Pakistan arrests helped thwart attack on planes
By Eric Pfanner International Herald Tribune
Published: August 11, 2006
A Pakistani connection to an alleged terror plot to blow up multiple airliners flying from Britain to the United States grew clearer Friday as the British authorities revealed the names of 19 suspects arrested the previous day and Pakistan said it had played a key role in breaking "this terrorist network."
Britain remained on its top level of alert - critical - as the investigation continued. Questions remained unanswered, including what the authorities meant Thursday when they said that the alleged terrorists had been planning "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
A Pakistani government official said the authorities there had arrested "several" suspects, including Pakistanis and Britons, over the last 10 days or so, setting in motion a chain of events that led the British police to pounce on a total of 24 suspects in England early Thursday.
"Pakistan played a very a significant role in breaking this terrorist network," said Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, in Islamabad. She said the investigation was continuing, and declined to comment on reports that additional suspects might still be at large in Pakistan or elsewhere. While news agencies reported seven arrests in Pakistan, she said the number might be higher.
"We obviously have leads, but we don't want to compromise the investigation," she added.
Officials say the suspects had been plotting to set off liquid explosives aboard passenger planes. Strict new regulations prohibiting liquids in cabin luggage remained in effect in many parts of the world, and in Britain carry- on bags were still banned altogether.
Traffic at London Heathrow Airport remained sluggish Friday morning after the imposition of the extra security measures.
Details of the plot remained sketchy even as officials released the names of 19 of the 24 suspects arrested Thursday. The suspects, who range in age from 17 to 35, have addresses in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, a town about 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, northwest of London, in Buckinghamshire. All the names appeared to be of Muslim origin; the suspects are all said to have been born on British soil.
According to reports, some of the suspects may have had links to Pakistan, perhaps from parents who immigrated to England. Newspapers reported that at least one of the suspects, however, may have been a white Briton who converted to Islam.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police of London, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm those reports, or to comment on whether the police thought other suspects remained at large.
"In an investigation of this size, it's unlikely that they have even been questioned yet," he said of the suspects. Under British antiterrorism laws, the suspects can be held for up to 28 days without charge.
A spokesman for the Treasury, which instructed the Bank of England to release the 19 names and to instruct banks to freeze their assets, declined to comment further on the Treasury's action. It was not immediately clear why the names of the five other people being held were not released.
The links to Pakistan suggest that the alleged plotters fit a similar profile to some of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people on the London Underground on July 7, 2005. Three of the four bombers were of Pakistani descent.
Officials have said the plot to destroy up to 10 planes flying from British airports to the United States bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda, though they have provided few concrete details.
The Associated Press quoted a U.S. law enforcement official in Washington as saying that at least one martyrdom tape was found during raids across England on Thursday. Such tapes are often used by Al Qaeda. The orchestrated nature of the alleged plot also suggests the involvement of the terrorist group, officials say, given that Al Qaeda favors spectacular actions like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
At Heathrow, about 70 percent of scheduled flights were said to operating Friday, but travelers faced a second day of delays and disruptions as the authorities continued the extraordinary security measures imposed Thursday.
Travelers are not allowed any hand luggage beyond a few personal items like wallets and passports. Even baby milk must be tasted in front of security officials by an accompanying passenger.
Plan suspected as 'dry run'
Alan Cowell and Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reported from London:
An American counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said several of the plotters had traveled to Pakistan in the last few weeks and might have met there with at least one person affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The official said it was after that person's arrest by the Pakistani authorities that the British, fearing that word of the detainment would send the plotters into hiding, decided to move in.
This is the latest in a series of conspiracies apparently rooted in the disaffection of young, British-born Muslims, many of Pakistani descent, who cast themselves as part of a jihadist struggle against Britain, which they see as an outrider of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon.
It also mimicked a failed plot in the Philippines in 1995 financed by Osama bin Laden to blow up airplanes over the Pacific. That ended when the chemicals exploded at an apartment in Manila.
On Thursday, Britain raised its terror threat assessment by one notch to its highest level, "critical," meaning an attack was imminent.
The American official said the plotters had been planning a "dry run" of the operation in the next few days when they planned to test whether they could board flights simultaneously. If this had worked, a full-scale attack would have been carried out within days, the official said.
British police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their customary procedures, said the attacks had not been planned for Thursday.
One American official said the attack was not imminent. "I would caution about how close it was," he said. "They had materials, but it wasn't like they were driving out to the airport the next day. They identified a number of flights."
Peter Clarke, London's top counterterrorism police officer, said, "The intelligence suggested that the devices were to be constructed in the United Kingdom and taken through British airports."
But he also said that some unspecified event or development late Wednesday convinced British counterterrorism operatives that they must move quickly to thwart a conspiracy with what he called "global dimensions."
In recent days, the U.S. FBI had sent hundreds of agents around the United States to chase down possible leads from British intelligence sources.
"There is no indication as of now that anyone in the U.S. was tied to this," a senior Justice Department official said.
Michael Chertoff, the U.S. secretary for homeland security, said the attackers had planned to carry explosive material and detonation components "disguised as beverages, electronic devices and other common objects" onto the planes.
A bulletin issued Thursday by the FBI about the plot gave details of some of the properties of liquid-peroxide- based explosives. It noted that they were sensitive to "heat, shock and friction."