White House fears al Qaeda offshoot may be planning bomb plot on airliner flying to US
America considers asking European allies for extra security measures at airports to counter terror threat
By Raf Sanchez, in Washington and David Millward
7:31PM BST 30 Jun 2014
The United States fears that two of al-Qaeda's most deadly international offshoots are plotting to bring down a commercial airliner with the help of European jihadists returning from Syria.
The White House is debating asking its allies to step up airport security in response to the new threat from the terror group's Syrian and Yemeni branches, meaning British travellers could face intensified screenings.
The American plan, reported by ABC News, could call for an influx of armed US air marshals on British flights or an increase in searches of passengers headed to the US.
British passengers may also forced to arrive early to go through extra checks once they have cleared the airport's main security. Previous terror threats have meant longer queues for travellers at major airports.
President Barack Obama sounded the alarm on Sunday over the threat posed to the US by Europeans becoming radicalised in Syria and using their citizenship to travel more freely than Arab or Pakistani jihadists.
"They've got European passports. They don't need a visa to get into the United States," he said.
US intelligence is focused on the potential partnership between the al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP), its Yemeni counterpart.
While al-Nusrah has access to thousands of Westerners travelling to Syria to join the jihad, AQAP is known as al-Qaeda's most sophisticated bomb makers.
It was AQAP that successfully slipped an underwear bomb onto a US-bound flight from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009. While the device failed to go off, it rattled US intelligence and prompted a major security review.
US intelligence believes that a European jihadist may be paired with an advanced AQAP-made bomb and ordered to attack a passenger flight.
The White House summoned senior counterterror officials to a meeting within the last week to discuss the issue, according to ABC News, and is now weighing whether to ask its allies to step up airport security.
The decision on overall UK airport security will be taken by the Department for Transport (DfT), but the US can demand additional screening on flights heading for America.
"It could be a mild response such as tightening checks on baggage and cargo, which the public would not notice," said Jeff Price of Leading Edge Securities.
"Or it could be a higher level response which will see more dogs in check-in areas and more secondary screening. America is experiencing new challenges because of its citizens going to Syria and other countries and this is making things more difficult." US demands for a more aggressive approach to protecting civilian airliners has often effected British travellers in the years since the September 11 attacks.
On the one year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, US air marshals flooded inbound flights from the UK and Europe, with thousands of British passengers unaware they were sharing with a plane with armed American agents.
It was reported that every single US-bound flight from Gatwick had at least one air marshal aboard during the heightened alert in the spring of 2012.
British airports also suffered increased queues as a result of heightened US security following the attempted 2009 "underpants bombing", when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born terrorist, tried to detonate a bomb on a flight to Detroit.
In February of this year, the US released a rare officials warning that terrorists could be plotting to attack aircraft headed for the Sochi Winter Olympics using explosives hidden inside toothpaste tubes.
The current is believed to be general rather than specific and US intelligence is not aware of a singled-out target or a timeline for when the jihadists hope to strike.
The US Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for airport security, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "We keep aviation security under constant review."
The Islamic State, the jihadist group formerly known as Isis, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq, is not believed to be involved in the latest plot. al-Qaeda's leadership disowned it earlier this year and blamed it for infighting among terror groups in Syria.