Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Few Thoughts on the London Investigation

Well, I have a few scattered thoughts to share regarding the ongoing London investigation.

First, this plot should come as a profound surprise to no one. Remember Bojinka? For those who don’t, here’s the 10 second version. Ramzi Ahmaed Yousef, principal mastermind behind the 1993 WTC bombing, spent some time training in Afghan al-Qa’eda camps shortly after his ’93 operation. While there, Yousef’s handlers (some say bin Ladin himself, though that has not been verified to my knowledge) asked him to train members of a little known al-Qa’eda linked group based in the Philippines in some of the technical aspects of his bombmaking training (having graduated from a technical college in Wales, trained in Afghanistan, gone through the operation for the ’93 bombing, and back to training he was something of an expert at this point). The group by the way is the now well-known Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), founded by an “Afghan Alumnus” (veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war) who fought alongside bin Ladin himself, Abdurajik Abubakr Janjalani. Yousef worked with Janjalani et al in training his men how to make relatively sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), later used by ASG throughout the Philippines and shared with another Far East Asian terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyya. Yousef himself though had bigger plans. In conjunction with a whole rash of additional plots –killing President Clinton and the Pope, targeting U.S. Embassies in the region and in Pakistan, etc. –he also wanted to target an active symbol (that is, it is both symbolic and strategically significant) of the U.S. economy: airlines. Yousef got together with a few other experienced terrorists like Adel Annon (likely his own brother using a nomme de guerre), Abdul Murad (old friend, WTC ’93 intellectual veteran), Mustafa Abu Zanaib (precise link unclear, but closely associated by way of various Da’awa activities), and Wali Khan Amin Shah (close friend who lost a few fingers in Afghan war) to hatch something grand. They called it Project Bojinka (Serbo-Croat for explosion). In a nutshell, it involved carrying in bottles disguised as contact lens solution, etc. a stable form of nitroglycerine explosive (more on that in point two), onboard an airplane, assembled into a crude IED in the bathroom, placed strategically onboard the plane with a timer, get off, and the planes –some a dozen in number –would detonate onboard while flying over the high seas and populated U.S. cities. The key was to kill everyone onboard, all on American owned airlines, all in one day’s time. Before he went through with the plan though, he wanted to test it. So, he boarded flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo, a nine volt battery in each shoe and small nitroglycerine container in his bag. On the flight went to the bathroom, assembled the device, and stuck it under his seat. Really nervous he then switched seats, refused food, and waiting for the flight to land. He departed the plane at its layover in Cebu. On theflight's second leg to Tokyo the bomb went off, butterflying a Japanese businessman, but not taking down the flight –not wanting to attract too much attention, he merely wished to test his device. It worked. Eventually he went back to his Manila apartment he used as a lab. In a highly sophisticated design, one the FBI was thoroughly impressed with and had never seen before, he made a large array of these bombs. The problem? In making them, one of the chemicals became unstable and exploded in the apartment. Police and fire trucks came, he fled to a nearby Karaoke bar, told his friend Murad to go back for his laptop that he left there… police arrested Murad, found plans to take out 12 U.S. Airliners, and the whole thing was foiled –just in time. Note, a lot of very very interesting things were found on this laptop and Murad under torture by Philippine authorities later gave up the plot to put explosives on a plane and take out the CIA building at Langley (the precursor plot to what later became 9/11). Uncovering the plot sparked a massive, though impressive, FAA and international law enforcement effort to quickly, quickly, and effectively search thousands of jumbo jets all over the world –no one knew if some of the bombs might have made their way to the target despite the bust. The checked underneath seats, in the luggage compartments, in bathrooms, everywhere. Luckily, it appears they had stopped it just in time. This history is important to al-Qa’eda, as we know they have a very strong tendency to continue an operation until they get it right (WTC, Embassy in Pakistan, etc.). It should come as no surprise that some would like to pick up on Yousef’s plans and do it right.

