Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War * – 2006-08-15 16:07:55
SAN FRANCISCO (August 14, 2006) — The arrest of 24 British citizens alleged to have engaged in a conspiracy to bomb US-bound commercial jets has prompted politicians to warn of a “new 9/11.” A review of the initial information surrounding the plot, suggests that there are some troubling parallels with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon — but not the ones politicians are pointing to.
As in the case of 9/11, knowledge of the potential threat was communicated to authorities long before the actual event. And, as was the case in the 9/11 attacks, US authorities failed to act on warnings in a timely manner.
According to the August 11 Washington Post. “Pakistani officials said they had worked closely with US and British intelligence since December to counter the plot.” A Post story by Craig Whitlock and Dafna Linzer further reported that: “By late last year, the probe had expanded to involve several hundred investigators on three continents who kept dozens of suspects under close surveillance for months… according to interviews with US and European counter-terrorism officials.”
Despite this foreknowledge, the US Department of Homeland Security failed to take any action to prevent travelers from carrying liquids and gels onboard commercial aircraft. Washington did not inform US airports of the security threat until late Wednesday, shortly before the announcement of the British arrests.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the press that US officials were aware that the suspects planned to smuggle bombs and detonators aboard planes “disguised as beverages, electronic devices and other everyday objects.” Chertoff failed to explain why, despite advances warnings, the DHS had taken no steps to ban these carry-on items for eight months.
Was this because British intelligence feared tipping off the conspirators that they were under surveillance? This seems unlikely, since the threat of liquid explosives on aircraft had first become a pubic threat back in 1994,
The question that needs to be answered is why the DHS failed to ban these potentially deadly carry-ons until AFTER the alleged plotters were arrested.
Had DHS and other national airport authorities banned lotions, perfumes, shampoos and toothpaste when they first learned of the threat in December 2005, that action would have served to “protect travelers.”
By waiting until after the alleged conspiracy had been broken up, the belated ban on toiletries did nothing to deter terrorists — it only served to inconvenience thousands of travelers.
The main effect was to create a major civil disruption that provided an opportunity to focus public attention and pump up flagging fears about the “terrorist threat.”
George W. Bush was quick to seize the opportunity. In a story headlined “President Says Plot Validates his Priorities,” Bush claimed the foiled plan provided “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.” Instead of admitting to yet another failure to take pre-emptive steps to protect air travelers, Bush declared: “We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously, we’re still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in.”
Bush was even more blatant in drawing a link between the airport disruptions and his War on Terror. “The inconvenience,” Bush lectured, “occurs because we will take the steps necessary to protect the American people. The American people need to know we live in a dangerous world….”
Bush’s insistence on driving home the linkage between threat and inconvenience called to mind an earlier Bushism. On May 24, 2005, Bush told a gathering in Greece, NY: “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of Repeat catapult the propaganda.”
And Bush had a warning for critics who fear his authoritarian edicts have eroded American freedoms: “It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the USA. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was not cowed by Bush’s rhetoric. Pelosi called for immediate steps to improve airport security that were recommended by the Sept. 11 commission — precautions that have been resisted by the White House. Her request was echoed by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) who complained how, “right after 9/11, I told (then-FAA Administrator) Jane Garvey [that] we needed to get liquids off airplanes. The danger is not just explosives, but flammables as well, like gasoline.”
Even Bush’s former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism, Richard Clark, said the plot “demonstrates that five years after 9/11, we have not dealt effectively with the terrorist threat.”
In fairness, although the plot was well-known to the Western intelligence community, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told the press that Bush was only briefed on the plot “over the weekend.”
SWAT Teams vs. Toothpaste Tubes
The suspicion that the incident was manipulated to maximize public fears has managed to gain some traction in the online chatrooms. A poll on the Daily Kos asks whether the plot was “legit” or “was more drama from BushCo to keep us all afraid.” As of August 14, 51% of the respondents suspected a propaganda hoax. This suspicion is reinforced by a host of illogical responses to the announced threat.
In addition to seizing personal cosmetics at the check-in gates, security personnel also announced that they would seize bottles of lotions, scents or teeth-whiteners purchased from stores located inside the security zone.
