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Plot to Blow up Airlines Foiled

Aired August 10, 2006 - 06:29   ET


CNN's Richard Quest for us.

Richard, thank you. Travel safely, if you can get out. Thanks.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's update you if you're just joining us this morning. Here is what we know about this terror threat.

Police in Great Britain saying they have thwarted a plan to blow up multiple flights heading from the U.K. to the U.S. One security expert telling us earlier this morning that maybe as many as nine planes were the target. Right now they've got 21 people in custody.

Police say most of them were arrested around London. None of the arrests apparently seem to have been coming from any of London's two main airports.

The arrests, the culmination of a major covert counter-terrorist operation that appears to have lasted several months, but then officials say something happened. They're not elaborating. Something happened, though, that made them move this investigation forward.

People close to the investigation say this is the real deal, and British police are saying that more searches are now under way. The number of those arrested could grow, some estimate as high as 250.

The Department of Homeland Security here in the U.S. is announcing a ban on liquids being carried onto airplanes. A ban. That means things like drinks and hair gels and lotions are band. In Great Britain, they're stopping almost all carry-on items.

There have been dozens of flight cancellations throughout Europe. Here in the U.S. passengers are being told, expect long delays at security checkpoints, and, in fact, there probably will be multiple security checkpoints and you should come to the airport obviously at least two hours early if you have a flight.

The Department of Homeland Security is raising the threat level for aviation across the board to orange, or high. It's red or severe for U.K. to U.S. flights. And that this is very first time that that has happened.

Let me take you to a live picture. You can see right here they're getting ready to hold a press conference this morning. We're waiting to hear from the U.K. anti-terrorism squad. That's the room where it's going to be happening in London.

John Reed, the home secretary, and also Peter Clarke, the head of the anti-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard, are both expected to speak. We're going to hear from them. We're expecting that momentarily, so we're going to bring that to you live when it happens.

First, though, let's get right back to Jeanne Meserve this morning with an update on what's happening.

Good morning, Jeanne.


I have talked to an administration official who confirms that the following carriers, United, American, and Continental, were being targeted by these -- by these terrorists. That is not necessarily an exclusive list, but we do know those three carriers are now being named by an administration official.

This, of course, being taken very seriously by U.S. officials. They have, as you mentioned, heightened the threat level to red for any flights coming into the United States. The rest of commercial aviation in this country, and coming in, taken up to threat level orange.

Because they are talking about bans on very specific substances in carry-on luggage, things like gels, things like shampoos, suntan lotion, things of that consistency, we can infer here that their concern is about a liquid explosive. It may not simply be things in carry-on luggage, however.

If you look at the TSA Web site, they are saying that if anyone purchases a beverage even past the checkpoint, they will not be able to take that beverage on board the aircraft, an indication perhaps that they're concerned about any sort of liquid which may be traveling onto an aircraft in connection with this plot.

Obviously a very serious situation here. U.S. officials tell me that at this point they see no connection in the U.S., there have been no arrests in the U.S., but they are combing through intelligence extraordinarily seriously, looking at everything that has come to their attention, be it in Britain, be it in the United States, be it elsewhere in the world. They are trying to see if there is any connection between those dots, if there are any additional steps they need to be taking in any additional locations to keep aviation safe -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: So what do you expect the implications will be here in the U.S.? I mean, if you're just telling people to arrive two hours earlier, and there are going to be multiple checkpoints, and forget about bringing a liquid on board, and we're raising the threat level, all that adds up to massive delays.

MESERVE: It probably does, especially right now. We're at the height of summer travel season. We have seen air travel numbers rebound to pre-9/11 levels. So the airports were going to be crowded anyway.

Now these additional steps, people didn't have any warning before they got up this morning that this was going to be happening. So they aren't prepared, they do have things, undoubtedly, in their carry-on.

In addition to the simple logistics of getting people through, getting through that carry-on luggage, confiscating all these things that they're not going to let on aircraft, you can anticipate, too, that some people are going to be very unhappy and are going to be hassling the Transportation Security Administration personnel. The administration is pleading for, please, patience this morning if you're traveling, but they are cautioning about those delays, which are inevitable, I'm sure -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jeanne, we know that 21 people are under arrest. That's what we're being told by British authorities. They indicated, though, that the investigation is going on, obviously, and that there could be more arrests. Is there any indication that some of those arrests could come here in the United States?

