Sunday, September 20, 2009

Convergence: The Challenge of Aviation Security

Via Stratfor (Global Security & Intelligence Report) -


The airline security paradigm changed on 9/11. In spite of the recent statement by al Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid that al Qaeda retains the ability to conduct 9/11-style attacks, his boast simply does not ring true. After the 9/11 attacks there is no way a captain and crew (or a group of passengers for that matter) are going to relinquish control of an aircraft to hijackers armed with box cutters — or even a handgun or IED. A commercial airliner will never again be commandeered from the cockpit and flown into a building — especially in the United States.

Because of the shift in mindset and improvements in airline security, the militants have been forced to alter their operational framework. In effect they have returned to the pre-9/11 operational concept of taking down an aircraft with an IED rather than utilizing an aircraft as human-guided missile. This return was first demonstrated by the December 2001 attempt by Richard Reid to destroy American Airlines Flight 63 over the Atlantic with a shoe bomb and later by the thwarted 2006 liquid-explosives plot. The operational concept in place now is clearly to destroy rather than commandeer. Both the Reid plot and the 2006 liquid-bomb plot show links back to the operational philosophy evidenced by Operation Bojinka in the mid-1990s, which was a plot to destroy multiple aircraft in flight over the Pacific Ocean.

The return to Bojinka principles is significant because it represents not only an IED attack against an aircraft but also a specific method of attack: a camouflaged, modular IED that the bomber smuggles onto an aircraft in pieces and then assembles once he or she is aboard and well past security. The original Bojinka plot used baby dolls to smuggle the main explosive charge of nitrocellulose aboard the aircraft. Once on the plane, the main charge was primed with an improvised detonator that was concealed inside a carry-on bag and then hooked into a power source and a timer (which was disguised as a wrist watch). The baby-doll device was successfully smuggled past security in a test run in December 1994 and was detonated aboard Philippine Air Flight 434.

The main charge in the baby-doll devices, however, proved insufficient to bring down the aircraft, so the plan was amended to add a supplemental charge of liquid triacetone triperoxide (or TATP, aptly referred to as “Mother of Satan”), which was to be concealed in a bottle of contact lens solution. The plot unraveled when the bombmaker, Abdel Basit (who is frequently referred to by one of his alias names, Ramzi Yousef) accidentally started his apartment on fire while brewing the TATP.


The biggest difference between Bojinka and more recent plots is that the Bojinka operatives were to smuggle the components aboard the aircraft, assemble the IEDs inside the lavatory and then leave the completed devices hidden aboard multi-leg flights while the operatives got off the aircraft at an intermediate stop. The more recent iterations of the jihadist airplane-attack concept, including Richard Reid’s attempted shoe bombing and the 2006 liquid-bomb plot, planned to use suicide bombers to detonate the devices midflight. The successful August 2004 twin aircraft bombings in Russia by Chechen militants also utilized suicide bombers.

The shift to suicide operatives is not only a reaction to increased security but also the result of an evolution in ideology — suicide bombings have become more widely embraced by jihadist militants than they were in the early 1990s. As a result, the jihadist use of suicide bombers has increased dramatically in recent years. The success and glorification of suicide operatives, such as the 9/11 attackers, has been an important factor in this ideological shift.

One of the most recent suicide attacks was the Aug. 28 attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to assassinate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. In that attack, a suicide operative smuggled an assembled IED containing approximately one pound of high explosives from Yemen to Saudi Arabia concealed in his rectum. While in a meeting with Mohammed, the bomber placed a telephone call and the device hidden inside him detonated.


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