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On the ‘cargo bombs’ 1, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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The constant battle between terrorists and security measures continues. The recent discovery of PETN explosives in two packages in Dubai and East Midlands airports and the more worrying revelation from Qatar Airways that one of these bombs traveled on two passenger planes, marks the latest stage in the evolution of airplane terrorism.

After the ‘pants bomber’ I wrote an article on this exact topic. I suggested that it is but a matter of time before PETN – the mostly undetectable, powerful explosion of choice by ‘Al Qaeda’ these days – is secreted within a terrorist on a plane, just as Saudi Prince Nayef’s would-be killer attempted to do. Alas I did not factor in the notion that PETN could instead be secreted in packages. Just as well that I’m not in charge of airline security.

Reading and listening to commentaries on this latest near-outrage, one fact above all else jarred with me. There seems to be a universal acceptance that these bombs would have certainly caused these planes to crash, just as there was with the initial reporting of the ‘pants bomber’. Indeed, the often quoted statistic is that 100g of PETN could “destroy a car”. Leaving aside the imprecise nature of ‘destroying’ a car, as I wrote in reaction to this before, it is by no means certain that the ‘pants bomber’s’ bomb would have ripped a hole in the side of an aircraft; moreover, a BBC documentary team recreated the would-be explosion and concluded that it would clearly not have punched a hole in the side of the aircraft. Instead, the aircraft’s skin would have absorbed the explosion and ‘rippled’; diverting the thrust of the explosion in all directions.

As yet I have not come across any reports of how much explosive was in these bombs, though it does look like more than 100g. So while I am certainly not saying that it is not an important and potentially deadly event, all I ask is that a bit of moderation and accuracy is used in forming base ‘facts’ and opinions.

It has been pointed out that cargo planes are not subject to the same kinds of rigorous security measures as passenger planes, at times, as if this is some kind of industry-wide oversight. I disagree. Not only does the sheer number of packages make such a system difficult to implement, but packages are packages and people are people. One can’t expect the same security standards for both; it’s just a brutal fact (for the crew of a cargo plane, that it).

As for the notion that the cargo planes could be involved in a Lockerbie-type tragedy, this is far from a certain proposition, indeed, it may even be unlikely to happen. Packages are routinely re-routed. There is practically no way to know that a package from Sanaa will travel to Doha, Dubai, London and to New York; it could go by any number of different routes over a varying amount of time within set limits. Accurately judging that the cargo plane is ‘over London’, as many newspapers seem to be inferring when it can be used as a bomb, is surely practically impossible. At the speeds that planes travel with large distances covered in seconds and given that a pilot – barring a spectacular whole-system collapse – would divert a plane away from a populated center at the worst-case scenario, it seems highly unlikely to me that such a long-shot would be undertaken. Of course, as Lockerbie grimly proved, sometimes the most unlikely and unlucky of scenarios does indeed come to fruition. Again, I am not trying to discount the possibility or the danger of such an event, but simply want to put it into some perspective.

 

 

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Bum bomb evolves: the breast bomb 26, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I realise that alliteration can be rather a clumsy tool to use at times, but I’m finding it difficult to resist at the moment. Fox News quotes British intelligence agents asserting that there is a chance that female suicide bombers may be seeking to use

exploding breast implants which are almost impossible to detect

The story seems to be faintly absurd to me for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s Fox News reporting it.

Secondly, what’s worse is that Fox News borrowed this story from The Sun, the most tabloidish of British tabloids, which pays but the scantest of attention to the truth and relies on spectacular sensationalism, exaggeration and…well…breasts. [I love how the Wiki article describes the topless model as ‘tastefully nude’.]

Thirdly, the terrorist expert quoted, Joseph Farah, is, as far as I see it, not at all an expert on terrorism. He hasn’t written one book or published one academic article on the subject of which I am aware. I can only assume that no serious expert would agree with such a notion and so they called the arch-conservative, Limbaugh supporting Birther Farah to add the slimiest and thinnest veneer of ‘rigour’ to the article.

Fourthly, yes, of course, it is technically possible. Many things are technically possible. Yet we need to start to pare down the possible possibilities and come up with a reasonable list of things and threats to guard against.

In any case, as the bum bomber spectacularly proved himself, the human body is a great cushioning and absorbing device. Add to this the fact that the BBC proved quite well I think that a decent sized amount of PETN (as used in the pants bombing) will still NOT break the skin of a plane (even outwith the human body) and as far as I’m concerned I’ll not be obsessively scrutinizing women’s breasts on planes as a sensible safety precaution.

From bum bomb to body bomb? 1, February 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Fears have been raised of a new generation of suicide bombers secreting explosives inside their bodies to evade airport security. This story appeared in the Daily Mail (a.k.a the Daily Fear), a newspaper that loves nothing more than whipping up an unjustified frenzy about illegal immigrants, security issues and Princess Diana.

The article quotes MI5 officials voicing such fears based on information from “observing increasingly vocal internet ‘chatter’ on Arab websites this year.” The Daily Hate goes on to quote “a leading source” who suggests that bombers might insert explosives near the appendix or their breasts if they are a female bomber.

