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Terror Attacks Were ‘Very Near’

Times Staff Writers

Two dozen suspects arrested by British police Thursday were in the final stages of a plan to detonate liquid explosives on as many as 10 U.S.-bound airliners in what appeared to be the most ambitious terrorist plot since the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities said.

Officials could not say when the attacks were to be carried out but said the suspects, mainly British nationals of Pakistani descent, had acquired most of the materials to assemble explosives that could have killed hundreds of passengers as their planes crossed the Atlantic from British airports.

“It was very near to execution,” a U.S. official said.

A Pakistani official said key arrests of British nationals in Karachi several days ago apparently helped break a case that had been under investigation for months.

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The size of the alleged plot and its international scope led government analysts to believe it was the work of Al Qaeda or a related Pakistani extremist group.

“Quite simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” said Paul Stephenson, deputy chief of London’s Metropolitan Police.

A British anti-terrorism official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said the suspects planned to blow up as many as 10 planes in waves of three over the mid-Atlantic. The men had researched flight routes and determined that U.S.-bound jets tend to fly in batches, the official said.

“The planes would simply disappear and it would be impossible to recover forensic evidence needed for investigation,” the official said.

A senior FBI official said the suspects may have undertaken test runs or may have been planning them. A U.S. intelligence official said the information gathered so far was vague and did not indicate firm time frames.

The arrests, made in Birmingham, London and High Wycombe, a commuter town west of the capital, were quickly followed by flight cancellations and intense security crackdowns at nearly all major American and British airports, leading to delays and chaos throughout the world’s commercial airline system.

Early today, the Bank of England added 19 names to its list of individuals whose assets were frozen in relation to terrorist activities. The bank’s website does not say that the 19 were among those arrested in connection with the alleged plot, although the BBC reported that they were. Their addresses included locations in London, High Wycombe and Birmingham.

U.S. officials barred nearly all liquids and gels from carry-on luggage, and British airports banned carry-on luggage altogether, as well as laptop computers, cellphones and portable music devices. American officials dispatched more air marshals to Britain to fly on U.S.-bound flights, and the governors of three states, including California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, called up the National Guard to help patrol airports.

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The suspects planned to smuggle chemicals aboard flights by hiding them in everyday items such as beverage containers, then assemble them into explosive mixtures and ignite or detonate them using common electronic devices, investigators said.

An FBI counter-terrorism official said the men appeared to be planning to use a heavily concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals available over the counter that could cause catastrophic explosions when combined.

The British anti-terrorism official said police had found “plenty” of material that could have been used to make the explosives.

President Bush, who has been at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, had known about the investigation for at least several days. He received “full briefings” about the alleged plot over the weekend and had two conversations about it with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said. One conversation took place in a videoconference Sunday.

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After news of the suspected plot became public, Bush proceeded with plans Thursday to headline a GOP fundraiser near Green Bay, Wis., and tour a metal manufacturing plant. Upon arriving at the airport, he called the arrests a “stark reminder that 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.”

Bush acknowledged that the new airport restrictions would annoy travelers, and he urged patience. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said they did not know when they would lift the security measures, which were accompanied by a rise in official threat status to the highest levels in both Britain and the U.S.

Although authorities believe most of the alleged plotters were apprehended in overnight raids, British officials said the tight security was warranted until it became clear that the entire network had been rounded up.

“Whilst the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for, neither they nor the government are in any way complacent,” Home Secretary John Reid said.

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Some American officials fear that other people may be working to advance the alleged plot.

“There are concerns that in addition to those who have been rounded up, there may be other individuals who might have been planning something along the same lines,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “That is something that is being aggressively pursued.”

Government officials said there was conflicting intelligence about how many planes and which airlines were involved, but most said nine or 10 aircraft had been targeted, though one counter-terrorism official put the number at 16. They said the suspects may have been planning to operate in nine groups of about three each.

At least one suspect is believed to have traveled to Pakistan, the U.S. intelligence official said without commenting on the reason for the trip. The Associated Press also reported that at least one of the men had prepared a “martyrdom tape” to be broadcast after his death.

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The British investigation, which was closely coordinated with American officials, had been underway for months. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said it was only in the last two weeks that it became clear that the intended targets were U.S. airliners bound for America from Britain.

