Pakistani authorities successfully prevented an al-Qaeda attempt to fly an explosives-laden aircraft into the US consulate in Karachi, according to US officials.

Details of the aerial attack plan came from two of the six suspects arrested earlier in the week during interrogations by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI). Two US officials confirmed however that the group was not in possession of an aeroplane before their arrest.

Tawfiq bin al-Attash was popular in low-income
areas of Karachi like this one, where he
was eventually found
  

The two suspects most likely to have been in possession of information may have been the Yemeni Tawfiq bin al-Attash, who is alleged to have played a role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and Ali Abdulaziz, the nephew of the captured al Qaida lieutenant Khalid Sheik Mohammed himself arrested in Pakistan on 1 March.

The interrogations enabled Pakistani intelligence to seize hundreds of kilogrammes of high explosives, as well as grenades, poisonous sulphur compounds, assault rifles and detonators hidden in several different caches.

The new Terrorist Threat Integration Centre originally issued the advisory of a possible attack on the US consulate in Karachi and may have justified its existence as an intelligence "clearing house" run by the CIA in its first week of operation.

As a result of the advisory, the Department of Homeland Security issued calls for increased vigilance and security to all US airline companies and pilots on Thursday as well, in response to a perceived threat abroad.

"Recent reliable reporting indicates that al Qaeda was in the late stages of planning an aerial attack against the US Consulate in Karachi," said the advisory, which was posted yesterday on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Web site.

"Operatives were planning to pack a small fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter with explosives and crash it into the consulate," it read. "This plot and a similar plot last year to fly a small explosive-laden aircraft into a US warship in the Persian Gulf demonstrate al Qaeda's continued fixation with using explosive-laden small aircraft in attacks."

The advisory also warned that the potential destruction from such an attack would be "the equivalent of a medium-sized truck bomb."

US concerns may also have been raised when the State Department also warned Americans to avoid travel to Saudi Arabia because of "credible" information indicating al Qaeda plans for an attack on US targets there.

With Bush stressing on his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that al-Qaeda was ‘down but not out’, the underground network is under as much investigation as ever. "This group is still quite capable of planning reasonably destructive operations," Rand corps Bruce Hoffman said.

"It's not September 11th level of sophistication, but it shows the enormous capacity of this organisation to withstand even the severe kind of punishment we've meted out to it in the last 18 months."

The US consulate in Karachi, a city that has been a center of armed Islamist activity, was the target of a car bombing last June that killed 12 Pakistanis. In another plot that was foiled in December, armed groups had planned to ram an explosives-laden Volkswagen into another vehicle carrying US diplomats.