Something like this is, in many ways, a logical progression. From bombs strapped to vests, to bombs in shoes, to bombs in underwear to bombs inserted up the bomber’s bottom, bombs stitched into, for example, the chest may well be the next evolution. If PETN, the explosive of choice for recent bombers, was used, a frighteningly small amount of it would be needed to punch through the thin skin of a plane. The Daily Hate suggest that as little as 8oz properly shaped can penetrate as much as five inches of armor.

A few thoughts:

  • In the aftermath of the horrific Madrid train bombings in 2004, I remember various articles discussing the next generation of Al Qaeda ‘sleeper agent’. These omnipotent agents would dress, act, live, eat and drink like ‘us Westerners’, only harboring their deep, dark secret within, waiting to unleash their bombs at an opportune time. Also, they did not have any real contact with the Al Qaeda ‘base’ in Afghanistan/Pakistan but were instead inspired over the internet. These supposed terrorists were, therefore, the very apogee of terrorism: undetectable, driven and deadly. Yet, such terrorists essentially do not exist. This story was more of an apocryphal warning for the maintenance of impossible levels of vigilance than anything else.
  • This potentially undetectable bomb strikes me as somewhat similar in nature. Especially so being as it is the Daily Fearmongerer that has the story. Apologies for belaboring the point but they are such a disreputable paper, so callously playing on peoples’ fears that I find it difficult to believe a word that they write.  Lord Northcliffe the founder of the Daily Mail, after all, based the paper on the notion of giving readersa daily hate to keep them coming back for more.
  • Yet, such a bomb is clearly possible and however unlikely it may be, it needs to be taken seriously. I’d suggest that this further goes to show that profiling of some form or another may well be a larger part of the answer than scanners.

Hat tip: CKU

Plotting the trajectory of airline terrorism 30, December 2009

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This article appeared in The Daily News Egypt on the 29/12/2009.

The terrorist who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day did so with 80g of explosives. Considering that 100g of this explosive — pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN — is capable of destroying a car, as one expert put it, 80g would easily have ripped a gaping hole in the fuselage. Whether the pilot could have subsequently landed the plane is a moot point. What is of infinitely more concern is the next attack and what methods it will employ. One way of pondering such questions is to place this latest attempted outrage in its historical context and to try to extrapolate some kind of evolutionary trajectory.

Christmas Eve 1994 saw the first hijacking of a plane where the intention was to use it as a weapon. Thankfully, the Air France plane hijacked in Algiers landed in Marseilles on Christmas Day where it was stormed by French GIGN Special Forces ending the siege and killing the terrorists, thwarting their plans to blow up the plane over the Eiffel Tower. In 1995, thanks to an accidental explosion at an apartment in the Philippines, Operation Bonjika was discovered and stopped. This was an audacious attempt to hijack and destroy up to 12 intercontinental airplanes with American affiliation over the ocean. The terrorists planned to use liquid explosives stored in contact-lens solution bottles. Had they succeeded, up to 4,000 people could have been killed.

These examples of terrorism are all but forgotten in the face of the 9/11 attacks where all it took were some box cutters. These attacks ushered in a new era of terrorism and a new era of countermeasures. Yet, come 22nd December 2001 and Richard Reid attempted to circumvent these by concealing explosives in his shoes. He too was — thankfully — thwarted and this led to all shoes being x-rayed in American airports and many out with the US too. 2006 saw the arrest of several British citizens when their plan to blow up several transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives was discovered. This resulted in liquids being banned from being taken on planes.

There is an obvious pattern of after the fact catch up in these examples by the security transport authorities. Nevertheless, the failure of these three post-9/11 attacks appears to have relied more on luck than any particular countermeasure.

In the past week, hand baggage has been restricted, GPS positioning entertainment features are being switched off, passengers are not being allowed to get up in the last half hour of the flight and blankets are not allowed to be kept on laps. These measures may well contribute to thwarting someone trying to do exactly the same things as previous failed attempts, but authorities need to seek to plan for the next, modified attack.

At the end of August 2009 a terrorist came to Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef to give himself up, as is often the custom. After going through security and sitting across from Prince Nayef for several minutes the man then exploded, his arm getting embedded in the ceiling. Nayef emerged with only a scratch on his cheek and his hand. It soon transpired that the man had fashioned presumably the world’s first ‘bum bomb’ and had anywhere up to 500g of explosives secreted inside himself. Therefore, when the explosives were detonated, the overstuffed couch and his body absorbed practically all of the energy.

It would be wrong to think that terrorists are intrinsically either irrational or stupid because of what they do. The cliché that they are all poor, uneducated men is also not true:  the recent would-be bomber had a degree from one of the UK’s best institutions. It would be prudent to assume, therefore, that it is but a matter of time before PETA explosives and the idea of secreting them inside one’s body are married together.

