Cargo planes bomb plot


Cargo planes bomb plot
Cargo planes bomb plot
Location United States of America (target); East Midlands Airport and Dubai International Airport (discovered)
Date October 29, 2010 (discovered)
Target 2 planes
Attack type Bombing (failed)
Weapon(s) 2 packages; each containing a printer cartridge packed with a bomb made from the plastic explosive PETN
Death(s) 0
Injured 0
Perpetrator
Suspected perpetrator(s)

On October 29, 2010, two packages, each containing a bomb consisting of 300 to 400 grams (11–14 oz) of plastic explosives and a detonating mechanism, were found on separate cargo planes. The bombs were discovered as a result of intelligence received from Saudi Arabia's security chief. They were bound from Yemen to the United States, and were discovered at en route stop-overs, one at East Midlands Airport in the UK and one in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

One week later, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took responsibility for the plot, and for the crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6.[1] U.S. and British authorities had believed that AQAP, and specifically Anwar al-Awlaki, were behind the bombing attempts. They also believed the bombs were most likely constructed by AQAP's main explosives expert, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.[2][3]

According to the USA and the UK, the bombs were probably designed to detonate mid-air, with the intention of destroying both planes over Chicago or another city in the U.S.[4][5] Each bomb had already been transported on both passenger and cargo planes.

Contents

Locating the bombs

On October 28, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Interior Minister in charge of Counter-terrorism, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, called John Brennan, the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to warn him of the plot.[6] The Saudis provided the U.S. and Germany with the tracking numbers and addressees of the two packages, and told them to look for toner cartridges.[7][8] The packages had been dropped off by a woman at FedEx and UPS offices in Sana'a, Yemen, on October 27, and were slated to arrive in Chicago, Illinois, on November 1.[8][9]

Saudi Arabia had reportedly learned of the plot through Jaber al-Faifi, a former Guantánamo Bay detention camp inmate who had been handed over to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation in 2006. Al-Faifi escaped in 2008, and re-joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but on October 16, 2010, turned himself in to Saudi Arabia and provided it with information.[10][11][12] Yemen officials suspected al-Faifi had actually been a double agent for Saudi Arabia ever since he rejoined al-Qaeda.[12] Security professionals said the Saudi tip appeared to be based on far more recent, specific, up-to-the-minute intelligence than al-Faifi could provide, and that a Saudi double agent in AQAP was the source of the tip-off.[13]

England

The first package left Sana'a, Yemen, on a passenger plane, flying to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.[14] It then was flown onward on a UPS cargo plane to Cologne/Bonn Airport in Germany, where UPS Airlines has a hub.[14][15] There, it was switched to UPS Flight 232, a Boeing 767 cargo plane bound for East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire.[16][17] From there, it was to fly on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and then on to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.[3][16][18]

East Midlands Airport
in Leicestershire

On October 29, 2010, the UPS plane landed at East Midlands Airport at 2:13 AM local time.[19] British authorities had been alerted to the existence of the bomb, and British military and police explosives experts waiting for the plane conducted an initial search of the plane's cargo in the airport's UPS parcels distribution depot.[20] Officers from the Scotland Yard Counter Terrorism Command joined them.[21]

Searching with explosives detection equipment and sniffer dogs, they failed to find any explosives. When U.S. authorities provided the precise tracking number of the package, the printer was scanned, x-rayed, subjected to chemical swabs, and sniffed by bomb-detecting dogs. Still, no explosives were detected and it was cleared.[22][23] Removing the suspect package for further examination, at 4:20 AM local time the authorities allowed the UPS plane to proceed to Philadelphia.[19][24]

Later forensic examination indicated that the bomb was inadvertently "disrupted" and deactivated when Scotland Yard explosive officers separated and removed the printer cartridge from the printer during their examination at about 7:40 am. The deactivation occurred approximately three hours before the bomb was due to explode.[19][20][25] The officers did not realize at the time that they had defused a live bomb.[21]

At 10 am the British gave the all-clear, and removed safety cordons from the airport.[26][27][28][29] A later forensic examination indicated that if the device had not been disrupted, it would have detonated at 10:30 AM (5:30 AM Eastern time).[19][25]

British officials continued to believe that there were not any explosives in the package.[19] U.S. authorities insisted that the package be inspected again. British authorities then consulted with officials in Dubai, who had discovered their bomb in a computer printer cartridge, and MI6 spoke with the source of the Saudi Arabian tip-off. Scotland Yard explosives officers flew the printer and the cartridge in a police helicopter to a government laboratory outside London, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Fort Halstead, and subsequently discovered the bomb in a final search, at around 2 PM.[19][21][24][28]

Dubai

Cross-section of an Airbus A300, showing how cargo is positioned in a passenger airliner

Qatar Airways said that the package with the second bomb had been carried on two of its commercial passenger jets.

