Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Airliner Plot

Stratfor's special reports on the foiled terror air plot tend towards the perception that while Al-Qaeda is still active, it is less of a threat than it was.

Today's first report sees four "takeaway lessons" from the incident, suggesting that 1) the organization is finding it harder to launch successful attacks outside the Middle East 2) given the arrest figures of 24 out of 50 operatives, it might be concluded that AQ's security has been severely compomised 3) while 9/11 changed the world and Madrid changed Spain's government, all that the London plot has done is to close down an airport temporarily 4) Shiite Iran and Hizballah are now the dominant force in Islamic world terrorism, while Sunni/Wahhabi Al-Qaeda "appears unable to do significantly more than issue snazzy videos."

The second report concentrates on the technical aspect of the airliner plot, and looks at precedents, in particular the 1994-95 "Operation Bojinka", a Philippines-based militant Islamic operation which involved a plan to simultaneously destroy 12 airliners en route to the United States from cities in Asia. In the initial trial experiment, the original nitrocellose-based device detonated, but did not succeed in bring down the Philippine Airlines flight on which it was placed, and so the operatives developed a liquid acetone peroxide explosive which was, however, lost in an apartment fire. Abdel Basit, the author of the conspiracy, fled to Pakistan, but was betrayed to the authorities by one of his accomplices. Bojinka was not a suicide operation - the plotters were supposed to conceal the devices and then jump off the planes.

The report speculates on why it appears to have taken the British authorities so long to arrest the August 10 plotters. Possible reasons may have included the size and complexity of the operation, the reticence and hesitation of one of the suicide plotters who finally got cold feet, or just a general breakdown in operational security. "These arrests," the report concludes,
demonstrate the threat remains very real. One of two other factors also is in play, however. Either the British government's counterterrorism efforts are sufficiently robust as to allow them to penetrate al Qaeda operations in some instance at least, or, as we have discussed in the past, al Qaeda's operational security has been degraded. Either way, penetration is now more possible -- raising the possibility that, though al Qaeda remains a threat, it is not the strategic threat it once was.
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