U.S. Security Tightened in Wake of U.K. Exposure of Terror Plot

By David McKeeby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - A plot to blow up several U.S.-bound airliners using explosives smuggled in carry-on luggage was foiled thanks to extensive international counterterrorism cooperation, top U.S. officials said.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are fully united and resolute in this effort and in our ongoing efforts to secure our respective homelands,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in an August 10 statement. 

British authorities arrested 21 men believed to be linked to the plot, which reportedly involved the use of liquid explosives hidden in drinks, electronics and carry-on baggage to commit, in the words of Paul Stephenson, London’s deputy commissioner of police, “mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

In an August 10 press briefing, Chertoff said that British security services arrested the men as their attack plans moved toward the execution stage.

President Bush, speaking in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said the arrests are “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”

Bush thanked the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and praised the close cooperation between U.S. and U.K. authorities as “solid.”


White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters traveling with the president that Bush and senior U.S. national security officials had been kept briefed by their British counterparts on the investigation and would remain in close contact as the counterterrorism operation progresses.    

Chertoff said that U.S.-U.K. cooperation has been “terrific in terms of close information-sharing and close coordination,” and noted that both countries are bound not only by a shared culture, but also by being terrorist targets. 

Appearing with Chertoff at the briefing was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who said the FBI worked closely with its British counterpart from the beginning of the investigation.    Both governments, he said, “share the same philosophy of prevention, a sense of urgency to dismantle these terrorist cells before an attack occurs.”

“We have a deadly enemy who still wakes every morning thinking of new ways to kill innocent men, women and children and dreams every night about wrecking the destruction on freedom-loving countries,” Gonzales said.  “We will continue to work around the clock with our colleagues around the world to dismantle their operations, one person at a time.

“Every day is September 12th for those of us tasked with protecting America, and we know that our counterparts abroad feel the same way,” Gonzales said.


Officials declined to provide details on who might be behind the plot, but acknowledged that al-Qaida is a leading suspect, given the complexity of the terrorists’ plans.

“It was sophisticated, it had a lot of members and it was international in scope. It was in some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot," Chertoff said, but cautioned that it is too early in the investigation to reach any definitive conclusions. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who also participated in the briefing, agreed that the plan “had the earmarks of an al-Qaida plot."

"Currently, there is no indication of plotting within the United States. We believe that these [London] arrests have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted,” Chertoff.

In 1995, officials foiled an al-Qaida plan to simultaneously blow up 12 jetliners over the Pacific.  That plot, which involved the use of liquid explosives hidden in containers of contact lens solution, was discovered through the arrest of Ramzi Youssef, planner of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  


President Bush approved the Department of Homeland Security’s recommendation to raise the terrorist threat level specifically for passenger aircraft from the United Kingdom bound for the United States to its highest level – “red” – the first time that it has done so since the color-coded threat chart was created 2001.  The department sets levels of terrorism alert in the United States based on color-coded system – red, orange, yellow, blue and green – corresponding to severe, high, elevated, guarded and low risks of terrorist attacks.  The threat level for commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States was raised to orange.

Chertoff said that the United States adjusted its threat level to correspond with Britain’s security services, which raised the U.K alert level to “critical” – signifying that “an attack is expected imminently.” 

In both countries, all liquids and gels, with the exception of infant formula and medicines, temporarily have been banned from commercial flights.

Chertoff also said that his agency would dispatch additional armed undercover agents to provide security aboard U.S.-bound flights and that its Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security agents would take action to step up security in airports across the country. 

“Today, air traffic is safe, and air traffic will remain safe precisely because of the measures we are adopting today,” Chertoff said.

The transcript of the president’s remarks in Wisconsin is available on the White House Web site. The transcript of the press briefing by Chertoff and Gonzales and the full text of Chertoff’s statement regarding the terrorist threat level are available on the Department of Homeland Security Web site.

For ongoing coverage, see Response to Terrorism.