A plot to kill thousands of people by detonating explosions on up to 10 transatlantic flights from UK airports was disrupted today.
The home secretary, John Reid, today said such an attack could have caused civilian casualties on an “unprecedented scale”.
It is believed the intention was to set off near simultaneous blasts on flights, probably bound for the US, using explosives smuggled into passenger cabins inside hand luggage.
Police were holding 24 people in custody in London following overnight raids by anti-terror officers and MI5. Mr Reid would not comment on claims that the detainees were British-born Muslims of Pakistani descent.
A decision was made to move suddenly following months of surveillance. US counter-terrorism officials told the Associated Press that three major US airlines – United, American Airlines and Continental – had been targeted in the plot.
The aim of the plot was to blow up planes over UK and US cities, Sky News reported. Five US cities are thought to have been among the targets, including New York, Washington and Los Angeles, it added.
The plans could have been carried out in the next two days, a White House spokesman said today. He added that Tony Blair and George Bush had discussed the plot on Sunday and Wednesday.
Reports citing official sources said the apparent idea was to use a liquid-based explosive, and there were suggestions one explosive component was to have been hidden in bottles of fizzy drink.
President Bush said the was a “stark reminder” that the US was “at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom.” He thanked the British government for “busting this plot”.
There is major disruption to flights in the UK, and European airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights into London. Flights at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports have been particularly disrupted. It is believed that up to 400,000 passengers have been affected.