Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush revealed in a public speech that U.S. authorities, working in concert with foreign intelligence and security agencies, had disrupted an al Qaeda plot in 2002 involving an aircraft attack against a skyscraper in Los Angeles. The attack originally had been planned to take place in October 2001, one month after the 9/11 attacks, but was repeatedly delayed for numerous reasons.
As outlined by the president, the attack would have unfolded along now-familiar lines: Four al Qaeda operatives were supposed to hijack an airliner, seize the controls and ram the aircraft into the tallest building on the West Coast — the U.S. Bank Tower, formerly known as the Library Tower. The weapons used were to have been explosives the operatives concealed in their shoes, which supposedly would have aided them in blowing off the cockpit doors. News of the plot referred to by the president was not entirely new; the general concept of the plan became known to investigators in the process of analyzing the 9/11 attacks. However, if the intelligence behind the revelation is accurate, the recent discussion highlights several significant points about al Qaeda's planning process, its resilience and its tenaciousness in the face of adversity. Depending on other, less predictable variables such as the number and geographic dispersal of well-trained operatives and the state of the network's capabilities, the insights to be gained from these revelations could have implications for the future as well.
Details of the Plot
Among the most interesting aspects of the Library Tower plot are the use of tactics seen in other strikes — both failed and successful — and the way al Qaeda apparently factored in reactions that could be expected after 9/11. Two points stand out:
- The hijackers on the West Coast were to have been recruited from Southeast Asia by Jemaah Islamiyah commander Riduan Isamuddin (or "Hambali"). Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, intelligence and security agents naturally could have been expected to be on high alert for Arab or South Asian suspects, with less attention focused on the Southeast Asia region. Thus — though the operation had been in the planning stages prior to 9/11 — the ethnicity of the operatives might have aided the success of a follow-on strike elsewhere. Under any circumstances, operatives of this description would have had a high chance of blending in with other travelers on a well-fueled, long-distance flight originating from the West Coast, perhaps bound for Hawaii or parts of Asia.
- The use of shoe bombs in the aircraft takeover scenario indicates that the planners knew it would unfold after 9/11. Prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon strikes, commercial aircraft in the United States did not have secured cockpit doors or restricted access. The additional security measures incorporated after those attacks would have made the use of explosives necessary.
By all indications, the plot that Bush referred to in his Feb. 9 speech stemmed from a plan originally conceived by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The plan, known to al Qaeda's leadership as "the planes operation," was to have had two prongs. One prong consisted of multiple aircraft being hijacked and flown into buildings; the other involved destroying airliners in-flight, using improvised explosive devices that had been smuggled aboard. It is not entirely clear which camp the "Library Tower" plot would have fallen into, since the use of multiple shoe bombs likely would have caused the plane to break up in flight — killing all aboard — before anyone was able to access the flight controls; it would appear there was some redundancy in the planning.
According to information from Mohammed, provided under interrogation, the original plan for the "planes operation" would have involved as many as 10 hijacked airliners, striking multiple targets on both the East and West Coasts. However, because of logistical problems and the difficulties of getting enough operatives trained and into position, the plan was repeatedly scaled back. Ultimately, Osama bin Laden decided to concentrate efforts against targets on the U.S. East Coast. Plans for the West Coast element of the attack proceeded as a separate operation.
U.S. authorities have said that the four Asians who were to have carried out the Library Tower attack traveled to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden in October 2001 — just about the time the U.S. was launching its retaliatory strikes in that country. After swearing their loyalties, they reportedly returned to Asia to begin training in the use of shoe bombs. However, the disruption to al Qaeda's communications and basing arrangements in Afghanistan likely caused further delays for the operation.
