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The Plot: Al Qaeda or Not?

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
August 10, 2006

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Britain's claim to have thwarted a plot to down as many as ten trans-Atlantic airliners (CNN) raised security levels and threw a chill into cities around the world, even as officials in Washington and London cited intelligence and counterterrorism success. Britain detained two dozen suspects, reportedly acting after a security sweep in Pakistan tipped intelligence agencies to the alleged plot (Daily Telegraph).

President Bush deemed it "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation." British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the counterterrorism operation which led to two dozen arrests in his country was an "immense effort." Both men, under fire for launching a war in Iraq critics see as superfluous to counterterrorism efforts, went out of their way to praise what Blair called an "enormous amount of cooperation" between U.S. and British security services. CFR Fellow Stephen E. Flynn, a homeland security expert, says in a podcast with CFR.org that in spite of the intelligence success, the plot suggests the world still has not come to terms with the mutating nature of the terrorist threat.

The increased security at international transportation hubs snarled air traffic (WashPost) but did little other damage, though British police described the plot as an effort "to commit mass murder on an unprecedented scale" (BBC Video). Many analysts view the revelations both as a major success for international counterterrorism and a wake-up call nearly five years after 9/11. Steven Simon, until recently the senior counterterrorism official on the White House National Security Council, says the plot may well have been al-Qaeda's "next big one" after the 9/11 attacks. But he and others noted the 9/11 attacks spawned many copy-cat groups who looked to al-Qaeda more for inspiration than support. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said as much in multiple media appearances, noting the plot was " suggestive of al-Qaeda" (FT) but that no firm evidence as yet proved a link. CNN.com offers a video of his statement.

The thwarted conspiracy thrusts airline security to the forefront of public concern. In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airline security, raised the threat level on all commercial flights, particularly those originating in Britain. In Britain, security officials put the nation on its highest alert (FT). Authorities have banned almost all liquids in passengers' carry-on baggage, presumably on the suspicion that the alleged terrorists sought to smuggle aboard explosives in liquid or gel form (Guardian). For a sense of how difficult bomb detection can be, MSNBC.com hosts this interactive look at screening technology.

Synchronized attacks on multiple aircraft using liquid explosives sounds familiar to terrorism analyst Evan Kohlman, who points to a 1995 al-Qaeda plan to simultaneously down a dozen planes over the Pacific Ocean. The plot, known as Operation Bojinka, was thwarted by U.S. and Philippine authorities (WashPost). Counterterrorism Blog says the UK plot was backed by the biggest support network in al-Qaeda's history, estimating 100 to 150 people were involved.

U.S. and British agencies worked closely in responding to the newfound threat. This is reassuring after a dispute earlier this summer over the EU-U.S. agreement on sharing passenger data, which is discussed in this interview with Henry Farrell. For further context, check out the Government Accountability Office's reports on airline security, this CFR Special Report on homeland security, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center of Britain's MI-5 domestic security service, and the CIA's Counterterrorist Center.

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