Somalia Shows the State of Air Travel in an Age of Terrorism

3 MINS READFeb 2, 2016 | 16:48 GMT
An exterior photo of the damage to Daallo Airlines Flight D3159 in Mogadishu, Somalia.

On Feb. 2, Daallo Airlines Flight D3159 left Mogadishu, Somalia, and headed toward Djibouti. But shortly after takeoff, an explosion aboard the aircraft forced it to return to Mogadishu and make an emergency landing. As of this writing, no one has claimed responsibility for the incident.

Photos of the aircraft's exterior show a hole in the fuselage just over the front edge of the right wing. Interior photos show that the hole corresponds with a passenger seat, indicating that a device detonated at seat level, rather than on the floor under the seat. It is possible that the explosion was a suicide operation similar to the Christmas Day 2009 attempt against Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Damage to fuselage at seat level, just above the edge of the right wing of passenger flight D3159. (VOA)

If it was, al Shabaab will likely become the primary suspect. Al Shabaab, Somalia's al Qaeda franchise group, is connected with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group responsible for the Northwest Airlines Flight 253 attack. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also provided instructions for what it called "the hidden bomb," intended for use against aircraft, in the 13th edition of Inspire magazine. It would not be surprising to find that the attackers used a device such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's underwear bomb, or the Inspire magazine hidden bomb. The concealed explosive could also have been similar to the soda can bomb used in the Russian Metrojet attack over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.

A piece on "the hidden bomb" in issue 13 of Inspire, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine, published in December 2014.

In the wake of the Feb. 2 explosion, there will likely be security concerns about the possibility of other attacks. The Bojinka plot in the 1990s, 9/11 and the Heathrow plot in 2006 all demonstrate jihadists' continued desire to target multiple aircraft in their operations. Fears that the attack was an inside job aided by corrupt officials or lax security will also increase, though such corruption would not be surprising in Somalia. Still, al Shabaab does not have the reach to conduct more destructive attacks on planes flying from other airports in the region, especially since security at other airports will undoubtedly increase. Moreover, air traffic out of Mogadishu is quite minimal, making follow-up attacks less likely.

The Somalia incident is also yet another reminder that not every bomb attack against an aircraft will result in a catastrophic failure of the airframe. Several aircraft have withstood attacks using explosives, including Pan Am Flight 830 in 1982, TWA Flight 840 in 1986 and Philippine Airlines Flight 434 in 1994, to name a few. That said, airlines will continue to be tempting targets for potential attacks by jihadist groups.

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