Second, a few thoughts on the explosives. You hear a lot of talk about TATP (even Wilkinson a at St. Andrews said as much to CNN this morning) and other kinds of explosives some suspect were to be used. Well, I can tell you that unless they know something I don’t, and I’m pretty sure they don’t, TATP is not a liquid in its stable form, and they are not going to bring it onboard a flight in unstable form (the hard part is making it into a powder to begin with in a highly controlled lab). Yes, TATP is a major type of explosive used by terrorists, especially of the Palestinian persuasion (though also see Madrid, Richard Reid shoebomber, a few in Iraq, and I’m told some by LTTE), but they wouldn’t be looking for liquids in that case, they would be checking shoes. Were Yousef’s Bojinka Plot used as the model, his explosives were highly complex devices learned after pouring over a plethora of books he stole from various libraries around the world. Yousef’s men bought sulphuric acid, nitric acid, acetone, silver azide, and nitrobenzene to create an undetectable form of nitroglycerine –the explosive element in TNT. The trademark of his device was converting Casio wristwatches (the kind with the tiny keypad/calculator on it) into effective timers, with the nitroglycerine hidden in container of contact solution, cotton balls as the stabilizer, and two nine volt batteries (brought on board by hiding it in his shoes) for the spark. The density of the nitro-glycerine is apparently such that it makes it extremely difficult to detect through X-ray (sorry, but I’m really not scientific enough to explain how that works). Thus, this is why all liquids have been banned categorically. Should be interesting if they ever decide to reverse this trend. Yousef was expert enough to make it all look natural –one would have to really look at the watch to know it had been tampered with. But interestingly, there’s not talk about watches. This seems to indicate the possibility that it may have been a martyrdom operation, rather than a Yousef-styled Bojinka II –who needs a timer when one plans to set it off himself a la Richard Reid? We will learn more in days ahead, but I will be looking for indications relating to Casios for an indication as to the nature of the plot.

Third, some reports have indicated that the London cell is a self-starter, al-Qa’eda inspired group, rather than “genuine” al-Qa’eda operatives. If true, this would be extremely significant. In the past, al-Qa’eda self-starters have resorted to much lower profile, far less sophisticated operations, born from training acquired from do-it-yourself (DIY) manuals and an ambition ignited by the general political, social, and religious environment they experience buttressed by a favorable image of the broader “bin Ladinism” seen worldwide. This tendency toward primitive operations has led many experts to conclude that the so-called “second wave” of international terrorism –comprised of those who believe in the al-Qa’eda cause but lack official ties to the organization –is less of a threat than the media would have the world believe. Not true if this most recent plot turns out to be self-starter.

There are some indications however, indicating that this may not be self-starter. For one, the complexity of simultaneously attacking nine distinct targets is difficult to pull off. Those involved in the Madrid train bombings astonished the world when they became the very first terrorist group in the world to detonate ten bombs simultaneously before. And although they certainly remained more independent than most al-Qa’eda operators, they had help. The likelihood of a truly independent cell conducting nine, and doing so especially on Western airlines in the post-9/11 world with its enhanced security apparatus, seems low. Such an operation would require extensive patience and training. An estimated 3,000 British citizens have found their way into Afghan terrorist training facilities, where some limited explosives training may have been conducted, but al-Qa’eda’s traditional training pattern indicates a willingness to provide particularly specialized training only in the presence of an establish plot, thus making any such operation no longer self-starter in character. What’s more, were the fact that British authorities have apparently arrested some twenty-four individuals in connection with the scheme taken as an indication of its scope, it seems all the more unlikely that any internally ignited group of discontents would be capable of radicalizing such a large number of individuals without professional assistance. As with any joint venture, large operations tend to require professional operators.

The possibility that these alleged terrorists may have acted alone remains, fueled by the DIY manuals of the internet or practical experience fighting Western interests in Iraq, and in such a case Western antiterrorist authorities should be deeply concerned, but it appears most likely for the time that this was indeed al-Qa’eda’s second bite at the apple. It shall be particularly interesting to see if any of these suspects have ties to Far East Asia, the birthplace of the original Bojinka plot. Only time will tell.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home