Post-9/11, Al Qaeda’s fascinationwith bringing down passenger aircraft is as strong as ever. As one window of opportunity closes, another seems to open. With doors to the cockpit now closed, and pilots briefed to not surrender their aircraft, even if terrorists do get on board and start systematically killing people, including flight crew, terrorists have had to start thinking about new ways of maintaining their program of attacking the world’s iconic aviation industry. Hence, the current security alert about laptops, tablets and mobile phones being removed from cabins on aircraft.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement this past week that, “Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in electronics,” and that, “The US government continually reassesses existing intelligence and collects new intelligence. This allows us to constantly evaluate our aviation security processes and policies and make enhancements when they are deemed necessary to keep passengers safe.”
The announcement came on the heels of European intelligence agencies warning Al Qaeda and ISIS both have developed novel new ways to conceal explosives in laptop computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices that can elude airport security screening technologies.
It was this intelligence which recently caused the UK and United States to ban travellers from certain countries from carrying laptops and other electronic devices on board.
Counterterrorism officials and authorities are increasingly concerned that these jihadi groups to attempt to use their new explosive deception techniques to bypass screening at European and US airports.
Attacks designed to bring down aircraft are a recurring theme in Al Qaeda’s play book. Clearly, the success of the Lockerbie attack — while not designed or executed by Al Qaeda, in which 273 people were killed — was not lost on its leadership. The visual impact of pictures of mangled aircraft parts and bodies strewn over the Scottish landscape was clearly etched into their minds. The only question was how to achieve something like that again?
The so-called “underwear bomber” was one iteration along that path. Developed by one of Al Qaeda’s top bomb makers, Ibrahim Al Asiri, in Yemen, the underwear bomb was supposed to be able to get past sensitive detectors at airports and allow the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to assemble it on the aircraft before detonating it. To achieve that, a syringe was plunged into Abdulmutallab’s groin.
The first variant of this novel bombing attempt caught fire on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on landing approach to Detroit on Christmas Eve 2009 when the bomber tried to activate the explosive. Reports subsequently showed it nearly worked. One of the reasons it did not was because the bomber had worn the same underwear for two weeks before the attack. It was therefore damp, and unable to detonate. Recently, a second iteration of the design of the bomb was reported to be available for deployment, and supposed to work as designed. As yet, it has not been employed.
The mistake made by Abdulmutallab was one echoed by the so-called “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, who had worn his shoes around Paris before boarding his flight to Miami on December 22, 2000 — just three months after September 11. His attempts to light the chord protruding from the shoe — whichwould have resulted in its detonation — failed because it, too, was too damp. Providence, it seems, has its way of informing terrorists what they are doing is wrong.
Not deterred by such failures, Al Qaeda’s bomb making team continued their experiments. Intelligence emerging from Yemen suggests that a new form of bomb could be smuggled aboard aircraft using what, on the surface, appears to be an innocuous set of items containing various liquids. Despite the unprecedented ban put in place by authorities on people carrying liquids onboard in carry-on baggage in chemical quantitiessufficient to create an explosive can now be expected to bypass this prohibition.
Al Qaeda switched its quest to develop the next novel method to attack planes. In Somalia in February 2016, a single bomber boarded a Daallo flight to Turkey. As the aircraft reached 3,500 metres, explosives in a laptop he’d taken onboard exploded. This bomb presumably was triggered by a timer. Fortunately, the Turkish Airlines flight was an hour behind schedule and the explosion ripped a hole in the aircraft’s side, blowing out a window and sucking the bomber out of the cabin to his death.
However, had the aircraft been fully pressurized and flying at its cruising altitude, the explosion would likely have disallowed the aircraft’s pilots from safely recovering the plane’s control. For the people onboard the flight, providence once again intervened.
The winds were apparently too strong and would have required the aircraft to cross Mogadishu. Aircraft which had already landed with bullet holes in them revealed this was not a safe route to begin with. Turkish Airlines therefore cancelled the flight and transferred the 73 passengers to the Daallo Flight to Dubai where they would have picked up the connection to Turkey.
