FEARS that Islamist terrorists plan to hijack an Indian passenger jet and crash it into a British city helped to prompt this weekend’s heightened terror alert.
MI5 was told by the Indian authorities early last week about a suspected plot by militants linked to Al-Qaeda in Pakistan to hijack an Air India or Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai or Delhi.
The warning, which came after the capture of a suspected Islamic leader, was contained in a detailed “threat assessment” sent to MI5 by the Indian Intelligence Bureau. It did not state that Britain was a specific target. But police security sources said it had raised fears in London that a British city might be attacked.
The warning revived long-running concerns following an Al-Qaeda plot in 2003 in which a hijacked aircraft was to be flown into Heathrow airport. That incident led Tony Blair, then prime minister, to make the largely symbolic move of dispatching armoured vehicles to guard the airport perimeter.
The Indian government has increased passenger screening and frisking at all main airports. It is deploying additional armed sky marshals to deal with the threat.
Alan Johnson, the home secretary, revealed on Friday that the threat level to Britain was being raised from “substantial” to “severe”. That is the second-highest level and means that an attack is “highly likely”.
The official terror threat was at the severe level for four years after the July 7 bombings in London in 2005. It was downgraded last July.
The latest move comes exactly four weeks after the Christmas Day attempted suicide attack on an airliner over Detroit. The FBI has charged a former British student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underpants bomber, with the failed attack.
The authorities yesterday maintained their stance of being deliberately vague about the precise reasons why the threat level had been raised.
A senior Whitehall official said only that the Detroit attack proved that Al-Qaeda had both the “capability and the intent” to attack western aircraft.
He said that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), a unit at MI5’s Westminster headquarters, had based its assessment on a broad range of factors including “an accumulation” of new material.
However, while insisting that there was no specific intelligence suggesting an attack, senior counter-terrorism officials said privately that the Indian warning was “a factor” in the move.
Officials also say that the CIA warned two weeks ago about a possible plot by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the Detroit attack, to attack a second aircraft using terrorists trained at its camps in Yemen.
The threat to hijack an Indian aircraft was uncovered during the interrogation of Amjad Khwaja, a member of a militant Islamist group involved in numerous attacks against India.
He was arrested in the southern city of Chennai earlier this month. He is said to be a leader of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a militant group involved in terrorist attacks in India.
On a visit to India last week, the US defence secretary Robert Gates warned that a syndicate of terror groups was hoping to foment a new war between India and Pakistan.
British officials also point to recent comments made by Gordon Brown, in a statement about aviation security. Following a meeting on Monday with spy chiefs and just after the Indian warning was received, he told MPs: “We know that a number of terrorist cells are actively trying to attack Britain and other countries.”
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