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British Police Disrupt Terror Plot; Near Chaos at Heathrow Airport

Aired August 10, 2006 - 05:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Airports are on alert. There is unprecedented security this morning in response to a foiled terror plot taking place in Great Britain.

It is Thursday, August 10. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Tony Harris, in for Miles O'Brien, good morning.

O'BRIEN: Just a few hours ago, in fact, a series of arrests were made in that terror plot. British police say the plan was to blow up flights that were headed for the United States with explosives smuggled on board in carry on luggage. Now airports on both sides of the Atlantic are increasing their security.

CNN's Adrian Finighan joins us. He is at Heathrow International Airport. Right now that is truly the busiest airport in the world. Adrian, good morning.

ADRIAN FINIGHAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you -- 10:30 in the morning it is here in London. Ordered chaos, I think, is the best way to describe what's going on over there at the moment, in the main terminal buildings.

I've just come from Terminal 3, which is the terminal from where many transatlantic flights depart London Heathrow -- people turning up this morning are being asked to dispose of items that they had planned to carry on as hand luggage. They are being asked to repack their main bags, which, for many people, is very difficult, as I'm sure you can understand.

We all do it. You pack your main bag as full as you can, and laws have been relaxed as far as hand baggage is concerned over these past few years, in terms of their size anyway. Many people were planning to take on i-Pods, books even, refreshments. None of that can go. It all has to go into your main bags, and if it can't, it has to go into a polythene bag that airport authorities are handing out, and it has to be tied on to your main bag.

Heathrow Airport has been closed to all incoming flights that are not already in the air. That's because of congestion on the ground.

Now, normally, at this time of the day, you'd see aircraft taking off every, what, two minutes or so? This morning, you're lucky if you see one in five. Also, if you look out to the sky over west London, you'd see aircraft stacking up waiting to land. This morning, well there's one plane coming in -- at the moment, it is very quiet.

On the ground, however, aircraft that have traveled from right around the world, across the Atlantic from Africa, from Australia and Asia, once they have arrived here after long flights this morning, they're having to wait before they can actually berth and disembark those passengers, a pretty long wait, in some cases, too.

O'BRIEN: Adrian, let me ask you a couple of questions. We haven't heard a lot of details coming from Scotland Yard, although they have been holding press conferences. But let's walk through what we know at this point.

First of all, when did the information come in, and what is believed to have happened that triggered these massive arrests across London?

FINIGHAN: What we know is this operation has been ongoing for some time. Now, the authorities, as you say, are not saying a lot. As far as the airport authorities are concerned, they say the first they knew of it was at 2:00 this morning. That was the moment at which the security threat level here in Britain was raised to its highest level.

Now, that wasn't made public until 6:00 a.m. this morning British time, after those arrests in this attempted terror operation were actually made. But we're given to understand that this -- these arrests were made as part of an operation which has been ongoing here in the UK for some considerable time.

O'BRIEN: Okay. The arrests that were made have sort of thrown -- and what's followed -- have thrown Heathrow into a little bit of, as what you call, organized chaos. My question is, were people arrested at the airport, do we know? Or were these arrests that were carried out across, not only London, but all of England?

FINIGHAN: As far as I know -- I know very little, I have to say, about the actual terror operation itself -- these arrests were made in London at some time within the last 24 hours, not at the airport itself.

Authorities here say they're not reacting to any specific threat against the airport itself or any particular flights today, but, obviously, if you talk to anyone in the know, they're saying that because of these arrests, the heightened level of threat -- there must be something that our authorities are concerned about enough to put into practice the security measures that they've implemented today.

O'BRIEN: They were asked in a press conference about whether this terror threat was home grown, and, in fact, the deputy commissioner sort of dodged that question -- wouldn't answer it. And so that leads to potentially the speculation that, well, al Qaeda, then, as the threat, not necessarily taken off the table. What do we know about that? FINIGHAN: I'm sorry to say that I know very little about that at the moment. As far as the press conference that you're referring to is concerned, I'm a little in the dark. I've spent the last few hours over in the terminal here at Heathrow Airport, sampling the opinion of the poor folks who have to travel, despite the fact that all of this -- these security measures have been put into place.

O'BRIEN: It is quite a mess there today.

Adrian, thanks. We're going to ask you to stand by for us and continue to report for us on what's happening there at Heathrow.

Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson, in fact, held a brief news conference and took some questions, as well. He's with Scotland Yard. Let's listen to a little bit of what he said.


