TERRORIST cells linked to al-Qaeda developed sophisticated plans to hijack a passenger jet at Heathrow Airport and fly it into a skyscraper at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, a United States intelligence report has said.
The unclassified document from the US Department of Homeland Security lends more weight to reports that, during 2003, a plot was launched to recreate the 11 September attacks on British soil.
The report also catalogues other alleged attempts to carry out terrorist attacks around the world using aircraft. But despite being prepared by the US government, doubts were raised about the report yesterday by another of the countries listed as potential targets for attack.
According to the Homeland Security document, terror cells may have conspired to fly hijacked planes into buildings in Australia during 2003.
Australia, like Britain, supported the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and has been a staunch ally in the war on terrorism. But Philip Ruddock, the Australian attorney-general, yesterday cast doubt on the US report, suggesting it was based on three-year-old discredited intelligence. One Australian official even said that the assessment that hijackings had being planned has since been withdrawn by the US authorities.
British security sources did not deny that the US report was based on credible intelligence sources, but one official did concede that different countries and agencies may have reached differing conclusions about that intelligence.
The Heathrow plot described in the US document is not related to a high-profile security alert at the airport in 2003, when armoured vehicles and heavily-armed police were deployed around Heathrow.
That operation, which sparked allegations the government was over-playing the terrorist threat for political gain, is believed to have related to intelligence suggesting a possible attack on planes taking off at Heathrow by extremists using a portable surface-to-air missile.
In all, the Homeland Security report claims that nine hijack plots have been uncovered since September 2001, "demonstrating a continued commitment to attack aviation-related targets".
The report also describes an al-Qaeda plot involving a US consulate in Pakistan. The threat of attacks is persistent, the report says.
Meanwhile, the former head of the Homeland Security department suggested that the West's struggle with terrorism could last decades. "The challenge is global and it may take a generation or two or more to reduce," said Tom Ridge.