There was no logical explanation for this. Even if one were to assume that terrorists would want to infiltrate the staffing at airport stores, they would still have to smuggle bomb-making supplies through airport security and hide them on shelves. They would then have to make sure the special bottles of Oil of Olay secretly stuffed with peroxide would be sold only to fellow terrorists who managed to appear at the store for a pre-arranged exchange. The odds that a terrorist posing as a store clerk would have the opportunity to deal one-on-one with a terrorist posing as a passenger, are beyond astronomical.
Even more absurd was California Governor Arnold Schwazenegger’s dispatch of 300 National Guard troops to several airports. “I can assure the people of California that we’re doing everything to keep them safe,” the governor proclaimed. But how these troops were supposed to address this particular threat was not explained.
The San Francisco Chronicle illustrated the illogic of the response with a story that featured two photos — a shot of two heavily-armed, camouflaged, flack-jackets soldiers above a smaller photo of a half-dozen beauty-care products and a tube of toothpaste.
SF Mayor Gavin Newsom observed that having the armed National Guard troops patrolling at local airports, far from establishing calm, “certainly elevates the level of insecurity (among travelers) at the airport.”
The “Dry Run” Conundrum
A US counter-terrorism official told the New York Times that the plotters had been planning a “dry run” of the operation in the next few days when they intended to test whether they could board flights simultaneously.
Does this make any sense? Suicide bombers don’t stage “dry runs.”
Why would potential bombers question whether they could board flights simultaneously? They could simply book tickets for simultaneous flights weeks in advance. Why the need for a “dry run”?
Once carried on board, it would be a simple matter to retire to a washroom and pour the contents of one bottle into another. Again, why the need for a “dry run”?
Wouldn’t a “dry run” invite the possibility of some glitch or failure that would result in detection, discovery and arrest?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to go-for-broke? If a bomber successfully gets on the plane with the bomb why wouldn’t the bomber detonate the bomb? What would a “dry run” mean in such a scenario — the bomber succeeds in boarding the plane, succeeds in mixing the liquids, succeeds in attaching the wires from a disposable camera to the bottle of explosives but doesn’t press the trigger?
That would mean that, when the plane touched-down in the US, the bomber would disembark with a bottle of explosive liquid on his person. He would then have to buy a return ticket to Britain. Whereupon he would have to repeat the whole exercise again but this time “for real.” Does this make sense?
In a San Francisco Chronicle article on “Liquid Explosives,” Paul J. Caffera recounted how “Airline security experts have been talking for years about the threat posed by liquid and gelled explosives and the inadequacy of current airport screening devices to detect them.”
Instead of ordering a ban on suspect cargo, Washington opted for giving the private sector millions in government contracts to invent and build technologies to detect liquid explosives. The program received $18.9 million in 2004 and is set to receive $76.6 million for the fiscal year beginning in October. The money continues to flow into the pockets of private industry but proven gel-bomb sniffing still remains a pipe dream.
Operation Bojinka Was No ‘Dry Run’
The Washington Post cited unnamed “private analysts” who “expressed suspicion that the plot was an al Qaeda operation… [since] all of the suspects were British citizens.” The plot did, however, echo an earlier al Qaeda bombing scheme.
In the mid-1990s, a group of al Qaeda supporters launched Operation Bojinka, a plan to use nitroglycerin to simultaneously destroy 11 airliners over the Pacific. The plot was uncovered when a fire broke out in the conspirators’ Manila apartment. A police inspection of the apartment turned up dolls wearing clothes made from nitrocellulose.
(If you find the prospect of a bearded man walking onto a plane carrying a doll fanciful, try to picture the same passenger carrying the doll to a washroom, stripping off the dress and stuffing the fabric into a bottle of chemicals to create a bomb. But if airports are serious about security, they might wish to ban other potentially dangerous nitrocellulose products — including guitar picks, ping pong balls and celluloid packaging.)
A Chronicle article by Simon Reeve reports how, in December 1995, Ramzi Yousef tested a gel-bomb using a fraction of the explosives planned for the main bombs that would be used in a later terror attack. He boarded a plane, mixed the liquids in the plane’s bathroom, placed the bomb, a 9-volt battery and timer under his seat and left the plane at the next stop. After the plane took off for the last leg of its flight, the bomb exploded, killing the Japanese passenger who took Yousef’s seat.
Although the plane was badly damaged the pilot managed to land successfully. This wasn’t a “dry run.” It was expected that the plane would crash into the sea, destroying any clues as to the cause of blast.