PAUL STEPHENSON, METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPUTY COMMISSIONER: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. As Chris has said, I will read you a quick statement, and then I'll take a few questions and answers. Can I first say that we are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction, and to commit, quite frankly, mass murder.

I would want to join the commissioner, who is fully briefed and has been here at New Scotland Yard since very early this morning, in paying tribute to the Met Counterterrorist Branch and the security services for the work they have undertaken in disrupting these activities.

We believe that the terrorists' aim was to smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in-flight. We also believe that the intended targets were flights from the United Kingdom to the United States of America. I can confirm that a significant number of people are currently in custody, and the operation is ongoing. The majority of these arrests have been here in London. We've also made arrests in Thames Valley and in Birmingham. And, of course, I'm very grateful for the support our colleagues have shown in backing up this operation and showing their leadership in those forces.

We are currently searching a number of addresses, and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, who is known to many of you, the head of the Anti-Terrorist branch, will give further details about the investigation later this morning.

As the operation got under way, we spoke to a good number of community leaders to make them aware that a major anti-terrorist operation was underway, but without giving specific details about locations, quite clearly, and extensive dialogue with community leaders will continue.

We would like to reassure the public that this operation was carried out with public safety uppermost in our minds. This is a major operation, which will inevitably be lengthy and complex. The United Kingdom is now at the highest possible level of alert. We will consider the threat in its widest sense and take whatever action is necessary to protect people, both here in London and right the way throughout the United Kingdom.

As you know, measures have already been put in place to restrict hand luggage taken on to aircraft. This will inevitably cause very significant delay, and I know it's doing that as we speak here. And we ask people for their continued help and patience during these very difficult times.

We are generally looking to the public to remain calm, patient and vigilant. But we cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

I'll take some questions at this point.


STAFF: Could you identify yourself, please?

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) News. Deputy Commissioner, you said "a significant number of people" were involved in this. Can you tell us how many arrests you've made, if you have made arrests? And are there any people you're still looking for? If so, how many?

STEPHENSON: There are a number of people in custody, as I've already said. What I can confirm, there are 21 people who are in custody at this moment in time. The operation is ongoing. We've been very successful in arresting those that we were targeting, but this is a lengthy operation and, no doubt, there will be further developments.

STAFF: Question there.

QUESTION: Deputy Commissioner, Tom Ray (ph) from ITV News. Can you confirm that it's likely that this plot, if you hadn't interceded today could have gone ahead with attacks (ph)?

STEPHENSON: We think this was a strong, serious plot, and we are confident we prevented an attempt to commit mass murder, as I've said, on an unimaginable scale.

STAFF: Andy.

QUESTION: Andy (INAUDIBLE). Can you tell us, whatever you can, about the plot? How many aircraft do you believe were targeted? Is it true that they would take off from regional airports with an attempt to set them up in a consecutive manner?

STEPHENSON: I think, as you'll realize, this operation is in a very early stage. This is the first phase of an extensive and very complex operation. Peter Clarke will give you further details about that investigation later, and I'm certainly not prepared to confirm any details or answer those questions at this moment in time.

QUESTION: Kerry Connolly (ph), Wall Street Journal. Is this -- is home-grown an accurate description of what you've uncovered so far?

STEPHENSON: I think the accurate description -- this was mass -- intended to be mass murder. I'm not prepared to confirm, at this moment in time, where these -- where the people -- what we believe are the terrorists, where they've come from, but it's a very, very serious plot.


STEPHENSON: No. I think that's something to be considered in its widest sense. But what people can be reassured that the action being taken, which is causing severe disruption, is absolutely necessary to ensure that we perform our prime function, with our colleagues in other agencies, and that's simply to do everything we can to minimize harm. And people can be reassured we'll continue to do that, whatever it takes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) started to gather what you needed to carry out this operation, which was much more advanced (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: This is an operation that's been going on for some considerable time, and we moved in because we thought it was the right thing to do, in terms of reducing and minimizing harm to the public.

STAFF: I'll take one last one question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can you tell us how many planes were of particular target (OFF-MIKE).

STEPHENSON: No, that's something that the operation will continue to investigate, and Peter Clarke will give further information later this morning. He'll give whatever he can.

What I would want to say -- and you would expect to say this -- that this is not about communities. This is about criminals. This is about murderers, people who want to commit mass murder. This is not about anything to do with any particular community. This is about people who might masquerade within the community behind certain threats, that this is about people who are desperate, desperate people who want to do things that no right-minded citizen of this country or any other country would want to tolerate.

