The names of the plotters have been released; all are described as British Muslims. The London Times confirms that the plan was uncovered after two Britons were taken into custody in Pakistan last week. (Don’t worry, though; I’m sure the Pakistani authorities just asked them if they would pretty-please reveal whatever they knew about terrorist schemes.) The Times reports:
Reports from Pakistani intelligence, suggesting the direct involvement of senior Kashmiri militants linked to al-Qaeda, convinced British intelligence that the plot had to be taken seriously. Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch was brought in to the operation last December.
It is unclear from the reports so far how much the authorities knew, or whether any of these individuals had been identified, prior to the last few days. It is being reported that the terrorists were planning their attack for August 16 (not August 22 as some have speculated), so it is fair to assume that they were identified in the nick of time.
The Sun has details of the terrorists’ plans:
It was believed the gang intended to use a liquid, peroxide-based explosive which could be mixed mid-flight to bring down the aircraft in three waves of three.
The deadly fluid components would have been hidden inside drink bottles and even baby milk.
The method would have foiled airport security before the flights — and been impossible to detect after the blasts, triggered by electrical signals from devices such as a cheap disposable camera flash, an iPod, or a mobile phone.
The terror cells had planned to insert false bottoms in sports drinks bottles like Lucozade and fill them with liquid explosive.
That meant they could leave the bottle top sealed and filled with the original drink so they could sip it safely if asked by security.
According to news reports, the targeted airlines were all American.
Blog of the Week Vital Perspective thinks the foiling of this attempt, combined with events in the Middle East, signals a shift in the balance of power among terrorist groups:
While there obviously remains a threat from those not only sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but actually participating in planning with those in the al-Qaeda leadership, their ability to launch successful attacks outside of the Middle East is severely degraded.
The vanguard of Islamic terrorism appears to have passed from Sunni/Wahhabi focused al-Qaeda to Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. It is Iran that is shaping Western policies on the Middle East, and Hezbollah who is directly engaged with Israel. In contrast, al-Qaeda appears unable to do significantly more than issue videos. This shift will obviously refocus Western — and particularly U.S. — foreign policy from the old threat to the new threat.
Perhaps. Hezbollah is certainly important, mostly due to its links with Iran. But the British plot very nearly succeeded, apparently, and if it had, no one would be talking about al Qaeda, or its methods, being passe.
One more thing: Some British Muslims are questioning the timing of the arrests, suggesting that the timing was “convenient” as a distraction from events in the Middle East. This strikes me as a good illustration of the concept of “obsession.” On the whole, it seems most likely that the timing of the arrests was dictated by the need to stop the terrorists before they boarded the airplanes.
UPDATE: This account in Time (via Pajamas Media) suggests that these individuals had been under investigation for some time, but the plot only started to “go operational” in the past few days. This may signify a different approach to terror cells in the U.K. compared to the U.S., where authorities generally break up cells before their plans have even begun to mature, thereby, as in the Miami case, risking the criticism that they are picking on harmless “goofballs.”
The Time account also includes this:
[A] knowledgeable American official says U.S. intelligence provided London authorities with intercepts of the group’s communications.
We were able to do this because of the NSA’s international terrorist surveillance program. If the Democrats succeed in killing that program insofar as it involves communications with one end inside the United States, on the ground that the program constitutes an invasion of privacy, the NSA will be able to break up terrorist plots overseas, but not ones that involve people (citizens or otherwise) inside the United States, and most directly threaten Americans.