The first passenger jet was a 144-seat Airbus A320. It flew from Sana'a, Yemen, to Doha International Airport in Doha, Qatar, on October 28.[29] The second passenger plane was an Airbus A321, or a Boeing 777, flying from Doha to Dubai. Depending on the type of aircraft used for the second flight, its seating capacity was anywhere from 144 to 335.[15][30][31][32][33]

On October 29, at around 9 am GMT, the second package was discovered on a FedEx Express plane at the FedEx depot at the Dubai airport.[34] The FedEx plane had been slated to fly onward to Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, and then on to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.[35][36]

Bombs

Addressees

The packages were addressed to outdated addresses of two Jewish institutions in Chicago. Investigators believe the terrorists used an outdated directory of Chicago Jewish institutions, which is still available on the internet.[37] One package had reportedly been addressed to the former address of Congregation Or Chadash, an LGBT synagogue, at a Unitarian church on Barry Avenue in Lakeview, and the other had been sent to an inactive Orthodox synagogue formerly on Pratt Avenue in East Rogers Park.[2][37][38] Simon Calder observed in The Independent:

Yemen is not a natural provider of office supplies to organisations such as synagogues in the Chicago area. Therefore, you might fondly imagine that the staff in the parcels offices in the capital, Sana'a, might have checked the despatches more closely before allowing them anywhere near an aircraft, cargo or passengers. But they didn't.[39]

The packages were addressed to specific individual names at the addresses—the names of historical figures from the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades.[2][40] One package was addressed to Diego Deza, the name of a Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. The other package was addressed to Reynald Krak, a name for Raynald of Châtillon, a French knight of the Second Crusade who was beheaded in 1187 by the Kurdish Muslim Sultan Saladin, who defeated Christian Western invaders in the 12th century.[40]

Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation said the choice of historic enemies as addressees was an inside joke, reflecting al-Qaeda's view of history.[40] He said: “The jihadis ... narrative is that non-Muslims are always on the attack, always trying to take Muslim lands. The jihadis like the narrative, because it justifies violence, since they claim that they’re only defending Islam.”[40] He added that there was an element of taunting the West, as there may have been in including a picture of Chicago’s skyline with the nation's tallest building, Willis Tower, front and center in the latest edition of Inspire, AQAP's new English-language magazine.[40][41] That mirrored Osama bin Laden’s decision to pose in 1998 in front of a map of East Africa, where al-Qaeda operatives were about to bomb two U.S. embassies.[40] "I don't dismiss anything as a coincidence," said and who trains law enforcement agencies on counterterrorism.[Said who? clarification needed] "These guys (al-Qaida) are professionals." Sam Kharoba, founder of the Counter Terrorism Operations Center, said: "Historically they go after iconic targets. The Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) is one of those."[41]

U.S. and U.K. officials believe the planes, and not the addressees, were the targets.[42]

Contents

Each package contained a Hewlett-Packard HP LaserJet P2055 desktop laser printer. Inside each printer was a sophisticated, expertly constructed bomb in its toner cartridge, which was filled with explosives.[43][44]

A toner cartridge showing a white powder and wiring from one of the recovered bombs

The toner cartridges were filled with the odorless military grade plastic explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a white powder that is one of the most powerful explosives known.[35][43][44][45] The bomb found in England contained 400 grams (14 oz) of PETN, five times the amount needed to level a house. The one found in Dubai contained 300 grams (11 oz) of PETN.[43]

By comparison, the bomb in the terrorist suspect's underwear in the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing contained only about 80 grams (2.8 oz) of PETN.[42] Hans Michels, professor of safety engineering at University College London, said that just 6 grams (0.2 oz) of PETN—around 50 times less than was used—would be enough to blow a hole in a metal plate twice the thickness of an aircraft's skin.[46] The PETN was of "an extremely high concentration", according to British criminal investigators, and its manufacturers would require "logistics that only state facilities should have access to," according to German investigators, who sent a team to England.[47]

Each bomb also consisted of cell phone circuitry with an alarm timer, a phone battery, a thin wire filament, and a syringe filled with lead azide.[48] PETN and a syringe were also both used in the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot.[49]

The package intercepted in Dubai was shipped in a cardboard box that also contained souvenirs, clothes, compact discs, and several books written in English.[43][44][50][51] The device's wiring indicated that it was done by professionals as it was set up so that, if subjected to x-ray security scanning, all the printer components would appear to be correct.[52]

Features not relevant to the alarm timer function, such as the screen faces, had been removed, resulting in batteries that might have been able to last three to four days.[53] The device was reported to carry markings resembling a Bird D736 cell phone.[54][55]

The bomb found in England is being inspected at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Fort Halstead in Kent.[28] U.S. analysts are carrying out forensic tests on the other bomb, in the United Arab Emirates.[56]

Detonation

Detonators

The bombs' detonators were the alarm timers on cell phone circuitry that was discovered in the two bombs.[53] Each bomb had a cell phone alarm that had been set, which was constructed to trigger power from a phone battery. That would in turn send an electrical current through, and heat, a thin wire filament, similar to those in lightbulbs. The wire filament, from a broken light-emitting diode, was in a plastic medical syringe that contained 5 grams (0.18 oz) of lead azide, a powerful chemical initiator.[31][35][47][52][57][58] Once hot, the lead azide would ignite. That would then cause the PETN to detonate, in turn.[24][48][53][55][59]

