WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Al Qaeda was in the late stages of planning an aerial suicide attack against the U.S. Consulate in Karachi when Pakistani authorities rolled up the cell earlier this week, U.S. sources told Reuters on Friday.
“Recent reliable reporting indicates that al Qaeda was in the late stages of planning an aerial suicide attack against the U.S. Consulate in Karachi,” said a Department of Homeland Security advisory, dated May 1.
“Operatives were planning to pack a small fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter with explosives and crash it into the consulate,” the advisory to pilots and airports to watch for suspicious activity said.
The plot was revealed by one of the six members of an al Qaeda cell captured in a raid in Karachi on Tuesday in which 330 pounds of high explosives were also seized, U.S. sources told Reuters.
At least some of the captured group, which included a suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000 and a nephew of senior al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had been plotting a strike on the consulate, sources said.
Despite those arrests, U.S. authorities remained vigilant because past suspected al Qaeda operations involved multiple simultaneous attacks such as the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked plane strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
The Department of Homeland Security advisory did not mention any specific threat inside the United States. “We issued this advisory in response to general intelligence regarding threats to airlines, not to a specific threat,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.
The advisory was based on information and analysis from the Terrorist Threat Integration Center received during the last 24 hours, it said. The center, which aims to be a hub for terrorism threat information, officially opened on Thursday.
SMALL AIRCRAFT ‘FIXATION’
“This plot and a similar plot last year to fly a small explosive-laden aircraft into a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf demonstrate al Qaeda’s continued fixation with using explosive-laden small aircraft in attacks,” the advisory said.
A small plane loaded with explosives would be equivalent to a medium-sized truck bomb, it said.
The advisory warned that al Qaeda might attempt to use charter or small aircraft for future attacks because of their “availability, less stringent protective measures, and destructive potential.”
“The group has a fair sized pilot cadre and the use of small aircraft requires far less skill and training than some larger aircraft,” the advisory said.
Charter aircraft may be attractive to extremists because security procedures typically are not as rigorous as those for commercial airlines and “terrorists” would not have to control a large number of passengers, it said.
“Reliable information obtained last year indicated al Qaeda might use experienced non-Arab pilots to rent three or four light aircraft under the guise of flying lessons,” it said.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was asking members of the aviation community to report to law enforcement authorities “all unusual and suspicious activities” such as people, aircraft and operations that did not fit the customary pattern at the airport.
SECURITY AND VIGILANCE
The advisory asked that immediate action be taken to secure unattended aircraft to prevent unauthorized use, verify the identification of crew and passengers before departure, verify that baggage and cargo are known to those on board, and ensure that employees wear proper identification and challenge anyone without it.
It also advised increased vigilance toward unknown pilots and clients for aircraft rentals or charters, unknown service and delivery personnel, aircraft with unusual or unauthorized modifications, and people “who appear to be under stress or the control of other persons.”
Separately, U.S. intelligence agencies also have “credible” information from a variety of sources about a possible al Qaeda plot to strike U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia, which led to a recent travel warning, a U.S. official said on Friday.
But the information was not specific about when, other than soon, where or how the attack would be carried out.
The State Department on Thursday renewed a warning for U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Saudi Arabia, saying: “Information indicates that terrorist groups may be in the final phases of planning attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia.”