MESERVE: U.S. officials say at this point in time, no. But the investigation is ongoing. They always say, when they say no connection here currently, that's the operative word. Things may change within hours, within days -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: And the people that they are looking for, do we have any indication from your sources at Homeland Security where they might be? Are these people assumed to still be in country, or are these people who are assumed to have been on some of these planes that have now been canceled, or are these people who are assumed to actually be out of the country?

MESERVE: Well, I asked an official with whom I was just speaking, you know, "You're looking for more people. Are they all in Britain or are they elsewhere?" He absolutely refused to touch that question, so we don't know exactly where those individuals are.

It's my guess that they wouldn't want to tick off for us where they do think they are if they're elsewhere, because they don't want to give them a heads up that they're in pursuit. So we don't know where they are, we don't know the numbers.

The other thing we don't know clearly yet is whether there is al Qaeda involvement here. And that's another thing we want to look at -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jeanne Meserve for us.

Jeanne, thanks. We're obviously going to continue to talk with you all morning as we get more information about this terror plot coming to us this morning and breaking news from the U.K. But obviously, huge implication here in the United States -- Tony.

HARRIS: And Soledad, new tape we want to show you this morning just in to CNN, new video. This is a picture that you're looking at right now of a home of one of the suspects. Again, we're told that you can see the caution tape there, you see authorities on the scene. New pictures just in to CNN of the home, we're told, of one of the suspects arrested in what is being described now as this thwarted, disrupted terror plot. The extent to which it has been thwarted, we're still learning, but those pictures just into CNN. We wanted to get those to you as soon as possible so that you can have a look.

Terrorism expert Sajjan Gohel joins us now on the phone. He's in London.

And Sajjan, thanks for your time.

We've been told the information is that 21 people are now under arrest and more arrests expected. Give us a sense of the kind of operation that was involved here.

SAJJAN GOHEL, ASIA-PACIFIC FOUNDATION: Well, this was a very major operation. In fact, it is probably the biggest counterterrorism operation in the U.K. since September 11th.

It involved a number of different police authorities cooperating together. And as you mentioned, 21 arrest took place in Birmingham, in London, and in southern England, Thames Valley part.

The authorities have been monitoring these individuals for several months. And they had also been looking at their activities, how they were operating, and they decided to act last night, making a number of arrests.

Now, that doesn't mean that the plot was imminent, that it was going to be executed, say, today or tomorrow. The authorities felt they had enough information to disrupt this cell because of the fact that these individuals were in the final stages of preparing their attack.

And let's bear in mind that if they had been able to carry out their attack, it would have been far more devastating than anything we have seen in the U.K., far worse than 7-7. A number of planes were going to be hijacked and exploded across the Atlantic, something very devastating. And as we've seen in the past, a dangerous hallmark for a transnational group.

HARRIS: Sajjan, we understand the pictures that folks at home are looking at right now, live pictures right now, are from a neighborhood -- and correct me on the pronunciation here -- Hiwikim (ph). Is that familiar? Is that close?

GOHEL: Hiwikim (ph).

HARRIS: Hiwikim (ph)? OK.

GOHEL: That's in -- that's west of London. That's a very popular suburban part of the country. It's not known for any notorious activities, but as we have seen in the past, all the individuals that have been arrested or connected to terrorism come or live in these residential suburban areas.

They are the invisible enemy. They have submerged themselves into the civilian fabric of society, and they get on with their normal duties of life.

They don't give anyone a suspicion of what they're doing. This is biggest problem. The biggest threat that we actually face is not terrorists being imported from outside. It's the homegrown threat that exists, the same type of people that carried out the 7-7 attacks...


GOHEL: Born or brought up within the society but willing to turn against it. It's still very depressing, but unfortunately it's not actually surprising, because this is now becoming a very common trend.

HARRIS: Are you understanding the roots of, the cause of this homegrown terrorism that you describe?

GOHEL: Well, what's happening is that the ideas of terrorists like Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that we see all the time on the Internet or on the television, they're having an impact. They are enticing individuals to join terrorist groups.

So, an attack doesn't necessarily have to be orchestrated by al Qaeda central, but it is inspired by these individuals that give these fiery rhetoric -- these statements. And unfortunately, there is not enough counter-arguments coming into -- into the play. You're not seeing enough people condemning people like bin Laden, questioning his legitimacy and the accuracy of his quotations that are used to justify attacks. And that's the big problem.

But this isn't just, say, a problem in the U.K.


GOHEL: The same type of threats exist in Spain, in France, in Holland, and as we saw recently a couple of months ago in Canada, homegrown Canadians have been recruited to take part in an attack. And this is now the new threat, that you've got people with the Western social skills, the passports to travel.

