Townsend called the plot a plan for "a second 9/11." The terrorists allegedly planned to mix a gel-like explosive substance with a sports drink to make an explosive that could be triggered with a cell phone or an MP3 player aboard multiple flights.
British and U.S. authorities have known about the plot for months, with British authorities arresting 24 suspects on August 10. More arrests are expected in the UK.
The FBI had hundreds of agents tracking down leads in the United States, but no arrests have been made.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Aug. 10 announced a change in the alert level. Americans used to seeing yellows and oranges are, for the first time since the alert system was created, seeing red.
"The Department of Homeland Security is taking immediate steps to increase security measures in the aviation sector in coordination with heightened security precautions in the United Kingdom," said Chertoff.
He noted the suspected terrorists were "engaged in a substantial plot to destroy multiple passenger aircraft flying from the United Kingdom to the United States. We believe that these arrests have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted."
Currently, there is no indication, however, of terrorists within the United States being involved in the plot. The nation's threat level was raised to Severe, or Red, for commercial flights originating in the United Kingdom bound for the United States. The threat level for all commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States was raised to High, or Orange,
"Consistent with these higher threat levels, the Transportation Security Administration is coordinating with federal partners, airport authorities and commercial airlines on expanding the intensity of existing security requirements," said Chertoff. "Due to the nature of the threat revealed by this investigation, we are prohibiting any liquids, including beverages, hair gels and lotions from being carried on the airplane. This determination will be constantly evaluated and updated when circumstances warrant."
Increased Aviation Screening Procedures
While travelers might be reassured by added security measures and feel safe to fly, the airline industry and travel groups worry they might not want to fly.
TSA implemented a series of security measures, some visible and some not visible, to ensure the security of the traveling public and the nation's transportation system. Changes to airport screening procedures include:
- No liquids or gels of any kind will be permitted in carry-on baggage, such items must be in checked baggage. This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, toothpaste, hair gel, lipsticks or chapsticks and other items of similar consistency. The exceptions are baby formula and medicines, which must be presented for inspection at the checkpoint.
- Beverages purchased in the boarding area, beyond the checkpoint, must be consumed before boarding because they will not be permitted onboard the aircraft.
Passengers traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States will be subject to a more extensive screening process. They are being asked to check everything but keys, wallets, glasses and other essential items, such as medication. They also are being told to check the laptops, PDAs and Ipods that are the staples of so many travelers these days. Such measures have not been required of travelers in the United States – yet. To do so could be a "nightmare," says Nancy McKinley of the International Airline Passengers Association, who added that often, electronics are not covered by airline policies regarding lost luggage.
TSA suggests passengers pack lightly to facilitate easier screening and cooperate with TSA and airport personnel. Some airports are asking travelers to arrive as much as 3 hours before their flights.