U.S. intelligence began to unravel the plot after Zaini Zakaria, an engineer from Malaysia, was arrested in December 2002. Zaini had spent time in training camps in Afghanistan. There, he came into contact with Hambali, who later recruited him into the "planes operation" as a pilot. Zaini obtained a general aviation license in Malaysia in 1999 and was working toward a license to fly jets from Australia. However, he reportedly pulled out of the al Qaeda plot after seeing media coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Zaini was arrested by Malaysian authorities, under that country's Internal Security Act, and sent to the Kamunting Detention Center in Taiping.
The next arrest — which probably was the death knell for the Library Tower plot — was that of Mohammed in Pakistan, in March 2003. Hambali was captured in Thailand in August the same year, which effectively put all the key players behind bars.
Implications of the Plot
Bush's revelations about the Library Tower plot do fit a political agenda: Facing down controversy of domestic wiretapping and the detention of terrorist suspects, the administration needed to demonstrate how effective its methods of battling threats from jihadists have been. The West Coast plot likely was chosen as the example to use because it has long since been tied off; all of the key operatives have been captured, and the resulting discussion in the media would not reveal sensitive intelligence or compromise ongoing investigations. There is an element of timeliness as well — since the investigation in this case has been closed, there was no need to ask or convince any foreign intelligence services, such as Malaysia's, for permission to release details about the plot.
But the most interesting aspects of the revelation have little to do with the motives of the White House. What is intriguing is the fact that the details revealed tend to cast other known plans and strikes by al Qaeda in a new light. Richard Reid's attempted "shoe bombing" in December 2001 springs to mind. It raises the question of whether his failed attempt to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight was perhaps reconnaissance: an operational test of the explosives that would have been used in the West Coast attack, which by that time had been postponed. This would be consistent with al Qaeda's operational planning patterns.
Had the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid succeeded (as he very nearly did), investigators would have spent considerable time piecing together exactly what happened — and it is highly unlikely they would have discovered how the bomb was smuggled aboard at all.
However, the failure of the attempt outed the "shoe bomb" tactic to Western intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. Had Reid succeeded (as he very nearly did), investigators would have spent considerable time piecing together exactly what had happened — and it is highly unlikely they would have discovered how the bomb was smuggled aboard at all. In other words, "shoe bombs" would have remained a fresh surprise for use in later attacks.
There is little reason to question the credibility of the details outlined by Bush: On many levels, the Library Tower plot bears all the earmarks of Mohammed's planning. Before his capture, Mohammed exhibited a fixation on aircraft and ways of using them as giant, flying IEDs. He also was capable of generating seemingly endless permutations based on that core theme. Mohammed's thought patterns also are evident in the planned use of multiple shoe bombs in the Library Tower scenario. A tendency to "overplan" or use elaborate attack schemes was evident in other plots as well, such as the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the attempted strike against the USS The Sullivans in 2000. In that case, the suicide bombers' ramming boat was overloaded with explosives and foundered before it was able to reach the naval vessel, off the coast of Yemen.
Finally, it is clear that al Qaeda, like Mohammed himself, was capable of keeping several plots in motion simultaneously and of adapting to new security considerations on the fly, at least while the core communications and logistics network remained intact. This capability has been known for some time — for instance, plans to attack U.S. Navy personnel in Singapore overlapped planning for 9/11 — but the details revealed by the president last week further illuminate just how disciplined and efficient al Qaeda's planners could be.
Exactly what, if anything, any of this might mean in terms of future al Qaeda attacks is debatable; much hinges on variables that cannot be precisely known, and we are in no way predicting a future attack involving aircraft on U.S. soil. However, from an intelligence and security standpoint, there are several items worth noting. First, the 9/11 attacks occurred long after U.S. authorities first caught wind of al Qaeda's intentions to use airliners as weapons. In fact, this intelligence initially came to light when al Qaeda operative Abdul Hakim Murad — who was trained as a licensed commercial pilot — was arrested in Manila in January 1995. Murad, who was closely associated with World Trade Center bomber Abdel Basit (or Ramzi Yousef), disclosed plans to drive airliners into the CIA building and other high-value targets. At the time, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials dismissed his statements as delusional and ridiculous — labels that can be easily applied to many plots by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and al Qaeda.
