Special Report: The Tactical Side of the U.K. Airliner Plot

6 MINS READAug 10, 2006 | 19:43 GMT
Police guard a house in Walhamstow in northeast London as part of a police investigation following raids on some premises on Aug. 10, 2006, regarding an alleged al Qaeda plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights.

British authorities said Aug. 10 they thwarted a militant Islamist plot to attack as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets flying out of London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports. They also said they are taking extraordinary measures at British airports, such as banning carry-on luggage on trans-Atlantic flights. Liquids such as toiletry items and drinks and some small consumer electronic devices also are being banned.

Media outlets are reporting that the operation would have caused an unimaginable catastrophe. Such an operation, however, was both imaginable and practicable. Indeed, a very similar operation — called Operation Bojinka — was also planned in 1994. After his participation in the first World Trade Center bombing, Abdel Basit (also known by the name on his fraudulent Iraqi passport, Ramzi Yousef) settled down in Manila, Philippines. He assembled a cell of operatives who began to plan a long list of terrorist attacks. One of those was Operation Bojinka, a plan to simultaneously destroy 12 airliners en route to the United States from Asian cities. Basit and his cell developed a modular improvised device constructed of a doll stuffed with nitrocellulose, a detonator and a timer made from a modified Casio wristwatch. Once through screening and on the plane, the devices were to be assembled in the aircraft's restroom.

On Dec. 11, 1994, the cell tested its device on Philippine Airlines flight 434. It detonated, but did not bring down the plane. In fact it killed only one person and wounded 10 — not the spectacular results the militants had hoped for. Based on their test results, they went back to the drawing board and decided to augment their main charge with a liquid form of an acetone peroxide explosive, which they were going to place in contact lens solution bottles. This additional quantity of a powerful explosive would be sure to give them the added punch they needed. However, while brewing the liquid explosive they lost control of the reaction and their apartment caught fire. One of Basit's laptop computers was recovered from the apartment and the plans for Bojinka were discovered. Basit left the Philippines and fled to Pakistan, where he later tried to continue the plot. He was in the process of implementing it when one of his bombers got cold feet and turned him in.

Based on this history, and the example of convicted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, a plot like the one thwarted Aug. 10 in Britain is not far-fetched. It is very much within the capabilities of al Qaeda and smaller independent jihadist groups. Also, when viewed through this historical lens, it is easy to understand why authorities made the decision to ban liquids and small electronic items from the passenger cabins.

Indeed, nearly five years after Sept. 11 and Reid's attempted attack, civil aviation is still vulnerable. Such attacks are not that difficult to plan and execute and there are many ways that explosives can be concealed in addition to liquids. Once liquids are banned from planes, jihadists will find another alternative. The Bojinka plan called for the plotters to board flights with multiple legs, hide the devices and then jump off before the devices activated.

The current plot, however, almost certainly was designed to use suicide operatives, because of the airports and the flights — direct to the United States — involved. With as many as 10 flights reportedly being targeted, that meant they had identified and trained at least 10 suicide operatives. Though that is only half the number of operatives involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, it is nonetheless a significant number of suicide operatives for a single mission. When combined with the number and types of targets involved — al Qaeda is fixated on aircraft — it does appear as if this current operation was connected to al Qaeda. There are claims that the detainees are British citizens of Pakistani origin, revealing that al Qaeda's London management team was still largely intact following the July 2005 attacks against London's transit system.

Many questions remain, such as why the authorities waited as long as they did to wrap up this plot — seemingly at the last minute.

Unraveling the Plot

Many questions remain, such as why the authorities waited as long as they did to wrap up this plot — seemingly at the last minute. There are two possible explanations for this: First, because this was a very big and complex operation, it took authorities longer to identify all the operatives involved. They did not want to miss any of the suicide operatives, planners or bombmakers, and leave them free to strike another day. This difficulty might have been further complicated by al Qaeda involvement, as the group practices better operational security than grassroots cells and it would have made it harder (and taken longer) for the informant and the authorities to connect all the dots and identify all the components of the organization. The British government still is embarrassed that it was unable to identify all the elements of the 2005 Underground bombings, so there would be an incredible amount of pressure on investigators to make sure they identified all of them this time.

Second, the informant might not have come forward until the operation was well under way. The informant very possibly is one of the suicide operatives who got cold feet and changed his mind. He might not have made the decision to bail out of the operation until quite late in the game, and then it took the British government some additional time to verify the threat, identify the other elements of the cell and then swoop in and arrest them. Either way, somewhere in the attack cycle there was a serious breakdown in operational security — and the plot was thwarted. These arrests demonstrate the threat remains very real.

One of two other factors also is in play, however. Either the British government's counterterrorism efforts are sufficiently robust as to allow them to penetrate al Qaeda operations in some instance at least, or, as we have discussed in the past, al Qaeda's operational security has been degraded. Either way, penetration is now more possible — raising the possibility that, though al Qaeda remains a threat, it is not the strategic threat it once was.

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