From the Editor’s Keyboard

Airline bomb plot

13 August 2006 at 20:43 | 238 views

"Planes, of course, have become weapons of choice for terrorists of many stripes over the years. In 2003 and 2004 there were a series of security alerts at British and French airports over transatlantic flights bound for the U.S."

Culled from CBC News (cbc.ca)

At first glance, the plot seems far-fetched: Alleged terrorists scheme to smuggle bomb-making ingredients onto airplanes in contact lens solutions and other commonplace liquids in order to blow up as many as 10 transatlantic flights.

British officials, who on Aug. 10 took 24 people into custody over the alleged plan, and their counterparts in the United States put their countries on high alert. Both suggested the plot was al-Qaeda’s doings, presumably because of the audacity and intricate planning that seems to have been involved.

But the stronger link is a predecessor plot in 1995 - also foiled - that sought to blow up 11 U.S.-bound flights over the Pacific using liquid explosives, digital watches as timers and 9-volt batteries smuggled in shoes.

Its two main alleged perpetrators, both now in U.S. custody, were senior al-Qaeda operatives, according to U.S. intelligence documents and authorities in the Philippines who uncovered the scheme.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed was said to be a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden at the time of his capture in 2003. Ramzi Yousef was the man who masterminded the World Trade Center bombings in 1993, and who was later convicted for his involvement.

The Bojinka plot

According to what’s known of this scheme from media stories a few years later and the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004, the plotters convened in Manila, in the Philippines, in late 1994 to plant bombs on at least 11 U.S.-bound airliners that had stopovers in East and Southeast Asia.

The plan was for operatives to board the flights on their first leg and plant the bombs and timing devices in the lifejackets underneath the seats. They would then disembark, leaving the devices to explode over the Pacific or South China Sea at approximately the same time during the next leg of the flight over a two-day period.

In test runs, according to documents found on a floppy disk when Philippine police raided an apartment, Yousef apparently refilled 14 bottles of contact lens solutions with nitroglycerin to probe airport security. Investigators say they found children’s dolls coated with flammable chemicals.

In 1994, Yousef timed one, apparently diluted bomb to explode during a Philippines Airlines flight to Japan. A Japanese businessman was killed in the explosion, but the plane itself was not harmed and it made a safe emergency landing at Okinawa.

The main attack was set for late January 1995. But just a few weeks earlier, Philippine authorities raided Yousef’s safe house, responding to a chemical fire. He had flown the coop (he was captured later that year in Pakistan). But one of his local associates was tracked down and allegedly tortured by Philippine police until he gave up more details of the plot.

Apparently, at that point it was so advanced that exact flights had been selected. A backup scheme had also been hatched to hijack an airplane and crash it into the Pentagon in Washington.

The differences today

The U.K. plot that was foiled on Thursday seems to have many similarities to the Bojinka project. The main difference, however, is that this one seems to have been reliant on suicide bombers.

The Bojinka plot was built around operatives leaving explosives and timing devices on aircraft in inconspicuous locales.

But now, by concentrating on hand luggage and banning virtually all liquids from being taken aboard as personal effects at Heathrow and major airports in the U.S., authorities appear to be trying to stop attackers from smuggling onboard different chemicals that might be combined into an explosive device while the plane is en route.

Chemical sniffers have become much more sophisticated since 9/11 but the sheer volume of traffic - 67 million passengers went through London’s Heathrow airport alone last year - is bound to slow air travel to a crawl through major centres. And the critical fact is not much of an explosion is needed to compromise the structural integrity of an aircraft in flight.

Authorities are now refusing to allow passengers to bring aboard almost any liquid or gel, including contact lens solutions, hair gels, drinks, duty-free alcohol, even baby milk, unless an accompanying passenger is ready to test it in front of security personnel.

Planes, of course, have become weapons of choice for terrorists of many stripes over the years. In 2003 and 2004 there were a series of security alerts at British and French airports over transatlantic flights bound for the U.S.

Given the busy holiday season and the fact that large Boeing 747s can carry over 400 passengers at a time, authorities are saying that the death toll from this plot, if it hadn’t been found out, would have easily exceeded that of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Photo: British police carry out forensic investigations at a house in the Walthamstow area of north London on August 10.

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