What’s New About the London Terror Plot?

Al-Qaida has tried this before.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Although the information about the plot disrupted in Britain remains fragmentary at this point, it looks remarkably like a variation on the theme of the Bojinka conspiracy of 1994-95. In that plot, Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, worked with his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, to blow up a dozen U.S. commercial jets almost simultaneously over the Pacific. The counterterrorism community is buzzing that the London plot was the real deal, a major conspiracy disrupted. Comparing these two foiled efforts can tell us a lot about what has changed in jihadist terror over the last decade and, equally important, what has not.

First, the continuities: Jihadists continue to view mass casualty attacks against Americans as the gold standard in terror. The Bojinka conspiracy would have caused upward of 3,000 deaths if it had not been foiled. The terrorists continue to view commercial aviation as a prime target for several reasons: A plane is a confined place in which lots of people can be killed with very little explosive charge; there is a special horror to being blown out of the sky that has captured the imagination of the public—and therefore attracted terrorists—for decades; and the follow-on effects, especially the economic impact of shutting down air traffic, give an additional premium. To all this should be added a new reason: After 9/11, so many billions of dollars were poured into aviation security that terrorists now must believe that it would be an enormous coup to show how all the new safety measures could be defeated.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the London conspirators tried to follow the path Ramzi blazed with the extraordinarily innovative liquid explosive device that he created for the Bojinka plot. Experts continue to disagree on whether he planned to use TATP (triacetone triperoxide), a favorite of Palestinian terrorists, or nitroglycerin. Traces of both were found in a Manila apartment where he nearly blew himself up in 1995, the event that led to the unraveling of the plot. Both are unstable liquids, and it is quite a feat to stabilize them enough to carry them onto a plane.

The bomb Ramzi devised, which included a Casio watch, ordinary batteries, and a contact lens solution case for the explosive, would be undetectable at the airport without a tip-off or stroke of genius on the part of an inspector. Bojinka failed not because of a problem with the bomb but rather because of a screw-up—the fire in Ramzi’s Manila kitchen brought in the Philippine police, who passed on some papers, including lists of airline flights and a computer, to U.S. officials. Ultimately, the design of the bomb was pieced together, and it became clear that such a device had been used in an attack on a Philippine Airline flight that killed one Japanese businessman but did not bring down the plane. The plot began to dissolve, and Ramzi was captured in an Islamabad guesthouse.

It has been widely known among aviation and counterterrorism experts that the security upgrades of the post-9/11 period have done little to prevent one of these “liquid bombs” from getting onboard a plane—it is unclear if anything short of banning all liquids in carry-on and stowed baggage could make a difference. Jihadists have made it a hallmark of their work that if they think they have a valuable tactical innovation, they keep at it until they get it right. (After the explosive-laden skiff that was supposed to blow up the USS TheSullivans in Yemen sank, al-Qaida operatives tried again and blew up the USS Cole.) Therefore, a return to the liquid-explosive approach was probably always in the cards—and, since it can only be stopped if there is intelligence about the terrorists themselves, it will probably remain so.

So, if the Heathrow plot is to a significant extent a rerun of Bojinka, what is new here?

Europe: With its apparent center point in Heathrow, the conspiracy demonstrates how Europe has become one of the two great “fields of jihad,” in the parlance of radical Islamists. (The Middle East, where jihadism had been largely suppressed or exported in the 1990s, has come roaring back as a theater of operations, thanks in large measure to the turmoil around the war in Iraq.) Southeast Asia remains an area of extremist activity, and Jemaah Islamiyah is still a threat in that region. But JI is essentially an old-style hierarchical organization with a limited pool of recruits. Europe’s disaffected young Muslims clearly present a larger cohort of potential terrorists, and, in this case, the conspirators were apparently citizens of a country at war in the Muslim country of Iraq.

For those who participated in last year’s London Tube bombings and in the Madrid bombings, Iraq was a key motivator. In light of polling that shows large numbers of British Muslims to be angry about the occupation, it seems likely that the war played a catalytic role. On top of resentment at the lack of opportunity and integration—and the United Kingdom has probably done better at ameliorating discontent than any other European country—Iraq has been a tipping point.

Homegrowns: Many details of the Bojinka plot remain obscure, but clearly there was a small core group of operatives—perhaps no more than four, including Ramzi—and they were itinerant radicals. Most or all of the 24 individuals arrested in Britain are said to be British citizens. That indicates the dramatic change in the jihadist movement from being dominated by veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets to being primarily the domain of self-recruited newcomers, many of them born in the West. It is sometimes said that the jihadist movement has failed to mobilize the masses, and there is some truth to this. But it has certainly mobilized a good number of young men to join up, and terrorism is an activity in which very small numbers make a big difference to public security.

The fact that those involved appear to be “homegrowns” or “self-starters” does not mean that there was no support from outside. It is possible that members of the historic core of al-Qaida under direction from Osama Bin Laden have assisted them, or, more likely, that some other group, like the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Tayba helped. It now seems that at least one of the Tube bombers found his way to LeT while visiting Pakistan.

If the Heathrow plotters did the same—and some argue that a plot as sophisticated and complex as this one would demand such outside expertise, we could be seeing some “re-networking” of a jihadist movement that had been viewed as atomized in the post-9/11 period. That would both raise the danger level—because more technical expertise could be brought to bear in a conspiracy—and increase the chances of intelligence services catching wind of an operation. The more moving parts there are, and the less insulated a cell is, the easier it is to find.

Suicide attacks: When Ramzi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed planned Bojinka, the expectation was that the bomber would get on a flight at its point of origin, assemble the bomb on board, and get off at another stop before the plane began the long leg across the Pacific. (When Ramzi did his test run on the Philippine Airlines flight, he boarded a plane to Tokyo in Manila and got off, after taping the bomb under a seat, on the Philippine island of Cebu.) We don’t know yet if the Heathrow attacks were planned as “martyrdom operations,” but if the targeted flights went directly from Heathrow to the United States, then they were probably intended to be suicide bombings.

That, in turn, would confirm that there are more individuals with greater emotional commitment—fanaticism, if you prefer—available for jihadist terror than before. That may not be big news, but it is a depressing reminder of how the phenomenon has deepened and become more threatening in a very short time.