In recent days many people have been highlighting the efficacy of full-body scanners. They are quicker and arguably more effective than methods currently employed but the machines are quite expensive (around $170,000) and civil liberties groups are vocally against their introduction. In the most recent example, it is likely (though not certain) that such a scanner would have seen the small package near hidden in the terrorist’s clothing but would be highly unlikely to see anything inside a body cavity.

The only way to avoid this persistent game of attack, response, change, attack, is to stop thinking purely technologically. Of course, scanners and the like will be a key way of mitigating such threats, but whatever technological impediment is placed in front of a terrorist will — eventually — be circumvented, necessity being the mother of all invention. In short, the human part of the equation must not be forgotten and ugly arguments about profiling need to be rehashed. I am not referring to blanket ‘stop him, he’s got a beard’ profiling, but nuanced profiling linked up with already existing intelligence information.

I would suggest that a well-trained official, versed in subtle interrogation and questioning techniques and cognisant of his past would have, at the very least, remanded the terrorist on flight 253 to stricter security measures. Needless to say, this is no panacea and it would be expensive and problematic to train sufficient security staff, but a more nuanced approach is needed as surely with three failed attempts in recent years our luck has nearly run out.

Hakyel on the bum bomb 27, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Bernard Haykel has an excellent piece of analysis in the Guardian about the recent Saudi bum-bomb attack. In short, Hakyel does not really see this incident as a harbinger failure of Saudi’s policies or tactics in their war on terrorism. The key paragraphs are below, but the whole piece is well worth the read.

To an outsider, the episode looks like a colossal security failure, as if the head of the FBI personally greeted one of Bin Laden’s lieutenants at a garden party. But it is just this highly personalised form of politics that the Saudi royals have adopted with defecting al-Qaida members. Indeed, this policy, even with its risks, partly explains al-Qaida’s defeat in Saudi Arabia. Highly personalised politics form part of what might be called Saudi Arabia’s theatre of state, which keeps the royals firmly in power.

Since 2003, Prince Muhammad has been in charge of a successful campaign against violent Islamism in the kingdom. In terms of armed security action, he has developed a strong domestic intelligence and police service that is both efficient and brutal in its tactics. At the same time, the prince has cannily used deeply rooted cultural and religions norms to pressure al-Qaida’s recruits to give up violence.

For example, he offers significant financial inducements to individual jihadis, as well as their families, in return for political obedience. In effect, by not accepting Saudi largesse the militant will be keeping food off his own family’s table – a powerful restraint in a culture and religion in which parents are highly regarded and respected.

Entry into the programme often involves a personal audience with the Saudi prince, in a ceremony that emphasises the paternalistic and personal nature of governance in the kingdom, where all subjects are regarded as well-cared-for children of the royals.

Finally, Prince Muhammad has launched an internet monitoring and disinformation campaign that keeps close tabs on jihadi websites and online forums. As a result, the Saudi security services have a feel for the pulse of jihadi debates, as well as for the radicals’ recruitment strategies.

Al-Qaida has also damaged itself with the Saudi public, which has been repeatedly victimised by terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings of public buildings and attacks on oil and other government installations have alienated many Saudis. With at least 80% of the population dependent on government salaries or grants, the attacks have proved very unpopular.

In addition, ordinary Saudis see the chaos next door in Iraq and do not want the same turmoil at home. For most people, stability, even if imposed by authoritarian means, trumps disorder.

For now, however, the Saudi royals have a prince who is seen as a courageous hero for having survived an assassination attempt while offering the hand of generosity to an unrepentant zealot. Saudi King Abdullah chastised Prince Muhammad for recklessness, but the King must also be thankful that his family has produced a security chief who has broken the back of al-Qaida, at least inside the kingdom.

Saudi attempted assassination: the bum bomb 9, September 2009

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At the end of August Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the Saudi head of counter-terrorism, was slightly injured when a suicide bomber made an attempt on his life. Part of Nayef’s role is to make, propagate and extend contacts with the more radical elements in Saudi and receive ‘former’ terrorists who come to him to give themselves up, rather than be hunted down by the Saudi security forces.

Reports of this attack were exceedingly sketchy initially. The bomber apparently got into the Prince’s compound and ever near the Prince himself without impediment. When the bomb was detonated the bomber was, according to various reports, blown into countless pieces. This insinuates that the explosives on him must have been quite powerful. Yet the question remained of how did he get so close to the Prince with so much explosives. Whilst the Saudis were celebrating Ramadan, surely security was not that lax that a prime target of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula would be so poorly guarded.

It transpires – or rather the Saudi Gazette is reporting – that the bomber had secreted the explosives in himself, as in up his rectum. Apparently he had anywhere up to half a kilogram of explosives inside himself. Yet, despite this, the Prince only suffered from a small cut on his face and an injured finger. One can only surmise that the typical stuffed couch and the bombers body proved to be significantly dampening. What an ignominious way to go.

It raises a few interesting questions about security from now on. Did this failed attack sufficiently show that such tactics simply do not work? Or will terrorists see this as but a failed trial and keep on trying? For if this is the case then it could be decidedly more uncomfortable going to visit a Saudi Prince from now on.

See: The Mideasti blog for an excellent round up of the coverage on this topic.