Thank you very much.


HARRIS: And again, you've been listening to Paul Stephenson. That's the deputy commissioner for the Metropolitan Police. And what might be the quote of today in describing this disrupted plot, he said it was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

So what does all of this mean here in the United States? Well, the threat level for flights from Britain to the United States raised to red or severe, the nation's highest security level. Hand lotions, soft drinks, hair gels, all liquids banned on flights. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff suggesting security officials are not sure the plot has been completely thwarted.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is live at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. Actually, she's on the phone with us.

Jeanne, good morning. And if you would, Jeanne, just sort of take your time, walk us through this. First of all, let us know when you first began to get word of this plot now disrupted, as described by the Metropolitan Police?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I first got a phone call this morning at about 2:30 Eastern time advising me that information would be coming out shortly about this threat. What we've heard so far is, as you mentioned, a statement from the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff.

For the first time ever, they are raising part of the threat level to Severe, or Red; that is the highest level. This, however, only covers commercial flights originating in the United Kingdom that are bound for the United States. But, in addition to that, just in case they have not entirely eliminated or thwarted this plot, they are raising the threat level to Orange in the rest of commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States.

As you mentioned, they are specifically prohibiting any liquids, including beverages, hair gels, and lotions, from being carried on the airplane. This, of course, will be extraordinarily disruptive to air travel in the United States. There's no indication at this point how long these prohibitions will be in effect.

A couple of things we can draw from this, one, they must be interested in a liquid explosive, since these are the things that they are specifically prohibiting from airplanes. Secondly, because the British have talked about banning carry-on luggage, they did expect things to be brought in, apparently one can conclude, in carry-on luggage.

As you know, there has been a lot of money and a lot of effort spent on aviation security since the 9/11 attacks. There has been significant debate about whether that was the right place to spend the money or whether terrorists would be interested in moving onto other sectors. The disruption of this plot would indicate that aviation is, indeed, something that is still very much on the terrorists' mind -- Tony?

HARRIS: OK, Jeanne, let me ask you to sort of differentiate for the folks watching the morning what an Orange level means, what a Red level means, in terms of what you will face when you head to the airport this morning.

MESERVE: Well, of course, you're only going to face the Red situation if you're in the United Kingdom and you are flying to the United States. The rest of air travelers will not be affected by that.

We have been at threat level Orange before. You can go back and tap your personal experience and remember what it was like when we did that. They are much more thorough about going through all of your carry-on. They are much more thorough about checking your I.D. Now we know they will be pulling certain things out of your carry-on luggage, and you can bet that there are going to be some people who will not be happy about that and may be further slowing the process by talking to the Transportation Security Administration about exactly what they're doing.

But it is quite amazing to hear that any sector is going to threat level red. This has been always characterized at the level we would go to if an attack was essentially in progress. And so this is quite eye-opening and an indication of just how seriously they're taking that this morning.

HARRIS: Jeanne, can you give us a sense -- we ask you this question all the time -- about the level of coordination that might have gone into this operation between United States authorities and the British authorities?

MESERVE: Well, we just don't know at this point in time any specifics about that whatsoever, but we do know, of course, that the British are amongst our best allies, and that includes in the war on terror.

And one can anticipate that there was ample communication between the two and, undoubtedly at this point, U.S. officials are sifting through all the intelligence that they've gathered in recent times, perhaps looking back at previous plots and trying to put together any pieces that might be relevant on this side of the Atlantic. At this point in time, we know of no arrests having taken place in the U.S.

HARRIS: And, Jeanne, finally, 8:00 we're going to hear from the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, a man you know well. What are some of the questions or what will you be listening for in that press conference, in terms of additional details?

MESERVE: Well, of course, it won't just be Michael Chertoff. There's going to be an array of top law enforcement officials there, including the attorney general, the FBI director. I think some of the questions will be about these individuals who have been arrested in Britain. Who are they? What are their affiliations? Is this homegrown? Does this appear to have been something directed from Al Qaeda central?

Also, we'll want to know more of the specifics about what's happening here in the United States, any investigative steps that have been taken, in addition to these security measures that have been announced -- Tony?

HARRIS: CNN's homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve. Jeanne, thank you.

