Pakistan points to al Qaeda plot link
By Katherine Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain urged its citizens to remain
vigilant on Friday as Pakistan said it had arrested an al Qaeda
operative who it said played a key role in an alleged plot to
blow up transatlantic airliners.
British police said they had released without charge one of
24 people arrested in Thursday’s swoop that they said foiled a
plot to use chemical bombs to bring down as many as 10 aircraft
flying from Britain to the United States.
A court granted police a warrant to hold 22 suspects until
next Wednesday. A decision on the 24th person will not be taken
Britain named 19 of those arrested and ordered their assets
frozen as governments scrambled to respond to a threat
officials said could have matched September 11, 2001.
British news reports said the suspects were mostly
British-born men of Pakistani origin, three were converts to
Islam and one was believed to be a security guard at London’s
Pakistan emerged as central to the operation as Pakistan
said two Britons of Pakistani descent along with five other
suspects had been arrested there.
It said one of those arrested was an al Qaeda operative who
had played a leading role in the foiled plot that would have
used chemical bombs smuggled onto aircraft disguised as drinks.
“He is a British citizen of Pakistani origin. He is an al
Qaeda operative with linkages in Afghanistan,” Interior
Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told Reuters.
Sherpao said the arrest of the man, identified as Rashid
Rauf, had led to the arrests in Britain.
CALL FOR VIGILANCE
The Guardian newspaper said in its Saturday edition that
Rauf’s arrest in the border area with Afghanistan, together
with an intercepted message from Pakistan to Britain and an
alert from an informant pushed British police into action.
Italy said police there arrested 40 people in a security
swoop targeting Islamic groups after the foiled plot in
As British police scoured raided houses for evidence,
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in charge while British
Prime Minister Tony Blair is on holiday, urged people to stay
“The threat level is critical, so people should remain
vigilant,” he said in a televised statement.
Amid alarm among British Muslim communities that they are
increasingly under siege, Prescott said the foiled attack would
have been an attack on everyone and that the government would
hold meetings next week with Muslim leaders.
In Washington, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff said the United States had screening capabilities for
liquids. “However, what was particularly challenging with
respect to this plot was the great effort to which these
plotters appear to have gone in order to disguise the
components,” he told a news conference.
Tough air travel security measures imposed after the
arrests remained in force on Friday although the chaos that
struck airports on Thursday, when hundreds of flights were
canceled, diminished somewhat.
In Britain, all hand luggage was banned on flights. On both
sides of the Atlantic, authorities banned liquids and gels from
bags being carried on to aircraft.
British Airways warned customers to expect further flight
delays and cancellations at Heathrow on Saturday.
“I think we are both going to kiss the ground when we touch
it in Los Angeles,” said Mandy Macdonald, a U.S. resident
waiting to catch a plane from London’s Heathrow airport.
Security analysts and officials predicted some of the
restrictions could stay in place for months or years.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to return to what we had in
the past,” British Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander told
the BBC after meeting airline and airport officials and
security advisers. He said his department would issue new
security requirements to airports “in due course.”
Those arrested in Britain are aged from 17 to 35 and live
in east London, the town of High Wycombe, west of the capital,
and Britain’s second city of Birmingham.
European Union president Finland said it would call a
meeting of aviation security experts in Brussels next week. The
world’s top money-laundering watchdog called the plot a
“wake-up call” for countries to crack down on terrorism
The arrests could widen a gulf between authorities and
Britain’s 1.7 million Muslims, who fear their community is
coming “under siege,” Islamic leaders said.
Some British Muslims said they doubted whether there was a
plot, given past blunders by British anti-terrorism police due
to faulty intelligence.
The suspected plot came to light 13 months after four
British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured
about 700 on London’s transport network. At least two of the
militants had visited Pakistan months before the attack.
Last month al Qaeda urged Muslims to fight those backing
Israel’s strikes on Lebanon and warned of attacks unless U.S.
and British forces left Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Julia Glover, Peter Graff, Peter
Griffiths, Amil Khan, Adrian Croft, Michael Holden and Michael
Smith in London, Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, David Morgan in