Revelations about the lax security arrangements at the airport and recriminations followed. Video of two people handing the bomber the laptop on the air-side of Mogadishu Airport showed the gaping holes in security that existed in Somalia.
[Editor’s note: Read the August/September Homeland Security Today report, Curbside Vulnerability, by John Halinski, a former TSA deputy administrator and former chief operating officer for TSA responsible for helping TSA grow as a high-performance counterterrorism agency, warning about the lack of security outside and immediately inside the nation’s airports]
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, Al Shabaab, was quick to claim the attack. But their bomb making technology was clearly not at a level to assemble a device of such sophisticated manufacture. Links to the work of Al Asiri and his team in Yemen were quickly established — after all, there is clear cooperation between the two major affiliates of Al Qaeda across the Red Sea and the Bab Al Mandab Strait.
Where arms and people are smuggled, bomb designers and their drawings follow. Such links have also crossed the Middle East to Aleppo and are behind the formation of the so-called Khorasan Group, the subject of specific action by US aircraft in the opening salvos of the air campaign over Syria in 2014. This group is at the center of new developments trying to attack western aviation.
The significance of these links dates back to an attempt to smuggle two bombs via cargo freight to a Synagogue in Chicago. The bombs, mailed from Yemen took different routes. The bombs all bore the hallmarks of the work of Al Asiri.
Saudi intelligence warned British authorities who managed to intercept one of the bombs at East Midlands Airport. While the initial inspection revealed little to be concerned about, Saudi authorities maintained a bomb was in a specific parcel. On opening the box, the authorities found children’s toys, a musical instrument and some books. On detailed examination, explosive material was found in the ink cartridge of an apparently innocuousprinter. Had the timer detonated the device, it could have brought down the plane anywhere in Western Europe. A new Lockerbie was prevented by actionable intelligence.
This was a new level of explosive — one that Al Qaeda attempted to hide among electronics and not be obvious, thus passing routine examinations. The latest threat, though, is the next generation of that evolution of bomb. This changed the dynamics of the threat to aviation. Clearly, Al Qaeda and its affiliates where branching out into new ways of attempting to blow up aircraft. The attack in Mogadishu in 2016 was simply the latest in a series of attacks that were continuing. The spectrum of threats now covers liquids to bombs concealed in electronic devices.
What comes next is hard to guess. Somehow putting sufficient explosives into a mobile phone to cause an explosion to bring down an airliner may seem fanciful. But Al Qaeda’s knowledge of explosives is growing literally by the way such ideas cannot be fully discounted. In a tablet or laptop, it is much easier to disguise an explosive or incendiary device. These would be the second generation attempts of the printer-bombs dispatched to Chicago or the device used in Somalia.
What the current security threat shows is that authorities, as before, are trying to stay one step ahead of terrorists. This is very difficult. Mistakes are almost inevitably going to occur as anyone who has travelled in Africa by air knows. There are some airports that are simply not safe. Security staff who appear to spend more time on their mobile phones are not reassuring.
Being secure requires everyone to take their responsibilities so very seriously. It is axiomatic that security is only as good as its weakest link, and often that proves to be the human being. It is these natural failings that organizations such as Al Qaeda rely upon.
To date, it seems, providence has intervened to prevent a much wider range of tragedies. How long fate decides to frustrate terrorists before they get even smarter is anyone’s guess. No one should be letting up their guard. Al Qaeda is determined to maintain its program of attacks against aircraft.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.
[Editor’s note: In 2008, Homeland Security Today published the report, Making Black Magic, which discussed intelligence at the time indicating Al Qaeda was experimenting with gaffes and gimmicks used by magicians to conceal small quantities of plastic explosives. It’s unknown if they continued to work on the ideas reported. While that issue of Homeland Security Today is not available in digital format, the report can be read in this WORD doc.]