British officials are furious with the US Administration for “jumping the gun” by declaring that al-Qaeda was behind the airline terror plot, The Times has learnt.
Although the capture yesterday of seven people in Pakistan is being seen as further evidence of an “Afghanistan al-Qaeda connection”, the UK remains deeply wary of crediting the terror network with the plan.
It is understood that Britain asked the US to avoid making any such assertion, but diplomats believe that the request was ignored by Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief. There is suspicion that the speed with which the US linked al-Qaeda to the plot was motivated by political considerations because, before the November mid-term Congressional elections, Republicans are keen to stem voter anger against the Iraq war by focusing on national security.
One senior UK source said that with the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaching, “al-Qaeda is a term which is understood by swing voters”. He added: “We regard this as simplistic.”
On Thursday morning Mr Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary, used a press conference to point the finger of blame directly at al-Qaeda. Initially, he picked his words carefully, saying that the sophistication of the operation was “suggestive of alQaeda”, while acknowledging this was a “sensitive area for the British legal system”.
He later said that the plan was reminiscent of that “hatched by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [the al-Qaeda mastermind behind 9/11] in the 1990s” to blow up aircraft travelling over the Pacific.
American television stations have been broadcasting a tape made by bin Laden this year in which he gave a warning that preparations were under way for another attack “in the heart of your land”.
The remarks in the US were in sharp contrast to statements by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police.
“We don’t deal with hypothesis,” said a Met spokeswoman, “and we don’t discuss matters of intelligence — we never have and never will.”