LONDON -- While the alleged terrorist plot to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States may have been thwarted, those behind it remain able to claim some significant successes.
Economic disruption, curbs on civil liberties and increased tensions between the West and the Muslim world are just some of the ramifications that can be expected as the impact of Thursday's events reverberates around the world.
Like the September 11 attacks, which rocked the world economy and caused the US stock markets to plummet, the alleged airliner plot has the potential to inflict serious damage on the financial markets and the tourism and aviation industries.
Within hours of the announcement that British security services had disrupted a plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," airline and travel shares had fallen across Europe and the United States, as investors weighed up the long-term consequences for business.
Heightened security and cancelled flights at all British airports resulted in severe disruption to travel, with consequences not only for airlines and travel companies but related businesses such as taxi firms and hotels. The emergence of a major terrorist plot during the busiest month for travel will hit the tourist industry hard, especially as it emerges from the drop in trade following last year's July 7 bombings.
Firms are concerned that aside from the short-term costs, the plot may cause consumers to develop a long-term fear of flying that will prompt them to cancel holiday plans.
However it is in the political arena, both domestically and internationally, that the effects will be most deeply felt.
The alert could not come at a worse time for relations between the West and Muslim world, already reeling from a bloody battle between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah and the perceived US and UK support for the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.
Though the identities of the conspirators are not yet known, it has been widely reported that the majority are British-born Muslims with links to Pakistan.
US intelligence sources told United Press International on condition of anonymity that Pakistani intelligence was involved in the counter-terrorism operation, and that Lashkar-e-Toiba, the outlawed Pakistani organization suspected of conducting July's attacks in Mumbai, have been under surveillance for some time. Hours ago Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, leader of the Islamic militant group, was placed under house arrest, the sources said.
The reports are likely to heighten tensions between communities and reinforce in some quarters the erroneous stereotype of Muslims as extremists bent on the destruction of liberal societies.
The alert is likely to further polarize political opinion across the globe. Those already supportive of the US-led "war on terror" - including the UK and Israeli governments - will no doubt regard it as a vindication of the present strategy, while critics will seize upon it as evidence that British and American foreign policy has increased rather than assuaged the terror threat.
Speaking in Wisconsin, US President George W. Bush said the alleged plot was "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."
The United States was safer than it was prior to the 9/11 attacks, but still faced a significant threat from terrorism, he said, adding: "We will take the steps necessary to protect the American people."
Meanwhile, critics of British and American policy in the Middle East are already queuing up to argue exactly the opposite.
"The [UK] government's approach to foreign policy has made the UK a higher profile target and more importantly, increased the dark well from which terrorists spring," Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond told the BBC.
Dan Plesch, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a leading British defense and security think-tank, argued that UK and US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and support for the Israeli offensive in Lebanon were increasingly motivating terrorists to take their attacks to the "heartland" of Britain and the United States.
The incentive to do so was getting "greater and greater," he added.
The consequences for British Prime Minister Tony Blair are less easy to discern. While the fact that he is currently on holiday in the Caribbean - with no plans to return early - will impress no one, it is as yet too soon to tell whether the alert will bolster or undermine his public and political support.
Following the July 7 bombings, polls consistently showed a significant majority of Britons held Blair and his policy in Iraq at least partly responsible for the attacks. Yet simultaneously, his approval ratings improved on the back of a widespread perception that he had handled the crisis well. Such schizophrenic poll showings can be expected in the immediate aftermath of the present alert, as the British public mulls over the causes and consequences of the threat.
Once the initial confusion has died down, however, Blair may find himself in trouble. A clear majority of the public is opposed to his policy in the Middle East, particularly the stance he has recently adopted on the Israel-Lebanon conflict, and may well regard him as having increased the threat of terrorism against Britain. There is also considerable dissent within his own government and party over his apparently unquestioning alliance with Bush on matters of foreign policy, which could spill over into increased pressure for him to resign.
Meanwhile Blair himself will no doubt tout the alleged plot as an example of the dangers of international terrorism, and introduce another round of controversial anti-terror legislation similar to that put forward following the July 7 attacks. Civil liberties will be curbed, as Home Secretary John Reid insisted was necessary earlier this week, the British way of life will be altered, and those responsible for the plot will have won a small victory against Western liberal values.
Bush and Blair may herald the disruption of the plot as a success in the so-called war on terrorism, and of course, it has been a remarkable achievement on the part of the security services which have prevented a human tragedy on a massive scale. But one has to wonder, in terms of the impact on our societies, if the conspirators haven't triumphed after all.
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