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August 11, 2006

Arrests for Terrorism: The Big(ger) Picture

By now, everyone has heard about the arrests in England related to a seemingly well-developed plot to blow up airplanes using explosives they were going to pass off as soda. Many details are still emerging, and I've seen a number of conflicting accounts. So let's step back and look at a few of the bigger picture issues: security measures, al Qaeda, and some suggested links and reading.

Security Measures & the Future

The first move was to ban all liquids and gels from planes. OK, but this method was successful 12 years ago, so why are we reacting now rather than having something better in place a long time ago?

The brief history is that Ramzi Yousef used this method on a Phillipines airliner in 1995. The intelligence agency there released info - now widely available through the internet - that - the noted training on "using a Casio watch as a timing device, chemical mixtures to compound bombs." (1 page .pdf from Nine-Eleven Finding Answers Foundation) Reeve's excellent book, The New Jackals, goes into much more detail about Operation Bojinka. The makings of the bomb, which used "a contact lens case, with cotton wool as a stabilizer, and then using two nine-volt batteries to power light-bulb filaments and spark an explosion." The explosion killed a Japanese businessman, and Reeves credits the skill of the pilot for a safe landing with 272 passengers. (Yousef may have next met Terry Nichols, and thus passed key technical knowledge about bombs that helped with the Oklahoma City bombing.)

More than a decade later, the mixture seems to be better for terrorist purposes, and the detonator was a digital camera. But why has there been more attention to this method between then and now? 

More problematically, how safe is it to merely require people to put liquids in checked luggage? Hasn't anyone heard of a remote control detonator? Keeping the potential liquid bombs out o fthe passenger cabin means someone can't assemble one in flight and set it off manually. But if the same explosive liquids are put in checked luggage, and the watch or something similar is used to set it off? (Yousef used the watch as a timer, so the bomb went off the next leg of the flight.)

While checked luggage is screened, part of the screening is for the chemical signature of plastic explosives - not the mixture prepared for use in the recent foiled plot. Screening for the new mixture, from what I understand so far, is going to be difficult because imaging scans will not pick it up because it is the density of many other substances. We need a new chemical sniffer that can accurately check large numbers of bags with a high level of accuracy. (See some of the links from the Counter-terrorism blog.)

UPDATE: It seems the British did eliminate all carryon items, even books, although they have now allowed carryons without liquids. More detail at end of post. 

This arrest stopped a threat, an event whose importance should not be underestimated. If the explosion happened, the plane would have gone down int he middle of the ocean, and the chances of finiding what happened would have been remote. Without that understanding, it would have been almost impossible to stop the next attack by the same method.  But what are the security measures that will be put in place next? (Expect to flying in the equivalent of an airline issued hospital gown, with your luggage sent seperately?)

Al Qaeda

So far, all evidence points to al Qaeda - the plot was sophisticated, involved simultaneous operations and was against a target they've tried to attack before. It also comes on the heels of al Qaeda statements warning of attacks as reprisal for Iraq (whose most conspicuous occupiers are US and England).

So?  We need to appreciate how dangerous bin Laden is, what a huge mistake it was not to do more to get him after 9-11, and how Iraq contributes to recruiting. In an earlier post about the anniversary of the London bombings, I wrote about some of these issues ('Osama bin Forgotten') and would refer readers back to that. I don't think that getting bin Laden totally 'solves' the problem, but he remains a powerful and inspirational figure.

Among the comments from one of bin Laden's tapes:

Jihad is continuing, praise be to God, despite all the repressive measures the US army and its agents take to the point where there is no significant difference between these crimes and those of Saddam.  These crimes include the raping of women and taking them hostage instead of their husbands.

If you like, read the humanitarian reports on the atrocities and crimes in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The wise ones know that Bush has no plan to achieve his alleged victory in Iraq. If you compare the small number of the dead when Bush made that false and stupid show-like announcement from an aircraft carrier on the end of the major operations, to many times as much as this number of the killed and injured, who fell in the minor operations, you will know the truth in what I am saying, and that Bush and his administration do not have neither the desire nor the will to withdraw from Iraq for their own dubious reasons.

If you win it, you should read the history. We are a nation that does not tolerate injustice and seek revenge forever. Days and nights will not go by until we take revenge as we did on 11 September, God willing, and until your minds are exhausted and your lives become miserable and things turn [for the worse], which you detest.

As for us, we do not have anything to lose. The swimmer in the sea does not fear rain. You have occupied our land, defiled our honour, violated our dignity, shed our blood, ransacked our money, demolished our houses, rendered us homeless, and tampered with our security. We will treat you in the same way.

You tried to deny us the decent life, but you cannot deny us a decent death. Refraining from performing jihad, which is sanctioned by our religion, is an appalling sin. The best way of death for us is under the shadows of swords.

Do not be deluded by your power and modern weapons. Although they win some battles, they lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are better than them. What is important is the outcome.

Yes, I'm one of those who thinks we need to read people's own words to understand them, and give credit to smart people even if they do things we don't like. Here, bin Laden has a take on the events that will be persuasive to many. And, it turns out the problem isn't just better communication with Muslims. As Juan Cole writes:

It turns out that the more Arab students listen to Radio Sawa and watch al-Hurra Television, the US government's main media effort at winning hearts and minds, the more they disliked US policies. Turns out it isn't how the policies are packaged on the airwaves that matters. It is the policies. The students mostly think they stink.

Maybe it's time for something new?

Further Reading

In case you can't find enough coverage of the arrests, check out the postings here, here and here.  

But I'd really recommend some larger background. The Global Guerillas blog has turned me on to the idea of fourth generation warfare, which involves non-state entities fighting states. The idea is that conflicts which do not involve a nation's army are different from fighting terrorist and guerilla groups. This approach doesn't get into the question specific motivations, but a conceptual understanding of asymetic warfare - that Sept 11 was carried out by "young boys [who] came with nothing and only relied on their will, secrecy, devotion and great perseverance. How on earth could 19 young men with box cutters wreak such humiliation on the sole Super Power of the world?". (For those interested in the long version, check out the draft manual on 4GW war.)

In a different context, I came across this video a few days ago. It's 8 minutes, and terrorism is not mentioned until 7 minutes in. But it is thought provoking on the point about those who want to destroy liberty and why we're fighting.


UPDATE: Seth Weinberger's Security Dilemmas blog notes: "passengers traveling to the United States must endure trans-Atlantic flights without iPods, personal DVD players and computers to distract them. Only essential items like passports and wallets held in transparent plastic bags are allowed in the cabin. Passengers are not permitted to carry anything in their pockets, and women’s handbags may not be carried on."

As I noted above, the British have relaxed the rules now. But Seth's ambivalence about the security measures s probably widely shared: "Sometimes, I see it as a serious problem that threatens to undermine the fabric of life in a free and open democratic society. Other times, I realize that more people in the US die each year from food-borne illnesses than have died from terror attacks in the last 15 years combined." 

Maybe we have the makings of a free market experiment. If you were flying from London to NY, and had the choice a flight where people had no carry on items, a flight with no liquids, or a flight with the prearrest rules, which would you choose if all were the same price? Suppose one of the flights with relaxed security was cheaper - how much would it take for us to skip the security and inconvenience?  

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