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Monday, November 01, 2010 

The cargo bomb plot and never, ever playing down the consequences.

Funny thing, coincidence. Those with tinfoil hats strapped securely to their bonces are already noting just how odd it was that two highly sophisticated, "undetectable" bombs were discovered, conversely, just a couple of days after the chairman of British Airways had a moan about the level of airport security, a day after Sir John Sawers stepped out of the shadows and, obviously, just five days before the US mid-term elections. As comedians know, timing is everything. Clearly though, coincidence and correlation are two entirely separate things; and even those most fevered with conspiratorial thoughts will have problems with false flag operations being launched just because the world's favourite airline is having a whinge, especially just as they re-enter profit. Quite how the discovery of the devices could possibly help Obama or really damage him much further is also dubious. You don't need to wield Occam's razor to realise coincidence is just coincidence this time round.

There are however seriously odd things about the "cargo plane bomb plot", or whatever it's being referred to as. Certainly, no one seems to be 100% sure whether or not the devices really were primed to explode in the air as our own glorious government has it; the Americans for instance aren't so explicit, when they are usually far more aggressive in stating exactly what it was they believed was meant to be the target. As a sceptical Mark Urban had it on Newsnight, if they had been timed to explode either over the ocean or before landing in Chicago, then the one found at East Midlands airport should have detonated while the police were still uncertain over whether or not it was an actual viable device. Almost completely discounted has been the idea that it was a dry run: after all, if they had reached their end destination without being discovered, then they would obviously have been reported by those receiving them at the synagogues, presuming that they weren't meant to detonate once finally reaching their destination. Equally, if it was meant just to cause fear, panic and to put further restrictions on air travel and the global shipping industry, why bother with such complicated devices that may never have been detected if it wasn't for the apparent tip-off, unless of course they knew that those warnings were on their way?

The most reasonable explanation at the time of the writing does seem to be that planes were the target, although it seems those responsible weren't bothered as to whether the plane which ended up being brought down was purely a cargo flight or one which also carried passengers. We then come back to whether or not the devices were genuinely viable and if they were, whether they would have actually brought the planes down. If the devices are the work of the man being blamed, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, then his record is not exactly stellar. While the device which his brother used in an assassination attempt on the Saudi security minister detonated (it's disputed as to whether the bomb was in his rectal canal or hidden in his underpants ala Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), the explosion resulted in his own death, causing only slight injuries to his target. Similarly, even if Abdulmutallab's bomb had detonated properly, it would have most likely failed to have brought down the plane, killing the bomber and the person sitting next to him and most likely de-pressurising the cabin, but not resulting in a catastrophic decompression. The difference with the devices discovered on Friday is in the amount of PETN apparently used, with it being put at around 300 and 400 grammes respectively, far higher than the 80 grammes which Abdulmutallab was meant to have tried to detonate. That is certainly within the region where a successful explosion would put the plane in danger - a similar amount of plastic explosive, most likely Semtex, of which PETN is a major ingredient, brought down Pan Am Flight 103.

That everything is still mostly being couched in hypotheticals suggests that the authorities are not wholly certain themselves that the devices would have been successful. This might be because, as Martin Rivers puts it, we didn't realise the one which made it to East Midlands airport was even a bomb until it was checked and checked and checked again, with everyone accordingly being cautious until more is known. If this is the case, then this is a remarkable change from 2006, when the disruption of the liquid explosives plot was welcomed with blood-curdling warnings of how "mass-murder on an unimaginable scale" had been averted, when the plotters in that instance had never even managed to construct a viable device and when it took the experts numerous attempts themselves to do so. Also in the equation is that it doesn't seem that the UK itself was the principal target, even if the bombs passed through the country on the way to their destination and it could well have been our own citizens who died as a result, altering the assessments as such knowledge does.

One thing which does seem to have been overlooked is that just as much as is this al-Qaida and its offshoots and allies searching for "new" ways to target the West is that it is also just as much an admission of failure. It needs to remembered that even while jihadists are having some relative successes in Somalia and Yemen and making in-roads in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there has been no successful attack on the "West" now since 7/7, even if there have been a number of attempts (whether the Fort Hood massacre can be described as an actual attack is debatable). Up until recently, there had also not been any "copycat" attempts at repeating a previously failed or foiled plot. While there have been adaptations, such as how the liquid bomb plot had its base in the foiled "Project Bojinka", it wasn't until Abdulmutalab attempted to succeed where Richard Reid had failed, even if the execution wasn't exactly the same, that it became clear that desperation has began to set in. We shouldn't therefore see the use of posted bombs meant to explode on cargo planes as much as a new way to cause economic damage as much as a recognition of continuous failure. While takfirist jihadists have not always exclusively used suicide attacks against Western targets, they have long been the method of preference; for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to try the humble bomb in the hold is not exactly a showing of strength. Whether they will now try this again having been foiled is doubtful, at least again in the short-term.

Inevitably then, changes to security at check-in are being made, regardless of the cries from the likes of Michael O'Leary and also regardless to how this was a threat from the postal system, not passengers. Such things it seems almost have to be done not because they are necessarily effective, but to provide the good old illusion of safety, supposedly reassuring even if costly in terms of time. As to whether there's really been a difference in governmental response now we're under the yoke of the civil liberties respecting coalition, it's difficult to tell: the response from the then new Brown administration to Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead attempting jihad was relatively mooted too, even if they soon attempted to extend the detention without charge limit regardless. It was however nice to be reminded of the good old days of life under Blair in an article by Jack Straw at the weekend. His advice: "never, ever, downplay the possible consequences". The only time they ever did was when we invaded Iraq.

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