US Wanted Plot to Proceed “Even Further”
If the plotters were under surveillance for months, why didn’t the authorities act sooner to arrest them? Post reporters Whitlock and Linzer offer the following explanation: “British and US law-enforcement authorities decided against breaking up the cells right away, in hopes that they could learn more about the origins of the network and assemble evidence for prosecutors.”
The Post reporters then append the following startling statement: “Some US counter-terrorism officials said plans originally were to allow the conspiracy to develop even further.” Given that the bombing was set to take place within a week, what did these US officials mean by “even further”? What did they hope to gain by allowing the conspiracy to proceed “even further”?
This odd accommodation of terrorists’ plans recalls the FBI’s under-reported role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In October 1995, Sheikh Omare Abdul Rahman and nine others were found guilt of conspiracy in the bombing. None of them were actually accused of participating in the bombing — they were only charged with conspiracy. In order to gain these convictions, the FBI used an infiltrator named Emad Salem, a former Egyptian Army officer.
Court transcripts leaked to the New York Times revealed that the 1993 WTC bomb was built by Emad Salem. In one of the transcripts, Salem boasted to his FBI handlers: “We was start already building the bomb which is went off in the World Trade Center. It was built by supervising supervision from the Bureau and the DA and we was all informed about it and we know that the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant.”
Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal obsesrved that “scattered through the hundreds of pages of transcripts are many instances in which the Government agents appear to encourage Mr. Salem to lead the suspects to incriminate themselves.”
According to transcripts of recorded conversation with his FBI handlers, Salem warned agents that the bomb was scheduled to be detonated and asked to substitute a harmless powder for the explosive. Salem’s pleas were ignored and the operation was allowed proceed “even further.” On February 26, 1993, the bomb tore a crater in the underground parking lot of WTC, killing 6 and injuring 1,000.
On October 27, 1993, the New York Times published an article that included portions of Salem’s taped conversations with FBI agent John Anticev. “They told me that ‘we want to set this’,” Salem complained. “You were informed. Everything is ready. The day and the time. Boom. Lock them up and that’s that.” Instead, the bombing was allowed to proceed. “That’s why I feel so bad,” Salem told Anticev.
The Real Bombers Got Away
In another bizarre twist, two of the men who worked with Salem on building the bomb, were allowed to flee the country. One of the bombmakers had illegally entered the US using an Iraqi passport. He was fingerprinted for attempting an “illegal entry” but was released pending a hearing.
A few hours after the bomb ripped through the World Trade Center, he caught a ride to JFK Airport with a second bomb-maker and, using falsified travel documents, they flew to freedom — one to Pakistan; one to Jordan.
The names of the real WTC bomb-makers who worked alongside FBI infiltrator Salem, were Ramzi Yousef and Mohamad Salameh. Yousef’s name should be familiar. He is the same man who, two years later, was caught conspiring to use liquid explosives to destroy 11 airplanes crossing the Pacific.
Back to the Present
Following the announcement of the 24 bomb-plot suspects in Britain, London officials took every opportunity to trumpet the news of the arrests. However, they refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether they had recovered any actual physical evidence of bomb-making materials. They also refused to describe what kind of liquid explosives the suspects were allegedly planning to use.
In the US, TV news reports on the plot were accompanied by full-color illustrations of sports-drink bottles filled with orange liquid — the explosive component lurking in the bottom half. In San Francisco, a spokesman for Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was interviewed by local TV reporters who wanted more information on liquid explosivers. During the interview, the official could be seen cradling a sports-drink bottle filled with orange liquid — an exact replica of the “weapon” flashed on TV screens. The reporter failed to ask where the prop bottle came from or who placed it in the hands of the LLNL staffer.
Within days of the arrests in Britain, Italy announced the arrests of 40 Muslim “suspects.” After the initial chill had coursed down the public spine, it turned out that most of the arrests were for visa violations and other minor offenses unrelated to any terrorist activities. (By this time, at least two of the original British detainees had been released for lack of evidence.)
The arrests in Britain and Italy (and reports that the plotter had colleagues working inside the US) served to advance a new message in the “War on Terror” — the threat of the “homegrown” terrorist.
This was a theme introduced by FBI Director Robert Mueller back in 2004 when he warned that al Qaeda “appears to recognize the operational advantage it can derive from recruiting US citizens.”
