Neil Doyle: Aviation still a target 20 years after Lockerbie

Yorkshire Post
Published Date: 19 December 2008
THIS weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the deaths of 270 people in the Lockerbie disaster. The incident still ranks as the worst terrorist attack seen in Britain which seems almost miraculous, given al-Qaida’s enduring interest in aviation.

Modern day concerns about aviation-related terrorism can be traced back to the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian militants.

A panel was set up by US President Richard Nixon in the wake of the tragedy to develop plans to protect the US from similar attacks from Arab terrorists – which quickly concluded that commercial aviation was an obvious weak point.

According to a 1972 assessment that was not declassified until 2005, the panel concluded: “It is estimated that the threat of hijacking of international flights accompanied by acts of terrorism will continue until a satisfactory solution to the Palestinian problem in the Middle East is found and peace is negotiated in the Middle East.”

It would seem that little has changed. Al-Qaida continues to target aircraft and airports in its self-declared quest to remove Jews and Christians from Muslim lands.

The US has been aware of the risks posed to aircraft by al-Qaida since at least January 1995, when police in the Philippines busted a cell in Manila and found documents describing a plan called Operation Bojinka. It proposed blowing up 11 US airliners in mid-air en route to America from Asia and hijacking and crashing a 12th aircraft into the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia.

The man behind the plot was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who would later go on to mastermind the September 11 attacks in the US. Increased security since 9/11 has resulted in terrorists looking for ever more ingenious ways to down aircraft.

The two would-be shoe-bombers, Richard Reid and Sajid Badat, are prime cases in point. Less well-known is the case of an Algerian, Abbas Boutrab, who was convicted in Northern Ireland in 2005 of planning acts of terrorism.

Documents seized during his arrest suggest that he was working on developing a new generation of “micro-bombs” that would evade airport screening equipment. One plan appeared to be to conceal a small explosive device inside a personal music player.

The failed 2006 plot to bring down airliners using liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks is another manifestation of al-Qaida’s obsession with aircraft. History demonstrates that the terror network’s leaders will continue to plug away at what they consider to be prime targets until the job is done. The Twin Towers were chosen because of their iconic status as symbols of Western capitalism. Likewise, aircraft are attractive to Islamic terrorists as symbols of Western technological prowess.

All the signs indicate that it wants to see the 1995 Operation Bojinka plan bought to fruition. The 2006 airlines plot could be seen as an attempt to do this, not least because the conspirators in both cases planned to use liquid explosives.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is currently on trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He has admitted to his role in 9/11 and he wants the death penalty, in order to become a martyr and a hero to be emulated by others.

If he is executed, the pressure to execute an operation that would see the simultaneous destruction of several passenger aircraft may increase, as network operatives seek to commemorate his death. There has been some speculation that the recent Mumbai attacks may have been mounted to fulfill the last wishes of the Bali bombers for retribution.

Three plotters convicted of involvement in the 2002 bombings, which killed 202 people, were executed in Indonesia by firing squad just a few days before the Mumbai attacks. A joint letter published on a website called upon al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to take revenge.

Al-Qaida’s deputy leader duly responded with a speech that eulogised the Bali bombers, which was issued on jihadist websites.

Recent arrests in Europe have been related to plots to attack airports and, of course, this week’s verdict in the Glasgow airport attack case again highlights the enduring appeal of aviation to Islamic terrorists. It would seem safe to assume that aircraft must figure among the targets included in the 30 major terrorist plots in the UK that the security services are currently monitoring.

It would also be safe to assume that everything is being done to prevent al-Qaida from pulling off a terror attack that will dislodge Lockerbie as the worst seen on UK soil. Perhaps the best possible memorial for the victims would be to ensure that the tragedy remains a unique one.

Neil Doyle is an investigative journalist specialising in international terrorism, and author of the book Terror Base UK.

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