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American officials are warning that al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Syria are trying to make bombs that current security measures won’t detect. In response, the Department of Homeland Security is calling for tighter airport security. For a closer look at the threat warnings, Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Barrett, former leader of the U.N. al-Qaida Monitoring Team.
For more on these threat warnings, I'm joined now by Richard Barrett. He ran the United Nations al-Qaida monitoring team for nearly a decade, until he stepped down last year. He is a former member of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
Richard Barrett, we welcome you.
First of all, do we know exactly what caused authorities to be concerned?
RICHARD BARRETT, Former Leader, UN Al-Qaida Monitoring Team:
No, but there's a coincidence of things going on here.
And, first of all, as your report said, there's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is quite well known for making these sort of bombs, being in discussions and moving personnel up to Northern Syria, where the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra is also threatening to mount attacks as well.
And in addition to that, I think al-Qaida feels that its credibility is at stake, to a certain extent, because the ISIL state you mentioned in your report has really taken all the sort of glory, if you like, and it's got all the sort of dynamism of the current terrorist group at the moment.
And al-Qaida probably feels that they may need to do something to recapture that lost ground.
So, do we know if there was a specific threat or just a general piecing of different threads of information together?
Well, that, I don't know.
But, clearly, it is a time when people need to be alert. It's a holiday period coming up, of course, and many people traveling around. And I guess that there's no harm in reminding people that these checks are for a purpose, and reminding the people who carry out the checks that their work is very serious and needs to be done properly.
So there may have been some sort of indications of a possibility of increased threat, but I think, generally speaking, it's considered a good time just to get people back on their toes.
Why, Richard Barrett, is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula a particular concern?
Well, there's a man called Ibrahim al-Asiri who has been very active in creating these bombs. He's a Saudi chemist who's been with al-Qaida for some time and famously sent his brother in 2009 to try and kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was then the deputy interior ministry in charge of the al-Qaida account.
And that guy apparently had a bomb which evaded various detecting mechanisms and almost killed the prince. So, beyond that, when there was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber of Christmas 2009, and then the printer bombs the following year, clearly, this guy has certain techniques which are incredibly difficult to detect.
And how much — is anything publicly known about what kinds of bombs they may be experimenting with? Is the intelligence that good?
Well, the intelligence is not too bad, because the bomb — the Christmas Day's bomber, of course, was analyzed. Then, again, so, too, were the bombs in the printers.
And in — more recently, they tried again to blow up an airplane, but they made the mistake of giving the bomb to somebody who was prepared to hand it over to the Saudi authorities. So that bomb has also been examined. So there's quite a lot of knowledge about what they're trying to do, but the tendency that they are going towards is bombs which have no metallic content whatsoever and emit very little vapor or anything else that could be detected by some of the current machinery.
So, the assumption is these folks are working all the time to try to come up with something that can get through security.
Yes. Exactly right.
And they probably know a certain amount of the capacity of the machines that are being used at airports and, therefore, have a bar that they have to cross, and they know what the bar is. And they only of course have to cross it once to cause everybody a considerable upset.
You mentioned earlier al-Qaida feeling that its credibility may be at risk. And there was reporting a few weeks ago — with the advances of ISIL in Iraq, there was reporting about previously the two having been split.
And now that we see ISIL making these advances, I mean, could that literally be what's driving al-Qaida to want to do something dramatic, because they see ISIL getting all this attention?
I think so, yes. I think you're right on that.
I think that al-Qaida will not want to be driven by other people's timetables, but, at the same time, they really need to do something, because, really, since the July 2005 bombings in London, they haven't achieved very much, except giving out statements and threatening people.
And that only lasts so long, when you have got another group, a sort of rival group, if you will, like ISIL, attracting a lot of recruits and money. So I think that they will want to do something. But they have to balance the downside of doing something which becomes a botched attempt with doing something which actually has an effect and shows that they're still powerful.
Give us a sense of what more can be done, because, I mean, there are times, I think, when many Americans feel there's already so much security that's in place. How much more can be done overseas at these airports to ensure that flights are as safe as possible?
Yes, I think you make a very good point there. There's only so much security that you can impose on people.
A lot of security really has to come from the people themselves. So those questions that you're asked, did you pack your bags yourself, did you accept anything from somebody else that you have brought with you in your luggage, those are sensible questions to ask, and they should be taken sensibly and seriously by the people who answer them.
But, beyond that, I think that the main protection against terrorist attacks is going to be from within the community. And the closer that the authorities can work with communities from which these vulnerable people might be recruited to terrorist activity, then the easier it may be to spot them in advance, rather than trying to screen everybody.
Richard Barrett, we thank you. It's a time for vigilance. We appreciate it.
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