How Serious Is the Alleged London Pope Plot?

U.S. officials are downplaying the seriousness of a possible threat related to the visit to London by Pope Benedict XVI. News of the alleged threat surfaced on Friday when London's Metropolitan Police Service, a.k.a. Scotland Yard, issued a statement confirming that counterterrorism investigators had arrested five men early Friday morning "on suspicion of the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism."

In a statement posted on its Web site, Scotland Yard said that the five were arrested at an unidentified business address in central London and were aged 26, 27, 36, 40, and 50. The police said that they were carrying out searches at a business in central London and residential addresses in north and east London, and that initial investigations had "not uncovered any hazardous items."

However, a U.S. national-security official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that reports filtering into Washington indicated there were questions about the seriousness of the plot and whether the arrested men had any capability to carry out an attack. The official suggested that in the end, the substance of the case may turn out to be little more than idle or foolish chat among the suspects about some kind of hostile action against the pope.

The Associated Press reported that the government of the City of Westminster—the central London borough whose boundaries encompass such landmarks as Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament—had confirmed that the five suspects had worked as street cleaners for a contractor employed by the City Council. The Guardian Web site identified the contractor the men worked for as Veolia Environmental Services.

The U.S. national-security official said that there were indications the men under arrest are of North African extraction or nationality, and quite possibly are Islamic. Under a headline that explicitly characterized the arrested men as "suspected Islamist terrorist," The Daily Telegraph reported that some of the men are of Algerian origin, and that the cleaning-company depot that they worked is less than a mile from London's Hyde Park, where the pope is supposed to hold a large prayer meeting on Saturday.