A U.S. official said that the targeted airlines were American, United and Continental and that the flights involved airports in Birmingham, London, Manchester, the New York area, Washington, D.C., and California.

An FBI counterintelligence official said the British government, still angry over perceived leaks of crucial information related to last year’s transit bombings in London, were keeping a tight hold on some information, including routes and destination cities.

But the official added that destination apparently was irrelevant. “It didn’t matter which [U.S.] cities they were headed to,” the official said. “They just wanted to blow them up in midair.”

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The British anti-terrorism official said attacks were expected “within weeks.”

“It wasn’t imminent in the sense of the following day or the next day, but it would have taken place in the near future,” the official said.

It remained unclear what prompted British officials to move when they did. Officials here normally choose to gather intelligence on a suspected terrorist network for an extended period, in the hope of discovering high-ranking backers.

British officials would not say why they launched the series of raids Wednesday night, but a U.S. official said there was evidence that the alleged plot had begun accelerating in recent days.

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U.S. officials dismissed speculation that the alleged plot was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Terrorist plotters and planners execute when they have all the plot together, when they are satisfied it’s time to go,” said Charles Allen, head of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security.

“We have no evidence this was timed to any particular holiday or any special event of any religious nature,” he said.

The alleged plot resembles a foiled Al Qaeda plan to blow up 12 U.S. airliners as they crossed the Pacific from Asia in 1995.

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It was attributed to former Al Qaeda operatives Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who would later be accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The plot was uncovered when a fire broke out in the Manila apartment Yousef was using as his headquarters. According to U.S. government reports on the incident, Yousef had used a bottle of contact lens solution filled with nitroglycerin as a small test bomb on board a Philippine Airlines flight a month before his January 1995 arrest. Among the items found in Yousef’s apartment were bottles filled with liquid chemicals.

In recent weeks, U.S. law enforcement authorities were thrown into a frenzy when they received intelligence that an unknown number of potential conspirators in the British case were in the United States, the senior FBI official said.

After a massive, top-secret scramble, which made use of intercepted e-mails and phone calls, the information was determined to be inaccurate. Several government officials said Thursday that they now believe no conspirators are in the U.S.

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“We were very concerned a couple of days ago until things washed out, about associates and operatives here. That turned out not to be the case,” the senior FBI official said. “The U.S. government has been aware of it for a couple of months and we’ve been working it hard for a couple of weeks.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Key details

Alleged plot: To detonate liquid explosives on airliners flying from London to several U.S. destinations.

Arrested: 24 British nationals in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe; buildings searched in Birmingham and London’s Walthamstow section.

Security: The U.S. Transportation Security Administration implements new screening procedures forbidding liquids or gels in carry-on baggage.

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Delays: Security crackdowns at major U.S. and British airports delay flights and cause chaos.

Sources: Associated Press, ESRI

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VOICES

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‘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

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‘It was sophisticated, it had a lot of members, and it was international in scope.’

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Michael Chertoff

Homeland Security secretary

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‘Everything that can be done to protect [travelers] is being done.’

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Alberto R. Gonzales

U.S. attorney general

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‘Something very easy to do as you pack your bag: Leave the liquids at home, drink them, declutter your bag. And last, I’d say, enjoy your trip.’

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Kip Hawley

Transportation Security

Administration chief,

advising airline passengers

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‘Today’s news is an urgent reminder that we must make America safer and the world more stable. We must implement the strong recommendations of the independent 9/11 commission to improve airport security screening at checkpoints.’

Rep. Nancy Pelosi

(D-Calif.),

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House minority leader

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‘The increased security precautions being implemented around the country are appropriate and necessary. We must be on alert so that our nation does not suffer another attack like 9/11.’

Sen. Bill Frist

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(R-Tenn.),

Senate majority leader

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‘The Islamic extremists attacking our troops -- troops who are there bringing democracy to Iraq -- are the same Islamic extremists who are seeking to attack and bring down the airplanes over our homeland.’

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Sen. John Cornyn

(R-Texas)

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‘Terrorism is the biggest threat to Americans’ security, and this event exposes the misleading myth that we are fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.’

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Sen. John F. Kerry

(D-Mass.)

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Spiegel and Meyer reported from Washington and Stobart from London. Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Ferrol, Spain, Peter Wallsten in Green Bay, Wis., Nicole Gaouette in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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