British authorities said Thursday they had thwarted a terrorist plot to simultaneously blow up several aircraft heading to the U.S. using explosives smuggled in carry-on luggage. Britain's Home Secretary John Reid said 21 people had been arrested in London, its suburbs and in Birmingham, including the alleged "main players" in the plot.
Huge crowds formed at security barriers at London's Heathrow airport as officials searching for explosives barred nearly every form of liquid outside of baby formula.
Officials raised security to its highest level in Britain and banned hand-carried luggage on all trans-Atlantic flights.
The extreme measures at a major international aviation hub sent ripple effects throughout the world. Heathrow airport was closed to most flights from Europe.
The U.S. government responded by raising its threat alert to its highest level for commercial flights from Britain to the United States amid fears the plot had not been completely crushed. The alert for all flights coming or going from the United States was also raised slightly.
In Washington, two U.S. counterterrorism officials said the terrorists had targeted United, American and Continental airlines. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
A U.S. intelligence official said the plotters had hoped to target flights to major airports in New York, Washington and California, all major summer tourist destinations.
Britain's Home Secretary John Reid said 21 people had been arrested in London, its suburbs and in Birmingham following a lengthy investigation, including the alleged "main players" in the plot. Searches continued in a number of locations.
The suspects were "homegrown," though it was not immediately clear if they were all British citizens, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. Police were working closely with the South Asian community, the official said.
The official said the plotters intended to simultaneously target multiple planes bound for the United States.
"We think this was an extraordinarily serious plot and we are confident that we've prevented and attempt to committee mass murder on an unimaginable scale," Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson said.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, vacationing in the Caribbean, briefed President Bush on the situation overnight, Blair's office said. There was no immediate public reaction from the White House. Bush is spending a few days at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
It is the first time the red alert level in the Homeland Security warning system has been invoked, although there have been brief periods in the past when the orange level was applied. Homeland Security defines the red alert as designating a "severe risk of terrorist attacks."
"We believe that these arrests (in London) have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted," said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff added, however, there was no indication of current plots within the U.S. Numerous flights from U.S. cities to Britain were canceled Thursday morning.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said authorities believe dozens of people - possibly as many as 50 - were involved in the plot, which "had a footprint to al-Qaida back to it." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The plan involved airline passengers hiding masked explosives in carry-on luggage, the official said. "They were not yet sitting on an airplane," but were very close to traveling, the official said, calling the plot "the real deal."
Passengers in Britain faced delays as tighter security was hastily enforced at the country's airports and additional measures were put in place for all flights. Laptop computers, mobile phones, iPods, and remote controls were among the items banned from being carried on board.