Police thwart plot to commit ‘mass murder’

The security services have thwarted a plot to blow up several planes mid-air in what one official said was an attempt to commit “mass murder on an unimaginable scale”.

The UK threat level has been raised to critical as a result, and security at all the country’s airports has been tightened, including a ban on passengers carrying hand luggage.

Home secretary John Reid said the alleged plot was “a very significant one indeed”, and warned the loss of innocent life “would have been on an unprecedented scale” had it succeeded.

Twenty-four people, aged between 17 and 35, have been arrested including the “main players” of the operation. Police originally said they were holding 21 people, but the number rose to 24 after all those arrested were “processed into custody”.

Scotland Yard deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson said he was “satisfied” that those responsible were now behind bars.

However, Mr Reid insisted the security services were not complacent, which was why the UK terror threat had been raised to critical, its highest level, as a “necessary precautionary measure”.

Scotland Yard said it decided to take action on the months-long investigation into the alleged plot last night, after their inquiries reached a “critical point”. The home secretary said he backed the decision to make the arrests.

The 24 people held in custody were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of the preparation and instigation of terrorism.

Police said the plotters’ aim was to detonate explosive devices smuggled onboard in hand luggage. The devices were constructed in the UK, but they were designed to explode on flights heading to the US.

The head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terror branch, Peter Clarke, said the investigation had involved “unprecedented surveillance” of a large group of people. The number of planes, their destinations and the timing of the attacks remained “a subject of investigation”.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr Stephenson, Scotland Yard’s deputy commissioner, said: “We think this was an extraordinarily serious plot and we are confident that we have prevented mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

Asked about the people behind the plot, he insisted: “This is not about communities, this is about criminals. This is about mass murder.”

He said the perpetrators were “desperate, desperate people that want to do things that no right-minded person would do”, and who hide behind communities and “certain faiths”.

The security measures implemented at airports limit people to carrying only a wallet and travel documents on the plane, and have resulted in severe delays. On flights to the US, passengers are also prohibited from carrying liquids.