WASHINGTON - The terror scheme disrupted in London is “suggestive of an al-Qaida plot,” the Bush administration said Thursday as it issued its highest terrorism alert ever for commercial flights from Britain to the United States and raised the threat level for all domestic and international flights.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there was no indication of plotting in the United States but said officials cannot assume that the terror operation in Britain had been completely thwarted.
The administration raised the threat level for flights from Britain to “red,” designating a severe risk of terrorist attacks. All other flights, including all domestic flights in the United States, were put under an “orange,” alert — one step below the highest level.
The U.S. government banned all liquids and gels from flights, including toothpaste, makeup, suntan lotion. Baby formula and medicines were exempted.
‘Suggestive of an al-Qaida plot’
Chertoff said the alleged plot appeared to be engineered by al-Qaida, the terrorist group that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attack against the United States.
“It was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope,” said Chertoff. “It was in some respects suggestive of an al Qaida plot.”
He added, however, that “because the investigation is still underway we cannot yet form a definitive conclusion.”
No U.S. arrests
A U.S. law enforcement official said there have been no arrests in the United States connected to the plot.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said authorities believe dozens of people and as many as 50 were involved or connected to the overseas plot that was unraveled Wednesday evening. The plan “had a footprint to al-Qaida back to it,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
It was not believed to be connected to the Egyptian students who disappeared in the United States more than a week ago before reaching a college they were supposed to attend in Montana. Three of the 11 have since been found and the FBI has said neither they nor the still-missing eight are believed to be a threat.
The plan involved airline passengers hiding masked explosives in carryon luggage, the official said. “They were not yet sitting on an airplane,” but were very close to traveling, the official said, calling the plot “the real deal.”
Not all suspects detained
U.S. intelligence has been working closely with the British on the investigation, which has been ongoing for months, the second official said.
Authorities have not yet arrested or detained all suspects who are believed to be involved in the plot, the official said, prompting Chertoff’s alarm.
“Consistent with these higher threat levels, the Transportation Security Administration is coordinating with federal partners, airport authorities and commercial airlines on expanding the intensity of existing security requirements,” Chertoff said.
“Due to the nature of the threat revealed by this investigation, we are prohibiting any liquids, including beverages, hair gels, and lotions from being carried on the airplane.”
He said the changes take effect at 4 a.m. local time across the United States and will be undated as warranted.
The metal detector and X-ray machines at airport security checkpoints cannot detect explosives. At many, but not all airport checkpoints, the TSA has deployed walkthrough “sniffer” or “puffer” machines that can detect explosives residue.
As part of the foiled Bojinka Plot to blow up 12 Western airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean in the mid-1990s, terrorist mastermind Ramzi Youssef planned to put together an improvised bomb using liquid in a contact lens solution container.
Chertoff said travelers in the United States “should also anticipate additional security measures within the airport and at screening checkpoints.”
Multiple airlines with flights to multiple U.S. airports were at risk, according to a western counterterrorism official. Another official refused to identify the airlines because they were still being notified of the threat but referred to them as the “usual suspects.” In the past, U.S. cities with terrorism threats or plots have included Washington, New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Airlines whose planes were hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, were United Airlines and American Airlines. British Airways has also dealt with numerous threats in recent years.
At U.S. Northern Command, the military headquarters established in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve coordination of the defense of U.S. territory, spokesman Sean Kelly declined to comment on any precautionary steps taken in response to the heightened threat levels.
“It is inappropriate to speculate or comment on any current operational activities or discuss future force protection measures,” he said.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said in London that the prime minister, vacationing in the Caribbean, had briefed President Bush on the situation overnight.
There was no immediate public reaction from the White House. Bush is spending a few days at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
The Homeland Security Department devised the alert system after the Sept. 11 attacks. The last time the U.S. government raised the terrorist risk here to orange, or high, was in July 2005 after the subway bombings in London. It was lowered to yellow a month later, the elevated risk status that has been the norm since the system was created.
U.S. authorities, including the Transportation Security Administration, planned a news briefing early Thursday.
In London, Britain’s Home Secretary John Reid said the alleged plot was “significant” and that terrorists aimed to “bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions, causing a considerable loss of life.”
Police arrested a number of people overnight in London after a major covert counterterrorism operation that had lasted several months, but did not immediately say how many. Heathrow airport in London was closed for most European flights.
The national threat level in Britain was raised to critical — a warning level that indicates the likelihood of an imminent terrorist attack. The threat rating was posted on the Web site of Britain’s MI5 — the British domestic spy agency.