They're able to blend into the fabric of society. They have normal jobs, they probably come from a good background, but they aren't easily profiled and they aren't identifiable. And this is just the big challenge that the authorities are now having to address, the fact that this threat is totally unconventional.

HARRIS: OK. Once again, let me give just a bit of a reset here. And let's go back to those pictures -- great. Thank you.

This is Sajjan Gohel. He is a terrorism expert on the phone with us from London.

And you're looking at taped pictures of the home, aerial view of the home of one of the suspects. Can't make out which one in particular, but clearly that's the area in question. You see authorities on the ground there, and that area is taped off, cordoned off right now.

Sajjan, let me just follow up and ask you, this Hiwikim (ph) neighborhood, would you describe that as a Muslim neighborhood?

GOHEL: Well, not really, no. It's not known for having a sizable Muslim population.

And -- but we found that in the past, that there's never really been a strong demographic of one particular ethnic group. Certainly, with the 7-7 attack, there was a strong Muslim population in the North Yorkshire city of Leeds. But in this instance, no. I would say that this isn't known for being common for a particular ethnic group or religious group.

But this is a problem, is that you're finding that these individuals are being arrested from al the different parts of the U.K. And other arrests that have taken place in relation to this plot include the city of Birmingham. That does have a big Muslim population. One of the biggest, in fact, in the country.

But I wouldn't look too much into the particular demographics of where these people are being arrested. Certainly, what is interesting, though, is that it is on multiple different locations, which just also shows how big and wide this cell actually was.

And what the authorities are particularly concerned about now is that, is there a separate cell, one that's been compartmentalized, that is not directly connected to this one, but, nevertheless, had similar instruction and an intention to carry a similar type of attack? That's why the security has been raised at the airports and the visible presence of police is now being seen in London in all the major transportation centers.

HARRIS: Very good.

Sajjan Gohel is a terrorism expert. He's on the phone with us from London this morning.

Sajjan, thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We're waiting to get a briefing from the U.K. anti- terrorism squad. We were expecting it about 15 minutes ago. As soon as it happens in London, we're going to bring that to you live.

Also, keep in mind the implication, the ripple effects. Heathrow is one of the world's busiest airports, and as soon as you continue to clamp down on the flights leaving, suddenly you get a backlog, not just of planes and not just of travelers, but also of vehicles. And suddenly that means highways and roadways. There are going to be some big travel implications in that area.

Keep in mind the three airports -- three airliners, excuse me -- that are now being named as those that were or may have been the focus of the terror attacks, those airlines don't just go from London to the U.S., to London, to the U.S. In fact, they make multiple stops. That means within hours we can expect implications around the globe as those airliners stop those flights and continue this investigation and don't move forward.

There is a ripple effect here. Obviously, it's going to mean cancellations across the board, not only those by those three, as we know it now, affected airliners, but also others that rely on those airliners. It is a big ripple effect.

We're covering that as we get to Alina Cho, who is at JFK this morning.

Alina, I'm curious to know if there's a sense that people know what's going on, or is there a sense that there's really no physical difference or feel there this morning?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Interesting you should ask that, Soledad, because we just spoke to a group of passengers who are headed to Australia through London, a group of girls who said they got to the airport and they were confused. They had heard that the airport was closed. That is not the case.

In fact, here at JFK, they are beginning to implement these new security measures. And, in fact, the TSA is beginning to make announcements over the loud speaker to passengers who have arrived at the airport.

Now, just to detail them, because it does bear repeating, if you are planning to fly today out of any U.S. airport, including here at JFK, you will not be able to bring any liquids on board as a carry-on. That includes beverages, shampoos, hair gels, lotion. All of those items will have to be checked in.

You're hearing a lot about getting -- getting to the airport early and being patient. That is true as well.

Passengers are being urged to get to the airport not one hour, but two hours before their flight. And, of course, bring a lot of patience, because expect long lines, expect frustrated passengers, that is for sure.

Now, due to the nature of the threat -- again, it bears repeating -- no liquids can be carried on board. Security is being tightened, of course, not just at JFK, Soledad, but around the country, and these measures are being implemented at 4:00 a.m. local time around the country. And so, for the most part across the country, those new security measures are in place.

Of course, tougher rules if you are flying from the U.K. to the U.S. You can only bring the barest essentials on board, a wallet, passport, ticket, and even then you have to bring those in clear plastic bags. Again, no liquids can be carried on board. And we're hearing even handbags must be checked in and even sunglass cases need to be checked in. We're not hearing yet, Soledad, that you shouldn't fly today, at least out of the U.S. That is the case in London. Not hearing don't fly, but certainly, if you do plan today, get to the airport early, two hours before your flight. Be patient, because there will be long lines and increased security at U.S. airports today.

