British authorities said Thursday they have foiled a major terrorist plot that involved the use of liquid explosives on several airliners flying from Britain to the United States. So far, 21 people have been arrested in connection with the alleged plot in Britain, and the disruption to commercial air traffic has hit both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
News of the foiled plot in Britain brought a quick response from President Bush during a visit to the Midwest state of Wisconsin.
"The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation," he said.
Authorities in London said the suspected terrorists intended to smuggle liquid explosives aboard as many as 10 U.S. airliners bound from Britain to the United States.
"We believe that the terrorists' aim was to smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale," said London's Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.
U.S. officials quickly put new security measures into effect in the wake of the foiled plot. The terrorism alert level was raised to red, or severe, for flights bound from Britain to the U.S. It is the first time U.S. officials have raised the terror alert status to the highest level.
The terror risk level was elevated to high, or orange, for the rest of U.S. domestic air travel.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the plot was in its final planning stages when British authorities disrupted it.
"It was sophisticated," he said. "It had a lot of members and it was international in scope. This operation is in some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot. But because the investigation is still under way, we cannot yet form a definitive conclusion."
FBI Director Robert Mueller also said the plot had what he called the earmarks of al-Qaida, but U.S. officials are holding off on a final determination of who was behind it.
Word of the terror plot caused major airline disruptions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Many flights heading out of Britain were cancelled and security officials banned liquids, gel and even toothpaste from being taken on board airplanes, resulting in long security delays.
U.S. airports were also affected by the tight security and the ban on liquids.
Most passengers seemed to accept the delays associated with the increased security measures in stride, including one couple passing through Dulles Airport outside Washington.
"If it is for security, I will do it," said the man. "But most of it is just standing in lines."
"No, it does not bother me at all," said the woman. "If it has to be done, it has to be done. It is an inconvenience, but if you want to fly, you follow the rules."
Word of the foiled plot came just one month shy of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, in which jetliners were used as weapons of mass destruction.
Terrorism experts say the foiled plot in Britain is a reminder that terrorists remain fixated on air travel.
Neil Livingstone has written nine books on terrorism, security and foreign policy. He spoke on VOA's Talk to America program.
"If they had succeeded today in knocking ten airliners out of the sky, they essentially probably would have shut down the civil aviation system worldwide with remarkable impact on various economies and on world commerce and so on," he said. "So this was a home run [big strike] in the making if they had been successful in carrying it out."
Professor Yonah Alexander has lectured on terrorism at various universities around the world.
He told Talk to America that the uncovering of the plot makes the case for continued vigilance and the need for reliable intelligence on suspected terrorists.
"There is no end to their evil intentions, and secondly, there is no end to their imagination, so I think this is another example of that," Alexander said.
Officials in both Britain and the United States say the new security measures for air travel will remain in place indefinitely.