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Experts Analyze UK Airline Terror Plot and Terrorism at Large

August 10, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: What can we tell from today’s announcements in London and Washington about the plot, the plotters and their weapons? For that analysis, we’re joined by Magnus Ranstorp, chief scientist at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. He’s written widely on jihadist movements and terrorism, and he joins us from Copenhagen, Denmark.

And Daniel Benjamin, a former director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton, he’s co-author of the book, “The Age of Sacred Terror,” about the rise of al-Qaida.

And welcome to you both.

Mr. Ranstorp, beginning with you, from what we have learned about this alleged plot and about the young men who were arrested in connection with it, what kind of an operation does this look like to you?

MAGNUS RANSTORP, Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies: Well, it looks like a very serious operation with the potential, of course, of realizing, after the arrests, that it was very imminent that something would be happening. And I think that it would be very likely that it probably would be some type of connection back to Pakistan.

I would be very surprised if the tentacles did not stretch back to Pakistan, because we’ve had similar incidents in the past whereby some senior individual in Pakistan have directed and dictated this type of operation. So I think that it’s a very serious issue when you’re dealing with Pakistan.

It was also similarly from what we can gauge from some of the other comments made by the police that it was expected to be a synchronized, multiple operations, that it would be involving different components smuggled in through security. That would involve liquid explosives; that would involve some type of timer, some type of release mechanism, electrical circuitry.

So I think that, overall, this is probably one of the largest plots that has been uncovered since 9/11.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Benjamin, does this look like the kind of operation that could have been pulled off by a homegrown cell or cells? Or would something of this complexity, so many moving parts and the technology involved, do you think required real direction, and training, and planning from outside?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, Former NSC Director for Counterterrorism: Well, it’s a very good question. I think that, in the world we’re living in, it’s increasingly possible for homegrown cells, if they have the right kinds of scientifically trained members, to do very sophisticated attacks.

My guess would be that this was a group of people who originated, who were motivated while they were at home in Britain, and of course we have very little information here, but if they looked like the group that carried out the bombings in the London tube last year, that they then reached out to radicals in Pakistan for additional training, inspiration, methodology, and so on and so forth.

Groups involved in plotting

Magnus Ranstorp
Swedish National Defense College
But what they all have in common is that they are easily concealable, that they do need some type of electrical charge, and that they -- you know, it's a real problem, in terms of security and being able to spot this.

MARGARET WARNER: When you talk about individuals from Pakistan, and Mr. Ranstorp did as well, are you talking about al-Qaida? Are you talking about just complete self-starters there? You're not talking about people in the government, or are you?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: No, I'm speaking about a whole range of different people in what might be called the jihadist infrastructure or the radical Islamist infrastructure of Pakistan. There are a lot of different groups that share this general worldview, and some of them have some very highly sophisticated people within them who can train and help direct such an operation.

The people who were connected with the London bombings last year appeared to have reached out to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is a major jihadist group in Pakistan that has also had connections with al-Qaida. So it's a diffuse but highly connected universe over there.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Magnus Ranstorp, as a scientist, explain to us more how liquid explosives -- what can you envision could be taken aboard a plane and used to down a plane?

MAGNUS RANSTORP: Well, first of all, it's not a new method. We should remember that Ramzi Yousef in an operation, the architect of the World Trade Center bombing in '93, now in jail, Ramzi Yousef, he had an operation that went ahead in '94 that involved nitroglycerin that was stabilized by using cotton in a eye contact lens container, and it was connected to two nine-volt batteries. It had a Casio watch timer.

And that was the device that was planted and that blew a huge hole in the fuselage of the plane that he targeted. And that was the forerunner for the Operation Bojinka which was meant to target 12 U.S. planes in the Pacific.

In terms of the range of sort of liquid explosives, you have a number of different options. You may have some peroxide. But what they all have in common is that they are easily concealable, that they do need some type of electrical charge, and that they -- you know, it's a real problem, in terms of security and being able to spot this.

So I think that that, you know, this was on the radar screen for the aviation security personnel for a long time, but I think that what surprised everyone was the range, and scale, and scope, and complexity, I think, of pulling something off simultaneously like this.