O'BRIEN: Explain for me, Alina, if you can, in more detail, the ban on liquids. We know at Heathrow there's the ban on any kind of liquid. They're talking about hair gel, shampoo, you know, an actual beverage. I think they're letting baby formula through, and that's sort of about it.

Are we seeing similar things at U.S. airports today?

CHO: What I can tell you is what is in the Department of Homeland Security's statement which was released early this morning, and that says liquids, including beverages, hair gels and lotion. Not entirely sure if it goes beyond that.

I was hearing Jeanne Meserve reporting earlier possibly shampoo, toothpaste. That could be extended as the day goes on. But for now, what is detailed in that release, Soledad, is beverages, hair gels and lotions.

Not sure if those were just examples and it will be extended beyond that. But that is what is in the DHS statement as of now.

Again, just to keep in mind, passengers hopefully are listening to this news this morning, because we have talked to some who are getting to the airport and they are quite confused. They're not hearing -- you know, it looks on the boards as though the flights are leaving on time. So far, they are. And, in fact, we can tell you the British Airways flight that is headed here from London to JFK is scheduled to arrive here at JFK on time, at 11:15 a.m. Eastern Time. That is the first BA flight from London to New York.

We can also tell you that there is a British Airways flight scheduled to depart JFK for London at 9:15 a.m. And, Soledad, there is already a line forming for that flight.

O'BRIEN: It looks as if, though, Alina, American Airlines Flight 142 going from JFK to London, Heathrow, which was going to depart at 8:25, has been canceled.

Alina, thanks.

We've been promising you this press conference from the U.K. anti-terrorism squad.

Let's listen in.


PETER CLARKE, HEAD OF ANTI-TERRORISM BRANCH, SCOTLAND YARD: ...with a request for restraint. And by that, I mean restraint in the reporting of events so far as they relate to those who have been arrested. We must all, all of us, please, be careful to say or do nothing that might prejudice the right of any individual to a fair trial.

The investigation has focused on intelligence which suggested that a plot was in existence to blow up a transatlantic passenger aircraft in flight. The intelligence suggested that this was to be achieved by means of concealed explosive devices smuggled on to the aircraft in hand baggage.

The intelligence suggested that the devices were to be constructed in the United Kingdom and taken through British airports. The number, destination and timing of the flights that might be attacked remain subject of investigation. This has been and continues to be a fast-moving investigation.

Today actually marks the culmination of one phase of what is a major operation that has already lasted for several months and will undoubtedly last long into the future. I can tell you that during the investigation, an unprecedented level of surveillance has been undertaken. And that surveillance has had as its objective to gather intelligence and evidence in support of the investigation.

We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending, and the aspirations of a large group of people. This has involved close cooperation not only between agencies and police forces in the United Kingdom, but also internationally. As is so often the case in these investigations, the alleged plot has global dimensions.

The investigation reached a critical point last night when the decision was made to take urgent action in order to disrupt what we believe was being planned. As always, as always in these cases, the safety of the public was our overriding concern.

Throughout the night, a significant number of arrests were made. All the arrests were made on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000. The people arrested remain in custody in London, where the investigation will be pursued by officers from the Metropolitan Police anti- terrorist branch.

Searches are also under way at a number of business and residential premises in London and elsewhere. We do anticipate that these will take some time to complete.

You will realize, of course, that this is a very early stage in what will be a meticulous, painstaking, criminal investigation. We will now be embarking on the next stage, the next stage of an investigation that will take us wherever the evidence leads.

As and when I am able to do so, I will give out information on the progress of the investigation. But, please, as always, we will only release specific information when we are sure that it is correct.

I know also that you will understand that at this very early stage -- and it is very early, indeed, in an investigation of this scale -- it is not appropriate for me, with my particular role, in connection with the investigation, to answer questions at this point. I must focus on the criminal investigation on any subsequent legal process and I must, of course, refrain from speculation. As I say, I will when it's appropriate to do so and when I'm able to do so, give further information.

For the moment, thank you for your attention. Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: That's Peter Clarke. He is the head of the anti- terrorism branch of Scotland Yard, as he updates us on the investigation.

Not a lot of new details as he began telling us what happened that led them to the actions that we know today, which is essentially closing down Heathrow. He said there was evidence, intelligence, as well, that they were going to try to blow up transatlantic flights as they were in flight, that those explosives would be smuggled in hand baggage. Those explosives constructed in the United Kingdom and taken through British airports.