However, history has shown that even the most outlandish plans can come to fruition. In early 1942, for example, the idea must have seemed absurd to Japanese intelligence that land-based medium bombers would be able to take off from an aircraft carrier and attack the home islands. Indeed, even if such bombers could be launched from a carrier, it was thought that a U.S. carrier could not get close enough to Japan to enable such a strike. But the United States managed to launch 16 B-25s from the USS Hornet and bomb multiple targets in Japan, without losing any aircraft to Japanese defenses.
In the context of al Qaeda, the idea that a plan might be "ridiculous," overly elaborate or doomed to failure certainly can be valid, from a Western standpoint, but that is no guarantee that it will not be attempted or even prove deadly.
In the context of al Qaeda, the idea that a plan might be "ridiculous," overly elaborate or doomed to failure certainly can be valid, from a Western standpoint, but that is no guarantee that it will not be attempted or even prove deadly. And given al Qaeda's historical penchant for returning to known attack plans and targets, it is difficult to dismiss the notion that strikes involving aircraft could be attempted again in the future — provided the network has the capabilities to do so. Al Qaeda has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to test — and then return to — strike plans.
For example, the attack against the USS Cole in October 2000 was at least the second attempted suicide strike against a U.S. naval vessel that year; the first was a failed attempt against the USS The Sullivans in January. The same tactic was used in October 2002 against the French tanker Limburg in the Red Sea. To cite another tactical example, al Qaeda used a massive truck bomb to attack the Khobar Towers dormitory near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, killing 19 U.S. airmen. Two years later, the same tactic was used to kill hundreds at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Certainly, there have been numerous other truck bombings since that time — but nothing has brought al Qaeda the success it experienced as a result of even the scaled-back "planes operation."
All things taken together, there is nothing in the nature of U.S. defenses that, in our view, would prohibit al Qaeda from attempting another strike using aircraft. Certainly, the heightened security environment in the airline industry could pose a hindrance, but that is not necessarily the same thing as a deterrent. The network has struck in the face of heightened security on several occasions: The tactics used in the Madrid commuter train bombings in March 2004 were similar to those used in the July 7 strikes in London, which occurred amid the heightened national security efforts surrounding the G-8 summit.
However, since al Qaeda also is an adaptive organization, we might assume that any future plans involving aircraft would be less likely to incorporate highly fueled commercial airliners, a la 9/11. In addition to newer federal security measures, such as an expansion of the air marshal program, there also have been psychological shifts among the public: Consider the "let's roll" mentality of passengers and air crews, who would be less likely to surrender the aircraft to hijackers without a fight. These realities tend to push the risk toward other sectors of the air-travel industry — perhaps incorporating civil aircraft. This could take the form of a corporate jet or a large cargo-carrying aircraft, such as a Boeing 747 or a DC-10. Smaller aircraft, such as the Bombardier Challenger — one of the most common corporate jets — also could be used. Significantly, these jets usually are flown out of general aviation terminals, where security measures are not level with those at major commercial airports. The lesser fuel capacity of such an aircraft would not make it as efficient a missile as a large passenger jet, but plans could easily be modified to account for this and render a deadly strike.
Under any circumstances, a strike resulting in, at a minimum, the destruction of an aircraft and a high body count would be considered a victory by al Qaeda and a blow to the U.S. economy. The 9/11 attacks are estimated to have cost the U.S. airline industry some $20 billion to $25 billion — a huge toll to their financial well-being. Even single terrorist attacks have destroyed airlines in the past: Pan Am, which pioneered long-range air travel in the 1930s, was out of business only a few years after the destruction of Flight 103 in December 1988. Given the state of the industry today, in which high fuel prices and competitive concerns have added to the stresses, another hit in this area could have repercussions disproportionate to the actual size of the operation.