Terror suspects planned to use liquid explosives to blow up planes
Terrorism suspects plotting to blow up American planes headed from the United Kingdom to the United States were planning to smuggle hydrogen peroxide-based liquid/slurry explosives in modified sports drink bottles, U.S. News has learned. The suspects had figured out a way to modify the bottoms of the factory-sealed bottles and fill them with the explosives that were similar to those used in other recent attacks in London, and at least nine planes were targets, the official said. So far, British police have arrested at least 24 suspects in the plot, which had been months in the planning.
At least some of the suspects had ties to those involved in the July 7, 2005, coordinated bombings on the London subways, a law enforcement source told U.S. News. British police were watching the suspects for weeks and had to make some "gut wrenching" decisions on how long they could wait before making the arrests, this law enforcement source said. Several of the plotters made trips to and from Pakistan for meetings, recruiting, and training. British police decided to make the arrests after some of these men, believed essential to the plot, returned to the United Kingdom. This source told U.S. News that the British police realized that the suspects were "accelerating" their efforts "quicker than we realized" and that the subjects were close to "getting ready to get on planes to do it."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the suspects were in the "final stages" of carrying out the attacks. "There were very concrete steps underway to execute all elements of the plan," he said.
In a search of the suspects' homes, U.S. News has learned, British police have found low-concentration hydrogen peroxide, sugar solutions, peanut butter, and in one instance, nine tins of baked beans under a suspect's bed. Now it's up to the explosives experts to figure out whether these ingredients were intended for bomb-making purposes or, as one law enforcement official said, "Perhaps the guy just likes peanut butter." One theory is that the suspects may have intended to use the containers of peanut butter and baked beans to make the bombs look innocuous. The tins of baked beans were X-rayed, and said one official, "By golly, they all had baked beans." Common household ingredients such as peanut butter and sugar solutions could be modified to provide the fuel and oxygen needed to make explosives. Law enforcement officials discount reports in the press that hair gel was one of the ingredients intended for the explosives.
British forensic authorities are playing catch-up because the arrests were made earlier than anticipated, because key players in the plot all had arrived in London after making trips to Pakistan, putting British police under pressure to bust the plot before it went too far, officials say. So while they have found possible precursors of explosives, they have not found any of the actual devices themselves, sources say. Law enforcement officials told U.S. News that the United States brought pressure to bear on Pakistan to make a key arrest, leading to a "domino" effect in Britain and the arrests there.
U.S. sources say at least one martyrdom video was discovered related to the plot.
U.S. officials indicated that the plot would have had dire consequences if it had not been stopped--and that the attack would have come relatively soon.
"We knew timing; we knew method; we knew they had obtained all the components," says one U.S. intelligence official. "They were probably in the final stages of getting ready to run a test and do the real thing. That's why we went to red." Officials caution that other plotters might still remain at large and that as many as 10 additional plotters are being sought.
The men arrested in London were mostly British citizens of Pakistani origin. They were intending to use several bombers per plane. Because the attacks were to be nearly simultaneous, officials note that they might have been targeting a number of different airlines. But despite some press reports to the contrary, the would-be bombers had not yet attempted any trial runs.
Chertoff said the plan was similar to the one cooked up in the mid-1990s by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to blow up 11 airliners over the Pacific Ocean. The plot "was as sophisticated as any we have seen in recent years, as far as terrorism is concerned," Chertoff said.
This plot was "intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale," said London's Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson. British Home Secretary John Reid said the plotters planned loss of life on "an unprecedented scale." FBI Director Robert Mueller said that this had the "earmarks" of an al Qaeda plot but that there was no planning done within the United States. The discovery of the plot created mass disruptions in air travel in Britain and the United States. The Department of Homeland Security imposed new travel restrictions prohibiting any liquids on planes, including beverages, hair gels, and lotions.
Britain raised its threat warning level to "critical," signifying an imminent attack. The United States raised its threat level to the highest level of "severe," or red, for commercial flights from the United Kingdom to the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS also said that the threat level has been raised to "high," or orange, for all commercial flights operating in or coming to the United States. But the nation's overall terror threat level has not been altered.
With Kevin Whitelaw