British 9/11 fears over private planes, Government terror adviser warns
By Christopher Hope, Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 2:18AM BST 24/06/2008
Private jets and light aircraft could be used by terrorists to launch attacks on crowds and buildings in Britain, the Government's anti-terror expert has warned.
There are an estimated 8,500 private aircraft and up to 500 "landing sites" in Britain, ranging from farmers' fields to regional airports.
Senior police officers have "real anxiety" about the possibility of terror missions being launched from small airports amid fears over lax security.
Jets could be hijacked and used as "vehicle bombs" to target the public.
Such attacks would be "relatively simple" to orchestrate, according to Lord Carlile of Berriew in a report on how the UK is dealing with the terror threat.
He said that the thousands of small, rented planes capable of travelling at high speeds between EU countries and the UK should be subjected to far stricter checks.
The warning, contained in a 60-page report, will prompt fears that Britain has been left open to a terrorist attack similar to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC.
It comes as:
• Lord Carlile raised the prospect of taking the IRA off a Government list of banned organisations because it had "dwindled to almost or actually nothing";
• Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, disclosed plans to create a 3,000-strong border police force;
• Lord Carlile said he had raised concerns with internet search engine Google over the availability of terror-related material on the worldwide web;
• The European Court of Human Rights announced it would investigate the Government's plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days;
• The Government announced it is to build a specialist detention centre for terror suspects
There are an estimated 8,500 private aircraft and up to 500 "landing sites" in Britain, which can range from farmers' fields to regional airports.
However, there is no formal vetting from security authorities about who is landing and taking off from Britain's airfields - although once an aircraft is airborne it is monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority.
In addition it is sometimes unclear where a flight has originated from.
A plane flying from outside the European Union could touchdown on a airfield in the EU and then be regarded by British authorities as coming from within the EU. "This is self-evidently unsatisfactory," Lord Carlile said.
Lord Carlile also said he was concerned about the thoroughness of checks that were made on planes and executive jets which fly into and out of British airspace every day.
He said he was concerned because security was lax or non-existent in many of them.
He said senior officers shared a "real anxiety [about] the potential use of light aircraft as vehicle bombs against places of public aggregation."
He said: "I know that some knowledgable police officers and officials have ongoing concerns about the relative simplicity of terrorism conducted in this way, given the very large number of private aircraft and small airfields."
However, he said there had been no intelligence of any plots to launch such attacks.
Local airfield operators had worked out local policing plans "involving special branch and other police officers working together" - but more efforts to counter the threat was needed, he said.
Experts said that other pilots and airfield operators kept watch on each other through a "Neighbourhood Watch" system, with operators alerting local police and the security services if they see anything suspicious.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said it offers advice to its members on how to deal with the terror threat, while airport operators on Northern Ireland are currently filming a video offering advice to aircraft owners.
However, Martin Robinson, the association's chief executive, tried to play down the risk pointing out that light aircraft offered an "easy target for people to make a terror claim". The risk to public safety was "no greater" than driving a jeep full of explosives through the door of a building, he said.
Replying to Lord Carlile's report, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she "noted your flagging of the potential for small aircraft to be used as vehicle bombs and your observation that there is no intelligence to suggest this forms part of terrorist thinking".
She added: "The Department [for Transport] keeps this potential threat under review as part of its wider protective security responsibilities, and is participating in discussions in Europe of the possible security regulation of general aviation at the EU level."
Baroness Neville Jones, shadow security minister, said: "It is vital to have a joined up approach to security threats against the UK - as all the evidence shows that the threat level remains severe.
"However we must also direct resources on the basis of intelligence - so that we maximise the impact of the resources we have in the fight against terrorism."
Lord Carlile's report, a review of the operation in 2007 of the Terrorism Act 2000, also revealed that controversial stop and search powers have been used unlawfully by at least three different police forces.
He disclosed there had been five "episodes" of the anti-terror powers being used without authorisation.
Last December that Sussex police had wrongly deployed the measures at Gatwick airport, where they unlawfully stopped and searched hundreds of people.
The report into similar errors were made by the Greater Manchester and South Wales forces last year.
The police must obtain ministerial authority before they designate an area a stop and search zone under the Terrorism Act 2000.
This must also be renewed regularly to remain legal, otherwise the police could be sued for wrongful detention.
Lord Carlile said 12 people were detained and said he hoped they had been informed of the mistake in writing, so they consider suing the police.
The peer also said that 257 people were arrested under terrorism powers in 2007, of whom 126 were eventually released without charge.
"The realities of this kind of policing increase the possibility of arrests later found to be of innocent members of the public," he said.
"I am satisfied that the level of arrests is proportionate to perceived risk."
Tom Brake, a home affairs spokesman from the Liberal Democrats, said: “We must ensure that the safeguards that apply at our largest airports are not overlooked at our smallest ones where there is a risk that light planes could sliop in below the radar with devasting consequences.”
He added that the Liberal Democrats would be writing to Miss Smith seeking assurances that this security risk was being treated properly by the Home Office.