As Matthew B. Stannard reported in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The importance of understanding the difference between homegrown and foreign terrorists has practical implications…. Homegrown terrorists may not need to travel through secure airports to reach their targets, for example, and are less likely to appear on watch lists or arouse suspicion from law enforcement for looking or sounding out of place.”
Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, expanded on this theme, telling the Chronicle: “When the threat has evolved as it has to this homegrown phenomenon in advanced societies — pretty nice places like the UK and Canada — most of the tools we have been using to date to identify terrorists… are simply not adapting to that.” “But that’s changing,” Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror told the Chronicle.
Americans have been taught to fear terrorists abroad. Americans have learned to fear foreigners in their midst. Now it is time to teach Americans to fear one another. As the lines in US airports grow longer, Americans will have even more time to dwell on the unanswerable question: “Are those people next to me loyal citizens or ‘homegrown terrorists’?”
The more important question should be (as it was after 9-11): “Why was it that the Bush administration, with months of foreknowledge of a terrorist plot, failed to act to protect the American people?”
* For identification purposes only. This is a personal commentary that does not necessarily reflect the opinions of members of the EAW coaliton.
Gar Smith is the winner of several Project Censored Awards and is the Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and a co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.
Terrorism Scare a Cynical Charade?
Gwynne Dyer / Winnipeg Free Press
(August 12, 2006 ) — “I used to know when I was being deeply cynical and when I wasn’t,” said a friend who just made it into London before they closed Heathrow airport for the terrorist scare. “Now, I don’t.”
Back in February 2003, when Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to persuade a reluctant Britain that invading Iraq alongside the United States was a really neat idea, tanks suddenly appeared on the perimeter road around Heathrow to guard against an impending terrorist attack. It wasn’t clear what they were supposed to do — crush the terrorists under their treads? — and no actual terrorists ever showed up, but it helped to shape public opinion. So how different is it this time?
Hundreds of flights delayed or cancelled. Twenty-four alleged conspirators arrested in East London, Thames Valley towns and Birmingham, many of them described by neighbours as bearded Muslims wearing traditional dress.
Shocking revelations that they had a new technique for blowing up to 10 aircraft on the heavily travelled London-US routes out of the sky simultaneously by smuggling explosive liquids aboard.
All cabin baggage banned on flights out of Britain. And in a classic case of panic envy, the US Department of Homeland Security declares a red alert in the United States, too.
That should scare the public into supporting a war on terror a bit longer, even if the real wars are about something else, and are going seriously wrong: Iraq sliding into civil war, the Taliban coming back in Afghanistan, Israel flattening Lebanon without making any significant dent in Hezbollah’s capabilities. Most people will assume that with all that smoke, there must be some fire.
Of course there’s some fire. Terrorists of various sorts have been in business for about 40 years, and the current crop of Islamist terrorists are especially dangerous since they are willing to kill themselves along with their victims.
But in the United States more people die on the roads every single month than Islamist terrorists have killed since the year 2000, and in Britain it’s more people every week. Yet neither country has tried to restrict access to cars.
Maybe it’s cynical, but there are strong grounds for suspecting that this is all a charade. If they infiltrated these terrorist cells many months ago and have now arrested most of the members, then why would they institute drastic security measures on flights at this point? And did they really only realize in the last few days that explosives come in liquid form as well?
British Home Secretary John Reid boldly asserted that the main players had been accounted for, and Scotland Yard Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson proudly announced that “we are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and commit mass murder.”
Well done, lads — but if you have them all locked up, why are you closing the airports and bringing in all these draconian security measures now? A couple of months ago, when you first uncovered this plot but didn’t know all the “main players.”
I could understand such drastic precautions, but why now? Maybe it was those explosive liquid chemicals they were planning to smuggle aboard the planes. After all, it’s only 160 years since nitroglycerin was invented.
It’s a mere 11 years since al-Qaida associate Ramzi Yousef plotted to blow up 12 airliners flying across the Pacific at the same time with nitro carried aboard in contact lens solution bottles. Who could have foreseen this? Quick! Bring in new security measures!
They really aren’t that stupid. They have been checking liquids that people want to carry aboard flights at airport security checkpoints for years. There would be no need for drastic new security measures even if the alleged British terrorist ring were still on the loose.
This is all hype, designed to frighten the British and American publics into supporting the wars of their deeply unpopular governments (and the war of their Israeli ally as well).
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.