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Aug 17, 2006 | 01:26 GMT

13 mins read

The U.K. Plot: Lessons Not Learned and Risk Implications

By Fred Burton British authorities have made more than two dozen arrests, mostly of British citizens of Pakistani origin, in and around London and Birmingham since Aug. 10 in connection with a plot involving airliners. Of that group, 24 currently remain in custody; another seven suspects reportedly have been arrested in Pakistan. Details of the foiled operation — which would have involved blowing up nine flights bound for New York City, Washington, D.C., and California — clearly fit al Qaeda's operational and tactical profile on several levels. Specifically, the plan bears several trademarks associated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the captured operational planner who was called "the principal architect of the 9/11 operation" in the 9/11 Commission Report. These trademarks include the choice of aircraft as a target; the notion of multiple, simultaneous strikes; and the use of modular improvised explosive devices, which would have been smuggled aboard the aircraft in carry-on luggage. Moreover, whoever was involved in planning the U.K. operation shared KSM's penchant for "thinking big." This yen for the grandiose attack, as opposed to a merely effective one, has at times caused al Qaeda operations to fail — and perhaps did so here as well. However, in considering this failed operation, it is important to remember another element that has run through al Qaeda's history of operations: a tendency to have multiple attacks in various stages of planning at any given time. It is entirely possible that, as the world focuses on the United Kingdom and international air travel, other plots involving different target sets and other parts of the globe could be in motion. The KSM Trademarks The U.K. plot is striking, first, because it hearkens back not only to Sept. 11, but to KSM and his long-running fascination with exploding aircraft. KSM was the principal planner of al Qaeda's "planes operation." As originally conceived, this plan was to involve the simultaneous hijackings of 10 aircraft, departing from both the east and west coasts of the United States. Nine of the aircraft were to be either blown up in-flight or slammed into targeted buildings. KSM envisioned himself landing the 10th plane at a U.S. airport and (after killing all adult male passengers) delivering a speech outlining al Qaeda's grievances with the United States. Al Qaeda's apex leaders — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef — eventually agreed to a scaled-down version of the planes operation, which was carried out on Sept. 11, 2001. The west coast portion of the plan was spun off as a separate operation that was to have occurred in October 2001, but which reportedly was postponed several times for various reasons. This operation, also known as the Library Tower Plot, was compromised and disrupted in 2002. KSM also is believed to have been involved in the plot to bomb American Airlines Flight 63 in December 2001. That plan nearly succeeded: Richard Reid successfully smuggled his "shoe bomb" aboard the aircraft. The attempt failed only because Reid tried to light the fuse for his bomb in the passenger cabin (rather than a more secluded area, such as a restroom) and was stopped by a flight attendant and passengers. The U.K. plot bears perhaps the strongest resemblance, however, to Operation Bojinka, which KSM (along with his nephew, Abdel Basit) helped to plan and finance while living in Manila in the mid-1990s. The tactical similarities here include the use of modular explosive devices, which would have been assembled in-flight after operatives accessed their carry-on baggage, and the use of liquid explosives. Grand Schemes The very scope of the U.K. plot also highlights another KSM trait: a tendency to think big. This characteristic was the undoing of several important al Qaeda attacks, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and an attempted strike against the USS The Sullivans, off the coast of Yemen, in January 2000. In the World Trade Center case, a massive truck bomb was built, delivered and detonated — resulting in six deaths and hundreds of injuries. Because the goal was to topple Tower One into Tower Two and destroy the entire landmark in spectacular fashion, the planners decided to place the truck bomb in the basement parking garage (rather than at street level, where, it turns out, it would have been far more deadly). The robust construction of the buildings withstood the blast. The attempt to strike The Sullivans with a suicide boat bomber also floundered due to overreach; the militants filled the boat with too many explosives, causing the craft to sink before it could reach the target. Significantly, al Qaeda operatives used the same tactics 10 months later — but with a more reasonable load of explosives — in the successful attack against the USS Cole. Indeed, moderation frequently has been the element that has made the difference between success and failure for al Qaeda operations — as both the Cole and Sept. 11 examples show. Sometimes, smaller is simply better. It is, for example, much easier to keep operational security intact when only a few operatives are brought into a plan. With every person who is brought in on a secret, the risks of detection or infiltration of a cell increase. Given the large number of arrests that have been made in the U.K. case, and the fact that authorities believe as many as 50 people perhaps were involved in the plot, it is not surprising that operational security was compromised. The Key Questions In view of this history, there loom at least two important questions. First, was al Qaeda's top leadership aware of details of the U.K. plot? And if so, why was the principle of moderation not applied? We cannot fully know what was in the minds of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, of course, but recent events seem to provide some important clues. It has been noted that al Qaeda leaders have put out a record number of personal recordings so far this year — many of them threatening strikes against the United States and the United Kingdom. One particularly interesting video, featuring al-Zawahiri, was released July 27. In the backdrop hang three large photos: one of Mohammed Atef (al Qaeda's senior military chief, who was killed in Afghanistan in late 2001) on the left, one of Sept. 11 operational commander Mohammed Atta on the right and a photo of the burning World Trade Center towers directly behind al-Zawahiri. In the video, al-Zawahiri discusses a lecture Atef gave in 2000 to al Qaeda trainees about Palestine. According to his recounting, Atta — who was among the trainees — asked, "What is the way to defeat the attack on Palestine?" Al-Zawahiri supplied his own answer in the video: He said Americans know the rest of the