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Inside the British Probe of the Terrorist Plot


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Intense security and lots of frustrated travelers today on both sides of the Atlantic. British police say they foiled a terrorist plot to bomb as many as ten airliners headed for the United States. Twenty-four people are in jail. British authorities say they were planning to blow up the aircraft using liquid chemicals brought onboard a plane on carry-on luggage.

BLOCK: In the U.S., Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff gave some details about the alleged plot.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The terrorists planned to carry the components of the bombs, including liquid explosive ingredients and detonating devices, disguised as beverages, electronic devices or other common objects. While this operation was centered in Great Britain, it was sophisticated. It had a lot of members. And it was international in scope. This operation is in some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot.

BLOCK: That's Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaking to reporters in Washington.

NORRIS: Coming up, we'll hear about the scene at London's Heathrow airport today. First, the latest on the British investigation.

Joining us now is Kim Sengupta. He's a defense correspondent for the Independent, and he joins us from London. Kim, what do we know about this alleged plot?

Mr. KIM SENGUPTA (The Independent): Well, it seems like the police had to move in a bit earlier than they wanted to. I think they wanted to wait for a little bit longer and maybe more, perhaps some more suspects. But the impression they got was that the attack may be imminent, maybe as early as the next 48 hours, so they say they erred on the side of caution and moved in, as we can perhaps expect some other arrests in the course of the next few hours or the next day or so.

The scope of the attack was, as you pointed out, quite vast. I think they were looking at bombing three sets of three airplanes. It's not entirely clear whether the explosives were meant to go off over cities, causing even more casualties, or over sea. But the security services and the police claim, in London, at least, that this was a very credible plot, fairly sophisticated and quite ambitious in its grand scale.

NORRIS: We've been reporting all day that passengers are no longer able to carry on liquids or gel on board a plane. Do we know more about how they planned to carry out this plot?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, the theory is that they would have taken on the various ingredients separately. They would have used a kind of liquid explosive and possibly the flash from a disposable camera to set it off. There are reports that they doctored bottles of soft drinks so the top half contained ordinary, non-lethal substance and the bottom half, the liquid explosives.

That is not entirely clear, but the technology they're using apparently isn't that new. Ramzi Yousef tried something very similar ten years ago in the Far East. And they thought, at least, that by using contraptions they had fashioned, they would quite easily get by the security precautions, at least at British airports.

NORRIS: Kim, do you have any more information on the two dozen people who were arrested?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, there's a mixture of backgrounds. The vast majority, it appears, are of Pakistani descent, but there're also Bangladeshis, North Africans, and at least one who was indigenous English who converted to Islam awhile ago. It should be pointed out that not all who have been arrested, the 24 so far and other arrests that are expected to follow, not all of them, Michele, will face charges. Some may well be released. But they seem to think that they have caught the main players in this plot.

NORRIS: The Home Security head, John Reid, said the government was absolutely confident that the ringleaders were in custody. What's that confidence based on?

Mr. SENGUPTA: Well, I think they have been targeting, they have been focusing on the people they consider, Michele, to be the ringleaders, the brains behind the plot, as far as they know, and these are the people they have already got in custody. But the fact remains that there are people they're still looking for and if the plot had been entirely foiled, then there wouldn't have been a need for this extraordinary security precaution we are seeing on both sides of the Atlantic.

NORRIS: Now, we mentioned that U.S. officials are saying the plot sounds like an al-Qaida operation. Are officials there making that same connection?

Mr. SENGUPTA: No, they're not. They are much more careful about saying that in this country after the 7/7 London tube bombings. There were a plethora of stories talking about al-Qaida plots and al-Qaida masterminds. It transpired, of course, that the bombings were carried out by homegrown terrorists, by British Muslims, and although subsequent videos showed that they had some kind of a connection with al-Qaida, there wasn't really any evidence that al-Qaida actually organized the bombings.

Now, this is more sophisticated, more ambitious in scale, but at the moment, they're not saying this is something put together and executed by al-Qaida central command, if that exists.

NORRIS: Kim, thanks so much.

Mr. SENGUPTA: Pleasure

NORRIS: Kim Sengupta is a defense correspondent for the Independent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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