Parallels

Daniel Benjamin
Former counterterrorism official
It is, as a scientist would stay, very elegant. It's indetectable. And once jihadists find something -- and we assume these are jihadists -- once they find something like that, they're determined to make it work.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Benjamin, a lot of people have mentioned the parallels with this Bojinka plot. Do you think they're significant? And do they surprise you that something that didn't work before, in fact, got foiled because the plotter blew himself up, would be tried again?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, actually, the plotter, Ramzi Yousef, burned himself in a fire in Manila.

MARGARET WARNER: Right, he didn't blow himself up. He just burned himself.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: He actually blew someone else up during the trial run, and it's interesting that this group was also, apparently, according to some sources, was talking about having a trial run in the next few days.

Ramzi Yousef's bomb, the one he designed, was extraordinarily innovative. And when the aviation authorities and bomb techs first saw it, they were astonished. And so I would say it's actually -- not only is it not surprising, it was totally predictable that they would come back to this tactic.

It is, as a scientist would stay, very elegant. It's indetectable. And once jihadists find something -- and we assume these are jihadists -- once they find something like that, they're determined to make it work. They're also determined to come back to the same target set as they did with the World Trade Center to begin with, bombed in '93, bombed again, destroyed in 2001.

So I find it not only not surprising, but a sign of real continuity within the movement that they went and tried to use this tactic on the other side of the world.

Home grown terrorists

Magnus Ranstorp
Swedish National Defense College
I think that the official number of individuals that they are sort of quoting is in the ballpark of 1,200 to 1,500 individuals that represent, in their view... potential national security threats that may be engaged in direct terrorist activity.

MARGARET WARNER: Magnus Ranstorp, again, we don't want to speculate here, but all the raids took place -- well, most of them -- in these South Asian neighborhoods in London. And all the authorities are saying, at least on background, that they were of Pakistani descent.

What you can tell us about the strength of and the appeal of this kind of extremism among the second-generation Muslim communities in Britain? What more have we learned since the July 7 bombings of last year about this?

MAGNUS RANSTORP: Well, I mean, I guess it's a very difficult thing to generalize about, but I think that it's very clear that the British authorities have said that, first of all, beyond this, I mean, apart from this news today, that they have thwarted other plots that have been in the making.

And that, since the Iraqi invasion, the threat level and the number of suspects that they have, you know, that they are watching, I think that the official number of individuals that they are sort of quoting is in the ballpark of 1,200 to 1,500 individuals that represent, in their view, you know, potential national security threats that may be engaged in direct terrorist activity.

And then, of course, they have approximately 70 live, ongoing investigations of potential, you know, pieces of the puzzle in which they are, you know, launching surveillance on individuals.

In terms of the sort of the mood in the U.K., it is not very positive. You had not only the U.K. involvement in the Iraq conflict that had become the tipping point for certain individuals to move from being radical into violent radicalization, and of course you had, you know, a number of -- you know, you had the ongoing conflict between Israel and Lebanon that certainly doesn't help the general environment.

But certainly it would be my guess that an operation of this kind would have meant that someone would have reached out, perhaps from Pakistan, to sources within the U.K. and would have manipulated and radicalized and moved individuals in the direction of carrying out a plot like that. They would be orchestrated from the outside.

And so I think that, you know, this is a special problem case, I think, in the U.K., in that not only is the U.K. very close to the U.S. in foreign policy terms -- and that, of course, makes it even more of a hated country, a likely target -- but also you have a sizable community from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, that area, which of course is connected sometimes with the classic al-Qaida.

And that means that there may be some potential for strategic terrorist strikes, large-scale events that may stretch its tentacles from Pakistan back into the U.K.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan Benjamin, do you agree, a ripe field from which to recruit in Britain today?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, yes, but I think all of Europe is ripe, in a way that we have seen developing over the last few years. Interestingly, I think the Muslim community in Britain is probably the best integrated on the continent, but it is an indicator of just how high the temperature has become in that community that you will find people who are prepared to undertake these kinds of missions.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Dan Benjamin, Magnus Ranstorp, thank you both.