At 8:00 Eastern, just to remind you once again, Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and, as Jeanne just mentioned, FBI Director Robert Mueller will hold a news conference. We will, of course, bring that to you live. O'BRIEN: If you're just joining us this morning, we've come on a little bit early for AMERICAN MORNING, because we have breaking news. The news begins out of Great Britain, where we have heard British officials say that they have, indeed, disrupted a plot to "commit mass murder," as they put it, "on an unimaginable scale."

Heathrow Airport essentially thrown into what's being called organized chaos, as people are being processed very slowly, checked and double-checked again. Handheld luggage is being put into now plastic bags. No one is allowed to bring any kind of hand carry-on luggage on airplanes.

Not a lot of information and details coming about the nature of the plot that's been thwarted, but what we know is that 21 people have been arrested, being held in this alleged plot, apparently after months and months of surveillance and investigations.

Here in the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the U.S. is raising the threat level for flights from Great Britain to the United States to the highest level, to the level red. That has not been done before. This is the first time that we have a red level alert in homeland security that has been invoked.

They are raising -- that is for flights that are coming from Great Britain to the United States. They are raising to orange all commercial aviation that is destined for or already in the United States. The focus, apparently, on hand luggage. They are prohibiting liquids, beverages, hair gels, lotions to being carried on the plane here in the United States. That gives us some of the details about potentially the nature of the plot that was thwarted.

And, again, as I said, hand luggage not allowed to be carried on. Only essential items in Heathrow now being put into plastic bags.

Let's get more from an analyst who's joining us. Roy Ramm is a former commander of special operations at Scotland Yard, and he joins us by phone.

Roy, thanks for talking with us.


O'BRIEN: I've laid out some of the details as we know them this morning. What do you first make of the information that we're getting about this plot that seems to have originated in the United Kingdom but, of course, looks as if the United States is heavily involved, as well?

RAMM: Yes, it does. The United States carriers, airlines, for possibly as targets. I think that what we're seeing is evidence probably of the so-called homegrown kind of terrorism that we've, unfortunately, experienced here in the U.K. already. The deputy commissioner was very careful this morning to say that the Metropolitan Police have engaged with community leaders. That really indicates that this is the kind of domestic terrorism. His comment about mass murder on an unimaginable scale, we are waiting to hear more of that, but there are already rumors around that up to nine aircraft had been targeted. The level of arrests is interesting. It's 21 people in custody. Each of those people, I have no doubt, would have been the subject of a very detailed, protracted surveillance and intelligence-gathering operation over many months.

And the deputy commissioner made it clear again this morning that, he said, "Something happened," and that indicates to me that the investigating officers had reached a point where they were no longer comfortable that they could conduct this investigation without risking the travelling public. So they had to move quickly to bring all the suspects into custody.

O'BRIEN: That's an interesting point, because I noticed that, as well. They talked about how this was an investigation that was going on for months and months, and yet there is a sense of quick movement, and certainly the public taken completely unawares.

Let me ask you a couple of questions. You mentioned about home- grown terror: are there any indications to you that this could involve al Qaeda? For example, we hear a number of references in that statement by the Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner, Paul Stephenson, that frankly talk about the community, and that people who masquerade behind a religion and that they had discussions with community leaders. To me, that would indicate that they are concerned about some kind of reaction in the Muslim community -- those are the same sorts of words we've heard before, when things like arrests and interrogations happen. Do you think that it's possible that it's al Qaeda, or do you think that that, in fact, signals that it's not al Qaeda?

RAMM: I think it probably signals that it's not directly al Qaeda. I think it says that it is this home-grown kind of terror. But I think the danger of labeling it in that way does something -- does a disservice, if you like, to our knowledge about al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is not just an organization; it's almost a philosophy, as it were. And that's not to say that the people who become involved in home-grown terrorism are not inspired -- perhaps supported, but certainly are following the lead, if you like, given by al Qaeda.

O'BRIEN: The focus on hand luggage -- we know now that people at Heathrow are being forced to put their carry-ons in plastic bags, wallets, things like that. If you're going to bring a liquid through, they're being told, expect to taste it, and most things will actually have to -- beverages will have to be tossed. You're not going to be allowed to bring those through.

