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U.S.: 'Do your attacks now' message triggered arrests

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Suspects in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights received a message within the last three days in which they were advised, "Do your attacks now," according to U.S. sources.

The message, which was intercepted and decoded, was part of the reason authorities in Britain decided that an attack was imminent, possibly just a few days to a week away, according to an unclassified security memo sent to law enforcement agencies Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Police also noticed increased Internet communication, and two men under surveillance had dropped out of sight, the memo said.

A British official said Friday that the "go ahead" message originated with an operative in Pakistan. (Full story)

When police moved in and arrested the suspects, searches of their homes also turned up martyrdom videos, which normally are recorded just prior to suicide operations, according to homeland security.

Substantial sums of money had been wired from Pakistan to two of the alleged ringleaders to purchase airline tickets, according to the memo. Participants in the alleged plot also appeared to have access to large amounts of money that exceeded what would be expected given their actual incomes, according to homeland security.

The memo also shed light on the backgrounds of the 23 suspects being held by British police:

  • All were born in Britain, and most were of Pakistani descent. They had good reputations in their neighborhood and did not express radical sentiments.
  • Among those arrested were a biochemistry student, a worker at Heathrow Airport and a 17-year-old who recently converted to Islam. While the teen had grown a beard and started wearing traditional Muslim clothes, he did not appear to be radicalized.
  • British police believe the key players are in custody but cannot be sure that "unknown or unexpected elements do not exist."
  • A tip from a member of the British Muslim community about suspicious behavior by an acquaintance was alerted authorities to the alleged conspiracy, and a neighbor of the alleged plotters helped confirm those suspicions, the memo said.

    Counterterrorism officials used telephone records, e-mails and bank records to connect the suspects and build a detailed picture of the conspiracy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said. Their spending habits and bank accounts also were traced by a unit that monitors the flow of money to provide evidence of association, the memo said.

    Intelligence received within the past five days by MI-5, the British security agency, led officials to conclude that the plan was in its execution phase, the memo said. The fact that U.S.-bound aircraft were to be targeted was learned only about two weeks ago, U.S. homeland security said.

    The alleged plotters planned to bring "some type of liquid or power explosive" on board the aircraft in drink or toothpaste containers, then explode it with detonators hidden in cell phones or iPods, the memo said.

    The Department of Homeland Security's report to law enforcement agencies outlined three types of explosives the suspects might have been planning to use:

  • TATP, made with hydrogen peroxide and acetone, which was used in last year's London subway bombings. It would not trigger conventional airport explosive detectors because it does not contain nitrogen. However, TATP is highly unstable and difficult to manufacture without expertise.
  • Nitroglycerin, a liquid explosive to which color can be added to make it resemble soft drinks or baby food. This was what was used in a thwarted 1994 al Qaeda plot to bomb aircraft traveling from Asia to the United States, which mirrored the alleged plot disrupted in Britain. (Watch how the plot had hallmarks of al Qaeda -- 3:19)
  • A combination of nitromethane, used to fuel model airplanes and racing cars, and an oxidizer, such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer. These ingredients were the basis of the bomb Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
  • According to homeland security, requiring passengers to taste beverages as a security measure might not be a deterrent because many dangerous compounds, such as nitroglycerin, are harmless in small doses.

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