basis on which today’s arrests were made. “With the track record of the police, one doesn’t have much faith in the basis on which people are detained,” he said.
“And it poses the question whether the arrests are part of a political objective, by using Muslims as a target, using the perception of terrorism to usurp all our civil liberties and get more and more control while moving towards a totalitarian state.”
This quote is a dire sign of just how bad the radicalization problem has become in the UK. The Times of London has a similar piece online.
Update 32 2:28 PM EST (8/10): ABC News has identified the three apparent ringleaders of the plot: Rashid Rauf, Mohammed al-Ghandra, and Ahmed al Khan. It notes that “two of them are believed to have recently traveled to Pakistan and were later in receipt of money wired to them from Pakistan, reportedly to purchase tickets for the suicide bombers.” ABC News also reports that the explosive gel was to have been concealed in a sports drink bottle, and detonated using the flash from a disposable camera.
Update 33 2:31 PM EST (8/10): A link to a Rashid Rauf from Birmingham, UK. Apparently runs a Pakistani restaurant there.
Update 34 3:10 PM EST (8/10): Scanning for liquids: As it becomes increasingly apparent that this plot involved some type of liquid explosive, I would expect DHS to move swiftly to develop and purchase new scanning technologies for liquid containers. There has already been some work done on this issue. For example, Narita Airport in Japan has deployed a “liquid inspection device” as of 2004. Millimeter-wave imaging technology is relevant to this problem. Wired Magazine reported in 2002 on a range of potential technologies. The New York Times has a new story up on the issue. The challenge in any effort to use new technology will be deployment, and figuring out how to use it in a way that does not overly hamper the aviation system.
Update 36 3:41 PM EST (8/10): This AP story provides an interesting cross-section of commentary on the U.S. government’s reaction to the plot.
Update 37 3:59 PM EST (8/10): CNN just reported (citing the AP) that the plotters were two days away from a “dry run” to test the attack.
Update 38 4:23 PM EST (8/10): A posting from a British message board on the town where many of the plotters lived:
Having lived in High Wycombe for the best part of a decade, it does not surprise me that raids have taken place there today.
The claims that this will do harm to the community that enjoys good relations is utter garbage. There are numerous police no go areas in the town and an effective bar on Asian youths entering the town centre in the evening. I wonder how long our multi cultural society will be able to tolerate the pressures building up on it in this day and age.
Update 39 4:32 PM EST (8/10): Sec. Chertoff was just interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. Chertoff says its “clear that the plan was multiple planes at the same time.” An attack that had “the potential to kill hundreds or thousands of people.” “No intent to make the plane into a weapon.” Chertoff didn’t provide a clear answer as to why DHS hasn’t done more to prepare for this liquid explosive threat, arguing that they haven’t yet had a chance to look at the particulars. He provided no clear timeline for reducing the threat level – said that these decisions will be based on the investigatoin and on future threat analysis. While not attributing the attack to al-Qaeda, he noted that “We are dealing with a plan that is every bit as sophisticated as the kind of plans we’ve seen al-Qaeda carry out” and that this is “a kind of threat similar to an al-Qaeda threat.” The interview concluded with Sec. Chertoff agreeing with an earlier statement by Sen. Collins that this is the most significant terrorist plot since 9/11.
Update 40 6:30 PM EST (8/10): A message by TSA administrator Kip Hawley to TSA employees.
Update 41 6:35 PM EST (8/10): More updates from ABC News. “Most but not all” plotters have been rounded up (at least five people still at large, according to the report). Also, new details on the Pakistani connection: “Intelligence officials tell ABC News the plot’s trail leads to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where money for the plot was wired to London. Officials say two of those arrested in London came here in the last few months for explosives training with known al Qaeda commanders.” ABC News gives the name of a commander for the plot, who is still at large: Matiur Rehman. This is the first link I’ve seen between the plot and “core” al-Qaeda.
Update 42 6:38 PM EST (8/10): An ABC News story on Matiur Rehman from March 2006.
Update 43 9:50 PM EST (8/10): ABC News reports that the British had an undercover operative on the inside of the plot, and that five plot ringleaders are still at large. The Times of London takes a closer look at liquid explosives.
Update 44 10:02 PM EST (8/10): These two articles, from the Chicago Tribune and McClatchy newspapers, paint a very sobering picture of the challenges awaiting the aviation security system. Both quote Billie Vincent, who for my money is the world’s top expert on aviation security, noting that it’s very difficult to prevent the entry of these type of materials onto airplanes within our current security regime.