COMMENTARY
 
The Hype about British ‘Terror Plot’
Weekly Pulse
August 18-24, 2006
On the 10th of August, the British Police unearthed a “terror plot,” which presumably could have been more devastating than the 9/11. However, the official British hype that was created through the media about the alleged terror plot somehow failed to match the reality on the ground at Heathrow Airport.

That day, in the evening, I had to catch a British Airways flight from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 to Islamabad. After spending some six weeks in the United States for a Fulbright summer study, I had arrived in London from Washington on the 7th to break the long journey and spend a couple of days with the family. And I was really looking forward to return home on the 10th.

The early morning breaking news on all the British news channels was, therefore, quite upsetting for me. From the minute-by-minute spot reporting on TV, it appeared as if hell had broken loose at Heathrow. The sight of hundreds of stranded passengers queuing up outside the four terminals of Heathrow for their turn to check in was enough to convince me that I won’t be able to fly that evening.

Much more worrying for me was the possibility that I might not be able to fly back home at all in the following few days, as media analysts, including British Police and Scotland Yard officials and “terror experts” were busy projecting the foiled event as potentially “more devastating” than 9/11. As they propagated, Britain’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports had never seen such a heightened security situation like this before.

Frantic Calls

So, that entire day, passengers like me were left with nothing but make frantic phone calls to Heathrow emergency enquiry on the toll free number displayed simultaneously with the breaking news on TV screens. For much of the day, I remained glued to TV screen for update on flight schedule changes, besides dialing the number. Each time I was told the flight was not cancelled, but also asked to dial again for any last minute flight cancellation.

The British Airways plane to Islamabad was to fly at quarter past 6 pm. However, by afternoon, my anxiety level had reached a climax when I finally decided to try my luck four hours before the flight departure. Should I take tube to Heathrow’s Terminal 3, and then take a bus to Terminal 4? Or, should I travel to Terminal 4 in a car? I was really undecided. But then we took a chance on the second option. We reached the Arrivals of Terminal 4 without any traffic jam on the way. Inside the Arrivals, there was no panic at all.

During normal times, close to a couple of hundreds of thousand passengers fly in or out of Heathrow. We took the lift to the Departures. Again just like normal days, people were lining up for the check in. The reality at the airport appeared to be a stark opposite to the image of standard passengers being propagated to the outside world by the British media. The only difference was that passengers checking in for their respective flights were being handed over see-through plastic bags and a piece of paper listing the following items to be carried inside the plane through the security check points:

Passengers Advisory

“Travel documents essential for the journey (e.g. passports, tickets and visas); pocket sized wallets and pocket sized purses plus contents (e.g. money, credit cards and identity cards), handbags not permitted; prescribed medicines essential for the duration of the flight, except in liquid form unless verified as authentic; spectacles and sunglasses, without cases; contact lenses, without bottles of solution; for those traveling with an infant, baby food, milk and sanitary items essential for the flight; keys, but no electrical fobs.”

The passengers were additionally advised that “no electrical or battery powered items including laptops, mobile phones, ipods, remote controls etc can be carried in the cabin.” This was the official advisory. The staff at the check in counter was also asking mothers to feed the bottled milk to infants before boarding the flight.

The alleged terrorists, as we were told by British officials investigating the alleged terror pot, would have targeted some 10 United, American and Continental Airline flights from Britain to major U.S. destinations, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington. They sought to use common electronic devices to detonate liquid explosives to bring down as many as 10 planes. The bombs were to be assembled on the aircraft, apparently with peroxide-based solution and everyday carry-on items such as a disposable camera or a music player.

Since both terrorism and counter-terrorism involve secrecy, it is only the alleged terrorists or those investigating them can tell us whether the alleged terror plot was potentially more catastrophic than 9/11. However, what I saw myself, or could assess from what people were whispering at Terminal 4 that day, the event was surely being overplayed, at least by the British officials and media persons on TV screens.

It is, however, a fact that within five days following the thwarting of the alleged terror plot, the operator of Britain's main airports came under mounting criticism, including threats of legal action, over its handling of heightened security restrictions

British Airways is reportedly “seriously considering” seeking compensation from the British Airports Authority (BAA) for lost earnings. By Monday, the airline had lost almost $100 million in earnings due to flight disruptions. The news followed criticism of BAA, which runs London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, from several airlines for delays in lifting security restrictions, despite an easing of Britain's terror alert.

New Guidelines

The day the alleged terror plot was unearthed and the terror threat level in the country was raised to “critical,” British authorities arrested 24 suspects, one of whom was released a day later. In panic, the BAA had ordered airlines to cancel hundreds of flights as security and baggage personnel could not process all passengers with the heightened restrictions banning carry-on luggage.

Under new guidelines, the British government has lowered the threat level back to “severe.” Passengers are now allowed take aboard one small bag or case that held books, magazines, a laptop, mobile phones and other electrical devices, but were still denied non-essential liquids and gels.

In addition to several arrests on Britain, all of whom were said to be Muslim, including two recently white Englishmen Muslim converts, Pakistan also claimed to have arrested five of its nationals and two Britons for the alleged role in the “terror plot.”

As investigations into the alleged plot proceed further, with their outcome mostly being kept in secret, it may be months when we will be able to know whether it was really as gigantic a terror plot as was portrayed by British officials and media’s “terror experts.” One thing, however, is worth repeating here: For me personally, the official British image of the plot’s expose through news media did not match the reality of the security situation at Heathrow that fateful day.