Simon: Plane Plot May Have Been the Next "Big One"

CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon says the plot uncovered by British authorities to simultaneously down several aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean bears all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda and suggests the group is still a viable threat.

August 10, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Steven Simon, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, says the plot uncovered by British authorities to simultaneously down several aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean has some similar elements to last summer’s attacks on the London mass-transit system. The conspiracy, he says, underscores "the continued attraction of transportation as a target of terrorists."

Simon, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says the planned attack bears all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda and suggests the group is still a viable threat. "It is possible," he says, "that this rather large conspiracy that the British have uncovered would have been the next big one."

What is your impression of what has happened in London overnight and this morning?

The events of last night and today are suggestive of a number of things. In no particular order, they are: First, the continued attraction of transportation as a target of terrorists. This doesn’t take really more than a single brain cell to think through; transportation is in some ways an easy target. You get a lot of victims at once. There are is a lot of bang for the buck. There is a particular horror attached to transportation attacks because passengers are in effect helpless in a situation like that. That is one thing. The other is, judging from early reports, the Pakistan link to this conspiracy. This information is tentative, and it is fragmentary, but it looks as though Pakistanis were involved—that is to say Pakistanis residing in Britain. And it may have had, according to British authorities, a global dimension, which is to say that more than likely the conspirators were linked to fellow conspirators in Pakistan.

You don’t mean the Pakistani government, just Pakistani nationals?

No, I don’t mean the Pakistani government. But it looks as though the residual infrastructure of what we have been calling al-Qaeda is in Pakistan. And this link has become apparent in the course of the investigation of the attacks against the London subway and bus system on July 7 last year. That is the second thing. The third thing, according to initial reports coming out of Britain, is at least some of the conspirators were born in Britain; they were British subjects. This again recalls the July 7 attacks and the July 21 attempted attacks [four attempted bombings two weeks after the July 7 London subway bombings] in London and raises questions about the degree to which the long-standing and consistent emphasis of British policy on multiethnicity, on cultivating a multiethnic society, has worked very well. That is a serious question not just for the British, but for other European countries as well, and possibly even the United States.

The fourth interesting thing is the plot was discovered. The last time happened in, I guess, 1994 or 1995, when a similar plot [Operation Bojinka] was generated to destroy as many as twelve U.S.-flagged aircraft over the Pacific. The plot was discovered because of an accident: Some of the conspirators were whipping up the explosives in their kitchen and a fire resulted. That led to a chain of events that disclosed the conspiracy. It doesn’t look—at least as of now—like the British police got a similar lucky break. They got their information through other means. They have been saying the conspirators were under surveillance but have not addressed the question of how it came to be that the police selected these conspirators for surveillance to begin with—that we are not going to know for a while if ever.

Is there anything to suggest this was a cooperative intelligence effort as opposed to a strictly British one?

It is possible the British have some cooperation through a liaison relationship with the Pakistani service that may have clued them in to what was going on at that end of the conspiracy, if indeed that was one of the poles or nodes of the conspiracy. There has not been any evidence in the reporting on this or in public statements thus far to suggest any of the information the British used to make the arrests was developed by the United States or U.S. sources. Again, until we know more about this, I think it is unwise to speculate.

In order for British authorities to roll up the group of terrorists trying to blow up these airplanes, they must have some sort of solid evidence. What kind of thing would provoke British authorities to make these arrests when they did?

Again, this is speculation, but the information could be developed in any number of ways. First, there is community policing. You have cops on the beat who become aware through sources in the neighborhoods they patrol of unusual events or unusual activities or changes in the behavior or attitudes of particular individuals in a way that has raised the concern of their neighbors. They might have got this information from informants that were deliberately planted in mosques or coffee houses or what have you. The information might have come from a conspirator who had second thoughts and disclosed the details of the plot to police. Alternatively, the information could have been developed by monitoring communications between conspirators in Britain and outside of Britain—perhaps in Pakistan—and those communications intercepts led to the surveillance that ultimately revealed the plot.

So the potential avenues to neutralizing this plot were many. As we were saying a minute ago, there might have been information derived from friendly [intelligence] services outside of Britain that might have uncovered some information, in this case arguably Pakistan, given what we know thus far. There are a lot of ways in which this information can come to light, but thus far, again, we don’t really know how the special branch of the metropolitan police in MI5 detected this plot or developed the suspicions that caused them to set up the surveillance net they did.

What is interesting is the relatively large number of people who have been arrested. The plot was extremely ambitious, like its predecessor, the Bojinka plot. [In 1995, Philippine and U.S. authorities foiled an al-Qaeda plot to detonate bombs aboard up to a dozen trans-Pacific airliners (WashPost)]. If you are going to destroy six or ten airplanes, you need a lot of bombers. That relatively large number of conspirators raises real security risks for the plotters. The more people involved, the less secure the network is. That is just a given in these situations. The very fact the plot was so ambitious may have led to its detection.

I have seen at least one analyst suggest that for a plot of this magnitude, it would require the largest attack network in al-Qaeda’s history, if indeed this is al-Qaeda. Does that sound accurate to you, and what is the significance of the increased network?

I don’t know. The Bojinka plot involved a lot of people necessarily. The Bojinka plot made very clever uses of plane changes, stopovers, and all that. From a systems analysis perspective, it seems to have been more sophisticated than what the current plotters were attempting to do. Anyway, I would think the prior plot, Bojinka, would have entailed a similarly sized network.

What do today’s arrests tell us about al-Qaeda?

They are a sign that it is al-Qaeda. There has been an interesting debate since September 11 about what happened to al-Qaeda. The United States and its allies in the so-called war on terrorism have made substantial tactical progress in arresting many of the individuals who are involved in the 9/11 plot. These successes have led to the reasonable supposition that your father’s al-Qaeda is probably a thing of the past, and it has been largely neutralized. And this is why, in combination with the defensive measures that the United States and other countries have taken, there hasn’t been a big attack. Others have said that argument is valid but only up to a point, in that the reason there has not been a big attack is al-Qaeda is not going to stage an attack unless it is big—unless it is going to have an enormous dramatic impact along the lines of the 9/11 attacks. So it is not as though they have disappeared; it is really rather that they [are] hunkered down waiting to be able to pull off the next big one. It is possible, but again we don’t really know at this point, that this rather large conspiracy the British have uncovered would have been the next big one.

With that in mind, is the upcoming fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks a factor in any of this?

Well, quite possibly. If it is al-Qaeda, then anniversaries are big events. It would have probably, in their view, enhanced the dramatic effect of an attack if it were to take place within the same time frame as the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, one needs to bear in mind that in these conspiracies the timing of their execution rests, to some extent, on purely contingent factors like: Are they ready? Is everybody on track? Does everybody know their role and are they prepared to carry it out? Has anything unexpected intervened? Do any of the members of the conspiracy think they are under surveillance and need to postpone things? These are factors that are just purely tactical that determine when an attack is actually carried out.