By Michael Holden and David Clarke
LONDON- British police arrested 21 people and ordered tough security measures on Thursday that brought chaos to airports, saying they had foiled a plot to blow up several aircraft flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
The United States said it suspected al Qaeda involvement and President George W. Bush said it was a “stark reminder” that his country was “at war with Islamic fascists”.
The suspected plot raised the spectre of a strike to rival the scope of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and came 13 months after four British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 commuters on London’s transport system.
“We are confident we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction,” said London police’s Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson. “Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”
Britain and the United States ramped up security, causing severe delays at airports, although British Interior Minister John Reid said police were confident the main players had been detained in raids overnight.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the plot was in the final stages of planning before execution.
“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,” he said.
Departure halls were jammed with people, waiting as airlines cancelled flights and trying to sort out their bags as hand luggage and liquids were banned from flights and passengers with babies were made to publicly taste their food.
“It’s tough. We have nine pieces of luggage and we are going to have to bring it all to the hotel and back,” said Michael Suncin, who was en route to Sweden and standing in a long queue for hotel reservations at London’s main Heathrow airport.
British security sources said they had been watching the suspects for eight months. They did not rule out an al Qaeda link, but played down direct involvement by the militant group.
British authorities declined to confirm the nationalities of those arrested. Stephenson said the plot had “global dimensions” and that police were cooperating with foreign agencies.
Police sources said some of those held in overnight raids in the capital London, southeast England and Britain’s second city, Birmingham, were British Muslims.
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said the suspected perpetrators appeared to be of Pakistani origin.
Chertoff said U.S. carriers were targeted. A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said Continental Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines flights were the focus.
The United States raised the threat level for British-U.S. passenger flights to “red”, its highest level, for the first time. U.S. authorities banned liquids, including drinks, hair gels and lotions, from commercial flights.
Britain’s security services upped the threat level in the country to “critical” from “severe”, the highest of its five ratings, which means “an attack is expected imminently”.
Shares in European airlines fell. British Airways dropped more than 5 percent. The pound fell against the dollar and the euro. Oil fell to below $76 a barrel on fears the security threat might slow growth worldwide and cut oil demand.
Britain has been criticised by Islamist militants for its military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has also come under fire for following the U.S. lead and refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas.
Blair’s office said the prime minister, who is on holiday in the Caribbean, had briefed U.S. President George W. Bush.
Peter Neumann, director of the Centre for Defence Studies at London’s King’s College university, said the plan seemed similar to a 1995 plan to blow up 11 planes using nitroglycerine mixed in contact lens solution and a battery powered detonator.
Last month, al Qaeda called on Muslims to fight those who backed Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and warned of attacks unless U.S. and British forces pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda hijacked passenger aircraft in September 2001 to destroy the World Trade Center in New York. Briton Richard Reid was arrested in December 2001 for trying to blow up a plane headed to the United States using a bomb in his shoe.
The British Airports Authority asked all European carriers to suspend flights to Heathrow. British Airways cancelled short-haul flights to and from the airport, which processes 180,000 passengers a day in the peak summer period. — Reuter