At the beginning of January, BA 223 from London to Washington was canceled two days in a row due to “security concerns”. On the third day, it was allowed to fly, but was held on the ground in DC for three hours after arrival before passengers were allowed to disembark. Air France also had flights canceled at the 11th hour – specifically to Los Angeles - probably at the demand of the American government, which had information that would have precluded allowing the flights to fly over American airspace.
The truth dawned slowly but surely. The Americans have single-mindedly implemented such rigid safety procedures on their own commercial aircraft that they are now all but impenetrable by terrorists. Britain and France lagged behind both in implementation and singleness of purpose.
In the background, a battle of wills was taking place. British pilots were dismissive of American demands for the deployment on their aircraft of sky marshals – sneering, with dreary predictability, the word “cowboys”. The French were one ahead of the British on this one and had, quietly, been putting armed, civilian-clad Gendarmes (a branch of the military, not the police) snipers onboard Air France flights to the US.
After three days, normal flights resumed without incident and the drama left center stage for the remainder of January. But it hadn’t gone away. There was movement behind the scenes. Western intelligence had picked up “chatter” that al-Qaeda had become interested in specific Air France and BA flights. There was also, apparently, information from a single source. BA223 was referred to most often in the chatter, although for almost a month, there were no further cancellations.
Why BA 223 (and BA 222, the return flight to London Heathrow), we do not know.
Last Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. Almost 70,000 spectators in Reliant Stadium and over 5,000 Houston police officers in situ. A national TV event watched live by eighty million viewers in the US, and 100,000 US military overseas. BA also flies to Houston. Yet, but none of the Houston flights were canceled. This would seem to indicate that the Department of Homeland Security knew that the Super Bowl wasn’t going to be a target.
After a period of normality throughout the remainder of January, February 1 saw a sudden flurry of flight cancellations including, for the first time, an American flight.
Continental Airlines flight 17 Glasgow-LA 1 Feb
BA flight 203 London-Miami 1 Feb
BA flight 223 London-Washington 1 Feb & 2 Feb
BA flight 222 Washington-London 1 Feb & 2 Feb
Air France AF026 Paris-Washington 1 Feb & 2 Feb
Air France AF027 Washington-Paris 1 Feb & 2 Feb
Again, no reason was put forth.
Then again, the newest flurry of cancellations were concurrent with the Hadj. Could there have been a connection? Although millions of pious and devout Muslims are completing their pilgrimage in peace, it is not inconceivable that Al-Qaeda could use this massive movement of Muslims returning through the world’s airports to further its own agenda. All those millions of names and passports, many of them almost identical. How are passport and immigration officials to differentiate between two dozen or more Mohammed Ali Hussains on any one flight, for example? Air France was held up to ridicule for holding up a flight to Los Angeles because the name of a wanted terrorist appeared on the manifest. After checking all the passengers, the criminal name apparently belong to a five year old boy. Probably, on a worldwide basis, that name is answered to by hundreds of thousands of boys and maybe millions of men. So far, we have heard of no specific instances of the Hadj being employed as a smokescreen for traveling terrorists, but the height of the cancellations coincides with the beginning of the return home of the pilgrims.
Another danger is that now, a substantial number of Muslims are traveling on British, American or French passports and have a legal right to return to the “home” country which issued them the passport.
According to The Telegraph in London, the cancellations came after the US Department of Homeland Security said there “was specific credible threat information that was shared with some foreign governments, including the British and French Governments, and the decisions were made to cancel these flights.”
The British and French Middle Eastern intelligence have long been recognized as the most formidable in the world, their expertise stemming from long involvement in the region. It is possible that the “single source” that has been mentioned came as a result of British or French work on the ground in the Middle East and not out of intelligence in Washington.
According to the BBC, defense analyst Paul Beaver fears that Al-Qaeda, having failed to pull off a follow-up to 9/11, is changing its tactics. He said: “Between the first of February and somewhere around the 21st or 23rd of February, there seems to be a period where there is a heightened risk.”
He did not speculate about what this might be, but seems to think Al-Qaeda is mutating. “Al-Qaeda adapts and evolves. What they are after now is American, British and European passport-holders. They are after clean-looking people, business people or holiday travelers who appear to be smartly dressed. In other words, they are trying to put off the intelligence services.”
On Sunday, February 1, Americans screamed and shouted their way through a cliff hanger Super Bowl in perfect safety, thanks to the vigilance of Homeland Security as well a network of related agencies both here and abroad. Houston parties on. It could have been otherwise. And Al-Qaeda is still out there, studying flights and reckoning the chances with opportunistic, glittering, calculating eyes.