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Aircraft Remain Terrorist Targets Despite Security

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

British officials say they have disrupted a terror plot aimed at airliners flying from the United Kingdom to the United States.

U.S. officials say they have responded by raising the terror alert for aviation in this country. Officials say the plot was to bring liquid explosives onto multiple airliners leaving Britain. As a result, passengers in the U.S. are being told they cannot bring liquids or gels onto planes here.

NPR's Larry Abramson joins us now to bring us up to date. Good morning, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's focus on the reaction in this country. What has been the response by Homeland Security officials here?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's been pretty serious, Renee. They have raised the threat level to Red for commercial flights originating in the United Kingdom bound for the U.S. That's the first time this country has ever gone to red, the highest level of alert. They've also raised the threat level to orange - that's the next highest level - for all domestic and commercial, for all commercial aviation, basically, operating or destined for the United States.

It was not very easy to make this shift. Transportation Security Administration Chief Kip Hawley described it this way:

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): This operation is, in some respects, suggestive of an al-Qaida plot. But because the investigation is still underway, we cannot yet form a definitive conclusion. We're going to wait until all the facts are in.

ABRAMSON: Apologies, Renee. That was actually the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, and he was talking about the fact that this looks like an al-Qaida plot, that it was so sophisticated that it probably was hatched by Osama bin-Laden's group, but that there's no definitive evidence pointing in that direction. So officials are trying to wait and gather the evidence before they come to that conclusion.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. and other countries have put enormous resources into airport and airline security, yet terrorists continue to target aviation. Is there anything surprising about that?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's surprising to those of us who've been flying and taking off our shoes and going through all of the hassle of putting up with the security measures that have been put in place that anybody would go for airlines. Why not go for buildings or other things that are probably, it would appear, easier to attack?

But if you look at how al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have operated, they attacked the World Trade Center twice, first in 1993 with a bomb in the basement and then in 2001, of course, with the hijacked airliners.

And it's been pointed out numerous times that this particular plot sounds eerily reminiscent of a plot that was hatched in the mid-‘90s known as the Bojinka plot that was put together by an al-Qaida chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef where they were going to carry liquids onto multiple airplanes and explode them over the Pacific.

They appear to have gone through some of the same planning that the plotters have gone through in this particular plot, targeting certain airliners, doing a lot of research on what they could actually get through airline security.

So it seems to be a terror, perhaps an al-Qaida trademark, to try and try again and not to give up on plots that can attract a huge amount of attention. And, of course, aviation crashes have been a signature of terrorist groups because they are terrifying.

MONTAGNE: Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Larry Abramson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.