Some of those same restrictions, now, we're seeing here in the U.S. in the statement that's come from the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff. Not only are people being told they need to show up to their flights two hours early -- at least -- clearly this is going to be slowing things down -- but they're focused on hair gels, lotions, liquids, beverages -- things like that. What does that signal to you -- some kind of liquid explosive was the focus here? RAMM: Oh, yeah, very much so. Yeah, very much so. And other things that were not being allowed on were -- you know, you could take your keys on, but not an electronic key fob. So I think that it's intriguing to speculate exactly what the investigating officers know, but I that what you can say is probably that there is some kind of liquid explosive that's been suspected, and maybe that there is some kind of electronic detonation device that could be activated by a key fob -- those kinds of things.

As far as travelers at Heathrow are concerned, the only fluids that I think are being allowed on the aircraft is going to be baby milk. And parents with young babies are being expected to taste that milk in front of airport security staff. And there is then another layer of airport security actually at the gate. So they've pretty well doubled the levels of security, as far as travel to the U.S. in particular is concerned.

O'BRIEN: Roy Ramm is a former commander of Specialist Operations at New Scotland Yard. We appreciate you talking with us this morning, joining us by phone. Thank you.

RAMM: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Tony?

HARRIS: And let's talk for just a moment more about the elevated threat level in this country. And let's show everyone the graphic again. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has raised the U.S. Threat Level for domestic aviation to Orange, or High. The threat level has been raised to Red, or Severe, for UK flights to the United States -- the first time a level has been raised to Red in any area.

So these increased security orders -- the truth of the matter is, they may not be lifted any time soon. In Europe, they are throwing airports and passengers into near chaos. The same may be seen here, soon. Just what is this going to mean to travelers and airlines? CNN's Richard Quest joins us live, now, from Los Angeles.

Richard, good morning to you. And let's take the UK perspective first, for a moment: have you seen anything like this?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN, LOS ANGELES: In fifteen years of covering aviation, airlines and the whole travel business, no, Tony, I have never seen anything like it. And there's no question that this is the most dramatic development, certainly on the European side. You remember after 9/11, one of the very first acts that the government did in the U.S. was to close the aviation airspace for several days. And the reason for that, of course, was they didn't know what was coming next. They didn't know if there were more planes, whether there would be more attacks.

And that is very similar to what the British authorities are doing with this quite draconian rule about hand luggage. They don't really know the level, the threat, the risk that they appear to have discovered by this alleged plot. So in those circumstances, what they have done of course is basically take an absolute approach.

Now, the problem with that, Tony, the difficulty is, aviation is a classic spider's web. It's interconnected, it's all related. It's held together in some grand design. If you start unplugging it and pulling away at those strands, it unravels very quickly. And that's what's happening this morning. You're seeing, of course, more luggage going into the luggage control system, more people in the terminals not going through as fast as they'd been expected. Flights get delayed -- the whole thing just ripples out.

HARRIS: You have said that these measures are being put in to place at this level because authorities just don't know where the safe line is anymore.

QUEST: I think -- I mean -- you can -- reasonable people can disagree on that point, but there can only be one reason that such enormous measures are being taken. Think about what you normally take in your carry-on luggage. Before I came to the studio, I looked at what I had in my bag as I came -- when I came across the Atlantic last week. I had my laptop, I had my noise-canceling headphones. I had a small wash bag. I had all this -- if I was a lawyer, I would have had files and folders, if I was a banker, I could have had documents. All these things are now no longer able to be taken on board. This is major development, albeit on a temporary basis. And that shows the level at which, of course, the seriousness of the vents that have taken place today.

HARRIS: Okay. Richard, you've also described this in terms that are a bit alarming. You've described this as "an aviation collapse."

QUEST: Well, it is, to the extent that the world's largest, most important single airport -- Heathrow -- is basically non-functioning. British Airways, the largest carrier across the Atlantic -- 35 flights a day -- do you know, Tony, there are roughly 25 to 30 flights every single day between London Heathrow and New York Kennedy and Newark. Now, they are important commercial arteries that connect these two countries.

Look, you talk about whether this is true (ph) -- Heathrow is the world's most important connecting airport. It carries tens of millions of passengers. So, maybe a little hyperbole on my part earlier in the day about collapse, but there's no question: this is a major, significant disruption.

And crucially -- crucially -- it's what happens next; it's how it falls out. Yes, we don't expect these measures will last very long -- they couldn't; it's not practical. But what will the final rules look like in three, four, five-months' time?

HARRIS: CNN's Richard Quest for us, following the aviation industry for, what, 15 years, Richard?

QUEST: Longer than I like to remember.

HARRIS: Yeah -- Richard, we appreciate it. Thank you.


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