Wednesday morning, Aug. 16, the British home secretary John Reid assembled in London a small group of European officials: the French, German and Finnish interior ministers, Nicolas Sarkozy, Wolfgang Schaeuble, and Kari Rajamamki, respectively, and the vice president of the European Union commission, Franco Frattini.
They agreed to cooperate in measures to fight terrorism, beginning by blocking Internet sites, fingerprinting or iris-scanning airline passengers and training Muslim imams to fight radicalism.
They also allocated the sum of $235,000 to research the best way to detect liquid-based explosives. This followed last week’s discovery of a British-based Muslim terror plot to explode up to 10 airliners over US cities with explosives smuggled aboard American airliners in a bottle of baby food or face lotion.
Twenty-four suspects were arrested, after which all four British international airports were thrown into total chaos by stringent security measures introduced there and then and a ban on hand luggage.
That was when the British home secretary began his daily television and radio appearances. He appealed to the public to stay calm and obey instructions in the quiet, solemn tones not heard in Britain since the last world war. He also raised the British alert level to critical, followed by the United States.
When he talked to the media after the European conference this week, Reid confessed that “some of the suspects would likely not be charged with major criminal offences. But, he added, there was mounting evidence of a “substantial nature” to back the allegations.
It is therefore not surprising, that later in the day, it took the police and security services 12 hours to persuade a district magistrate to keep the suspects in custody and all they got was another 5 to 7 days to question them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s al Qaeda experts note that numerous groups across the fundamentalist terrorist world aspire to complete what they regard as Ramzi Yusuf‘s unconsummated “heroic attempt” in 1994 to simultaneously blow up 12 Boeing 747 airliners flying from Far East ports to major American cities.
The attempt was foiled and in 1998, a New York district court sentenced Yusuf to 240 years jail without parole.
Ramzi Yusuf, jihadist superstar
In Islamist circles, Ramzi Yusuf has the glamorous aura of a jihadi Che Guevara.
Many are willing to die to complete his mission, coming up with plans most of which are crazy and unpractical.
It is safe to assume that some of the Muslim group members detained on August 10 spoke of or exchanged e-mail messages on how to go about blowing up half a dozen or more American airliners over US cities. But it is a long way from words to placing the airports of Britain and the United states on high terror alert. The alacrity of British security services to take this long leap can be explained by their failure to chalk up any real progress in defeating terrorist activity since the July 7, 2005 Tube bombs. To this day, they still have no leads to the mystery mastermind and explosives provider for those deadly attacks. Almost every counter-operation undertaken since then has fizzled out.
The most embarrassing was the incident in which Mohammed Abdul Kahar, 23, was shot in the shoulder when police raided his East London home on June 2 in search of dangerous substances allegedly designated for use in terrorist attacks. Nothing was found.
This time, on the strength of Pakistani intelligence leads, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror and intelligence sources rate as far from credible, British security services decided to use the opportunity to burnish their reputation. Most of our sources agree that there was no sense in putting the airports of Britain and the US on alert and announcing sweeping arrests, because any hard-core terrorist groups or individuals poised to mount further attacks, as claimed by British officials, would have scurried out of sight without delay.
Our political sources in London remark that the only Briton to come out shining from the airline plot episode, which did little to enhance the security services’ prestige, is the home secretary.
John Reid already enjoys the reputation of being the only effective minister in Tony Blair’s government. The terror crisis broke when Blair was away on a Caribbean holiday, his stand-in John Prescott was keeping his head down after a series of scandals, and finance minister Gordon Brown was on paternity leave. It was left to John Reid to stand in the limelight day after day, a solid, Scottish rock amid the mayhem, the perfect foil for the mercurial Blair whose retirement has long been eagerly awaited.
The much-publicized terror plot was most certainly blown out of proportion, its handling inept enough to be caricatured. But the home secretary was puffed up as a European star, capable of unifying the continent on its most divisive issues such as a balance between respect for civic liberties for all (translated into a Babel of European tongues and values) and security against terrorists.
The public suffered huge inconvenience without an assurance of safety at the end of its misery – four breaches were recorded in as many days. It all contributed very little to the war on terror – British, European or global, but most certainly gave wings to John Reid’s political prospects as government leader.