Britain gave President Bush a categorical
warning to expect multiple airline hijackings by the al-Qaeda
network a month before the September 11 attacks which killed nearly
3000 people and triggered the international war against terrorism.
The confirmation of repeated British intelligence warnings about
al-Qaeda hijackings -- first established by the Sunday Herald in
1999 -- comes amid claims that the US intelligence community has now
received further information of an imminent second wave of terrorist
attacks on America.
According to US government officials, the British warning of
al-Qaeda plans to hijack US airliners was contained in a crucial
briefing sent to Bush on August 6, a month before the attacks on the
World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Bush is under severe pressure over accusations that his
administration failed to act on intelligence reports before
September 11 that highlighted the possibility of hijacked planes
being used to attack buildings in the US.
The revelation that British sources passed on information about
possible hijackings now raises the question of how much the UK
security services knew about al-Qaeda plans and what action they
took to prevent them. According to US officials the warning that bin
Laden's followers might hijack planes was based on 1998 intelligence
data drawn from a single British source.
The information from the British source -- most likely to be the
government intelligence service MI6 -- did not specify airliners
would be used as missiles against buildings, but it did form part of
a pattern of alerts emerging from the UK in the months leading up to
According to the US government, the British source said that
al-Qaeda had an interest in hijacking airplanes in order to obtain
hostages who could be used as bargaining chips so the terrorist
organisation could demand the freedom of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a
Muslim cleric convicted in 1995 for his role in the failed plot to
blow up the World Trade Centre.
The relevance of the warning and several other intelligence
briefings, including FBI suspicions that terrorist suspects were
undertaking flight training in the US, can only be seen with the
benefit of hindsight, Bush officials insist.
The British warning is one of a string of alerts that the UK
flagged over bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. In August 1999,
British and American airlines went on red alert after intelligence
warnings that bin Laden supporters were planning a Lockerbie-style
bomb attack in the West.
At the time, US forces were reported to be preparing to snatch
bin Laden from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and put him on trial
for his involvement in two US embassy explosions in Africa which
killed 250 people.
After the September 11 attacks, it emerged the UK was the nerve
centre for al-Qaeda operations in the west. Records of bin Laden's
satellite phone calls indicate he and his most senior lieutenants
made over 260 calls from their base in Afghanistan to 27 numbers in
Britain. They included suspected terrorist agents, sympathisers and
companies. Some were prearranged calls to public pay phones.
The Foreign Office spokesman said last night that it would not
comment on operational intelligence matters.
Yesterday US intelligence officials claimed their security
agencies have intercepted a number of vague yet troubling
communications among al-Qaeda operatives over the past few months
indicating it is planning another series of attacks on America.
Like last summer, when the Bush administration received vague
warnings of a terrorist attack that left the government guessing
that al-Qaeda would strike outside the US, the new interceptions are
so general they have left Bush and his counter-terrorism team in the
dark about the time, place or method of possible second-wave attack.
As a result, the US is limited to taking broad defensive
measures. 'It's again not specific Ñ not specific as to time, not
specific as to place,' one senior administration official told the
New York Times yesterday.
The officials have compared the intercepted messages, which they
described as cryptic and ambiguous, to the pattern of those picked
up last spring and early summer, when al-Qaeda operatives were also
overheard talking about a big operation.
A senior official said that the amount of intelligence relating
to another possible attack, in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula or the
US, had increased in the last month. Some of it comes from
interviews with fighters captured in Afghanistan.