He said the number, the destination, the timing of those flights unclear, still under investigation. And it was the culmination of the first phase of a major operation that lasted several months and, as he points out, is suspected to go on and on.

He said during the investigation there was unprecedented surveillance. They gathered intelligence and evidence.

And what I thought was most interesting, to some degree, was that they took action at the critical point. He said there was a critical point last night that determined that they had to take urgent action and disrupt what they believe was being planned, because the safety of the public became the overriding concern.

That is essentially the word in this press conference, of the U.K. anti-terrorism squad, Peter Clarke, the head of that squad talking.

Let's get right back to Jeanne Meserve.

Jeanne, I thought that that last piece was probably the most interesting and, to some degree, has the most question marks around it. An investigation going on for months and months and months, proceeding along, good surveillance, intelligence, evidence being gathered, and then suddenly something happens, where last night they have to arrest everybody and bring it to a close.

Obviously, he didn't want to speculate, we don't want to speculate, but that's very unusual, isn't it?

MESERVE: Well, the ordinary way these investigations go is that they want to watch for as long as they possibly can because they're hoping that the people they have under surveillance will lead them elsewhere. They want to follow the web. They want to take it simply as far as they possibly can. It would appear from these statements that he's made that it must have been on the verge of going operational. That's why they stepped in at this particular time. But that may also be why they've arrested so many people, because this investigation has been going on for so long.

I will tell you that a U.S. official is now saying that this plot is indicative of some kind of al Qaeda role. He says that because it, we are told, involved multiple flights, was well coordinated, all these things, the sorts of things that fit what al Qaeda has done before.

In addition, some new information from Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security. They are saying that they are going to be giving special scrutiny to flights that are leaving the U.K. and coming to the United States. Specifically, they will be doing intensive passenger screening prior to takeoff.

This would include risk-based screening of the manifest information. The manifest being the list of passengers. In addition, passengers on these flights and all international flights will be subject to heightened inspections upon arrival in the United States.

That means that at arrivals at U.S. airports, you will be seeing special response teams, including baggage and aircraft search teams. You will be seeing baggage x-ray equipment, specifically-trained k-9 units, and explosive detection technology.

The bottom line there, you're going to have a delay getting on a flight today. You are -- if you're coming into the U.S. from another country, you are going to have a delay on your arrival once you get here -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about homeland security and what they're saying now here in the United States. They talked about, I guess, the same limits that we've seen in London, which is limits on liquids and all the things that we spoke about earlier, Jeanne, as being indicative about a concern of a liquid-based explosive somehow being put together during a flight.

No -- no -- no risk, no specific plot here in the U.S. and yet they're banning those same things here.

MESERVE: Well, in these situations, authorities often make moves out of what they call an abundance of caution. They want to make absolutely sure that nothing happens.

Listen, if they know this much about this plot and what it involved in the U.K., and something were to happen here using the same methods, it would obviously be an extraordinary tragedy. And so, there is this sort of preemptive action being taken here.

We don't know how long it's going to be in effect. That's going to be one critical question. And we don't know whether some of these bans may stay in place for the long haul. That's something we'll have to look -- look at and be watching. Clearly, they're going to be evaluating that situation as this investigation proceeds.

O'BRIEN: Jeanne, is this -- are your sources from Homeland Security telling you of any links to the U.S. outside of the planes heading from the U.K. to the U.S.? Outside of that, any other kind of link to the U.S.?

MESERVE: At this point, U.S. officials to whom we've spoken this morning say there is no link known to the United States. No arrests have been made here at this point in time, but they aren't anticipating any arrests here. But they couch this by saying "currently" we don't -- we don't have any of that.

As one official put it to us this morning, "We don't know what we don't know." And so they're investigating still very carefully, as I mentioned earlier, just going through all of that intelligence that's been collected over time, looking for any indicators that might tell them more, that might -- which might expand this threat in some way -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jeanne Meserve for us this morning.

Jeanne, thanks. Obviously, we're going to keep you around and keep talking about this. Appreciate that.

If you're just joining us, as we head to 7:00 Eastern Time in AMERICAN MORNING, our special edition, we want to bring you up to speed. Here is what we know.

Police in Britain are saying that they have thwarted a plan to blow up flights headed from the U.K. to the U.S. One security expert telling us early this morning that it may be as many as nine planes were the target here.

Airlines mentioned as possibly being targeted were United and Continental and American Airlines. Obviously, it was United and American Airlines that were brought down during the 9/11 terror attacks.


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