story, and that the nation that produced the 19 "who shook America" is "capable of producing double that number." Now, it could be a coincidence that a large plot involving aircraft — just over twice as many as were hijacked on Sept. 11 — was thwarted only two weeks after this video was released. But we are not big believers in coincidence. To our minds, the July 27 tape was a clear message, meant to be viewed in retrospect, that al Qaeda was behind the new planes operation. It also stands as a possible example of al Qaeda's adherence to the oft-repeated principle that "he who warns is excused." Extending the forensic analysis, it is interesting to note that the two men shown in the backdrop of the video, Atef and Atta, are both dead. The two other principal planners involved in Sept. 11 attacks, KSM and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, are in U.S. custody. It is clear that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are still at least nominally in control at the top of the organization, but surprisingly little is known about the cadre of al Qaeda middle managers — the men who would plan the tactical details of any attacks. It is possible that the tactical commander, or the "Atta," of the U.K. plot may be in custody, but there remain questions as to who the higher-level managers — the equivalents of a bin al-Shibh or KSM — might be. Given all the KSM-like flourishes of the plot, one wonders whether at least one of the planners had previously worked for KSM or was otherwise strongly influenced by his way of thinking. Someone clearly had a firm grasp of al Qaeda's history of operational planning. However, it is striking that the planners appear not to have learned from al Qaeda's failures as well. The "think big" principle clearly carried through, but the principle of moderation, which enabled past successes, did not. Several plausible explanations for this could be speculated: 1. The U.K. plot adhered to the al Qaeda 1.0 operational model: A professional al Qaeda tactical commander was working with an ad hoc group of local militants. Al Qaeda's top leadership knew details of the plot but decided not to rein it in. This scenario suggests either that the apex leaders are sorely missing the expertise that Atef brought to bear, or they saw the need to carry out a fresh, spectacular strike — despite the known risks — for other reasons. It also is quite possible that, as men of faith, al Qaeda leaders believed Allah would bless their efforts and hide the operation from the eyes of the infidels. (This last point is not as strange as it might sound to some; from the "Atta letter" recovered from the Sept. 11 cell, it is clear that operatives prayed repeatedly for their activities to be concealed from the eyes of security forces.) 2. The U.K. plot conformed to an al Qaeda 3.0. model (best exemplified by the July 7, 2005, strikes in London): It was planned by a grassroots organization that had some, but limited, contact with the apex leadership. In this scenario, the apex leadership had an idea that something was coming but lacked either details or else the ability to intervene and pare down the size of the operation. Of course, the top leaders — now scattered and in hiding — are under far more pressure than they were prior to Sept. 11. As a matter of survival, they are both much more isolated and, logic dictates, more careful in their communications with the group at large. But, if this hypothesis is the correct one, there also is a certain brilliance in simplicity: The "go" signal for the operation may have been broadcast to the world at large — though somewhat masked amid a plethora of other tapes featuring al Qaeda leaders — without the mission being jeopardized. 3. A hybrid model was used. That is, the U.K. plot represents a grassroots operation that the leadership knew about — and recognized the risks involved in a plan that called upon such a large number of operatives — but nevertheless allowed it to proceed. If this was the case, it would indicate that al Qaeda leaders expected the disruption of the U.K. plot itself, but wanted to distract attention from operations elsewhere, perhaps focusing on a different target set. Parallel Planning We do not yet possess enough details to give one of these possibilities more weight than the others. However, given al Qaeda's history, it is wise to note here a final tactical trait: The tendency toward parallel planning for multiple, diverse operations. For instance, Basit and KSM had a host of plots in the works at the time of Basit's accident in Manila, which brought plans for Operation Bojinka and other plots to a halt. (Shortly after fleeing from Manila, Basit continued efforts to implement parts of Bojinka from Thailand and Pakistan). The same tendency toward multitasking also was apparent in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and a group of his followers were arrested for plotting bombings against a number of New York City landmarks. Notably, the failure of one part of a multi-pronged attack strategy does not necessarily mean that other prongs are canceled. Consider the "millennium bomb plot," in which three separate operations were proceeding concurrently in different parts of the world and against different target sets: a strike against a Radisson hotel in Amman, Jordan; the attack against the USS The Sullivans off the shore at Aden, and a plot involving Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the United States. The Amman plot was foiled on Dec. 5, 1999, when Jordanian intelligence caught wind of it and arrested the attack team upon their arrival in country. And on Dec. 14, would-be LAX bomber Ahmed Ressam was arrested while crossing the U.S. border from Canada. All the same, preparations for the strike against the USS The Sullivans continued, failing only because of a tactical mistake by the militants as they moved toward the target on Jan. 3, 2000. And despite even that failure, the Aden cell regrouped and carried out a successful strike against the Cole ten months later. Therefore, while we must believe that al Qaeda suffered a serious breach of operational security and lost one potential operation — perhaps even an entire node — this month in the United Kingdom, the group should not be discounted entirely as a tactical threat. Rather, this likely is a time to seek out other operations that may be in the planning stages, perhaps involving other industries and locales. Given al Qaeda's fixation on certain target sets and its tendency to return repeatedly to successful patterns, it is possible that trains and hotels are under heightened threat at this time. With history as a guide, it also is not beyond the realm of possibility that — as in the Library Tower plot and "shoe-bomb" attempt — another attack involving aircraft, but employing a fresh tactical approach — might be attempted.

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