• British security forces on alert for al-Qaeda attacks
• Alarm comes after terror group member is interrogated
• US also increases vigilance
This is not the usual chatter. This is multiple sources that involve extraordinary detail. Everyone that has reviewed the sources has concluded this was as reliable a group of sources as we have ever seen before." - Tom Ridge, US homeland security secretary
Story in full BRITAIN’S security forces were yesterday put on "heightened readiness" for a potential terrorist attack, after detailed al-Qaeda plans to attack UK targets were uncovered.
The plans, discovered by Pakistani and CIA intelligence officers interrogating an al-Qaeda member in Pakistan, were considered credible enough for the US authorities to step up their threat warnings and reinforce security around banks and financial institutions in New York and Washington.
In a sign of the gravity of the threat, US officials took the unusual step of revealing the names of the companies and organisations that could be targeted.
Among them was Citigroup, a US investment bank with offices in Edinburgh and London. A company spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that the bank’s British staff had been "made aware" of increased security precautions following the threat.
Another bank listed as a potential target, Prudential Financial, also has subsidiaries based in London.
The warning yesterday was the culmination of what intelligence experts say are growing signs of another major al-Qaeda strike, perhaps on the scale of the 11 September attacks.
Magnus Ranstorp, the director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University, compared the level of anxiety in the intelligence community to that in summer 2001.
"The agencies are working over-time," said Dr Ranstorp, adding that the Americans’ decision to name specific targets "indicates they are really very nervous".
Publicly, British spokesmen stuck to their policy of not commenting on security matters. But a Home Office official confirmed that "we are in a state of heightened readiness".
David Davies, the Conservatives’ shadow Home Secretary, criticised the government for not matching the US administration’s very visible show of concern.
"We find it very worrying that the Americans seem to be at a much more advanced stage than us in contingency planning and police presence," Mr Davies said.
"Tony Blair needs to spell out the exact threat to the UK, so that we are in a clear position as to where we stand."
In Washington, George Bush, the President, announced he was creating a new intelligence director’s post, to give one individual responsibility for overseeing US intelligence agencies and preparing a daily threat assessment.
The post was one of the key recommendations of the committee that investigated the 9/11 attacks. It found that a lack of co-ordination between the various agencies had contributed to security failures.
"We are a nation in danger," Mr Bush said. "We’re doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger."
As well as Citigroup and Prudential Financial, the US named the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington as potential "iconic" targets, as well as the New York Stock Exchange, perhaps the ultimate symbol of western capitalism.
At the exchange yesterday, additional security and police officers could be seen around the building, including officers with assault rifles and protective vests.
Although the US alert began on Sunday night, the cause of the concern only emerged yesterday.
Pakistani officials revealed that an al-Qaeda suspect arrested last week following a gun-battle in the eastern city of Gujrat had the plans stored on a computer in his home.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is wanted by the US for helping to organise bomb attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed more than 240 people.
CIA officials in Pakistan have been helping to interrogate Ghailani, a Tanzanian citizen.
"We got a few e-mails from Ghailani’s computer about attacks in the US and UK," Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Pakistani information minister, said yesterday, adding that a second suspected terrorist had also been arrested.
Pakistan, a close US ally, has shared intelligence about al-Qaeda, and Tom Ridge, the US homeland security secretary, singled out the country for praise when he announced the American security alert.
Mr Ridge insisted that the intelligence that triggered the operation was more troubling than most reports about suspected al-Qaeda activity.
"This is not the usual chatter," he said. "This is multiple sources that involve extraordinary detail. Everyone that has reviewed the sources has concluded this was as reliable a group of sources as we have ever seen before."
George Pataki, the New York governor, underlined the seriousness of the threat.
"We will continue our heightened level of security at critical infrastructure and other vital sites," he said.