There had initially been speculation that the bombs might be detonated by receipt of a telephone call or text message, but the SIM cards necessary to receive calls had been removed, rendering the phones unable to receive any communication, but increasing battery life.[30][43][53][60] Brennan said that the bombs "were able to be detonated at a time of the terrorists' choosing", and "did not need someone to actually physically detonate them."[30]

Mid-air capability

British Prime Minister David Cameron and officials in the U.S. believe that the bombs were designed to detonate as the planes were in flight, destroying the planes carrying the bombs in mid-air.[52] Britain's Home Secretary, Theresa May, said British investigators concluded the U.K. device was “viable and could have exploded”, and that had the device detonated, "the aircraft could have been brought down”, and investigators said the explosion would have caused a "supersonic blast".[6][47] Brennan also said that the bombs were each powerful enough to bring down a plane.[30] They would have been as capable of destroying the planes as the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.[14]

Cargo vs. passenger planes

Brennan said it was not clear whether those attempting the bombing had known, or could have known, whether the packages would be carried on cargo or passenger planes.[52] Because there are not any scheduled cargo flights out of Yemen, it was likely the terrorists knew the bombs would be loaded onto passenger planes for at least part of the journey.[14] In addition, most freight to the U.S. is carried on passenger flights.[61] In any event, James Halstead, a consultant with Aviation Economics, said "In a worst case, it would stop world trade. UPS and FedEx would probably go bust. We'd have a full-disaster scenario."[8]

Timing and location

U.S. officials said that an analysis of the cellphone circuitry in the bombs suggested that the intent was to delay their mid-air detonations until U.S.-bound planes carrying them were close to landing in the U.S.[29][53]

On November 10, a Scotland Yard spokesman said that forensic examination indicated that if the device discovered in England had not been disrupted and removed and the plane had proceeded onward, it would have detonated at 10:30 am BST [5:30 AM Eastern time] and could have occurred over the eastern seaboard of the U.S."[19][25] The UPS plane entered U.S. airspace by flying over New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.[62]

Shipping times cannot be predicted accurately. But cargo industry sources said it would have been possible for the terrorists, using earlier deliveries as a guide, to narrow down a time window to a few hours.[19]

Detection

Frank Cilluffo, the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said: "It is evident that had we not had the intelligence, our security countermeasures would not have identified these improvised explosive devices."[63] PETN is difficult to detect because it has a very low vapor pressure at room temperature, meaning very little of it gets into the air around the bomb, where it can be detected.[44]

Qatar Airways said that "the explosives discovered [that it had carried] were of a sophisticated nature whereby they could not be detected by x-ray screening or trained sniffer dogs", and were only discovered after the intelligence tip-off.[31]

Both parcels were x-rayed in Sana'a, and the one in Dubai was x-rayed there, without the bombs being spotted.[8] The Bundeskriminalamt (BKA; the German Federal Criminal Police Office) received copies of the Dubai x-rays, and one BKA investigator said that German security staff would not have identified the bomb either.[8] When X-rayed, the PETN would resemble the cartridge's ink powder.[29] The timers that were used would have looked like part of the printers’ electronics.[14]

Preparation

In mid-September 2010, U.S. intelligence intercepted three packages linked to AQAP that were being shipped from Yemen to Chicago, including one sent to an Islamic bookshop.[21][43][64] They searched the packages, but did not find any explosives; only books, papers, CDs, and other household items.[43] One of the packages included the 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, by English novelist George Eliot, a woman who wrote under an assumed identity.[64] The packages were permitted to continue on to what appeared to be “random addresses” in Chicago.[43]

After the attempted attack in October, authorities believed that the September parcels may have been a test run for the attack.[43] Package delivery firms such as UPS send minute-by-minute shipment location information to customers by e-mail or phone, when a package is dispatched and every time the package is scanned.[30] The locations of the packages shipped in September could have been tracked by the senders on the shippers’ websites, and may have been used by the plotters to later plan the detonation timing for the two bombs.[43] That would have allowed them to estimate when planes carrying the bombs would be over Chicago or another city, and conceivably enable them to set timers on the two bombs to trigger explosions where they would cause the greatest damage.[43] Richard Clarke, former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council, said: "The dry run is always important to Al-Qaeda. In this case they wanted to follow the packages using the tracking system."[65]

Responsibility

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

On November 5, 2010, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the plot.[1] It posted its acceptance of responsibility on a number of radical Islamist websites monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group and the NEFA Foundation, and wrote: "We will continue to strike blows against American interests and the interest of America's allies." The statement continued: "since both operations were successful, we intend to spread the idea to our mujahedeen brothers in the world and enlarge the circle of its application to include civilian aircraft in the West as well as cargo aircraft."[1][66][67][68]

The U.S. and U.K. had suspected it was behind the attack. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, British Home Secretary Theresa May, and Dubai police had all noted that these types of explosives are "hallmarks" of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.[15]

It also claimed responsibility for the crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400 cargo plane, in Dubai on September 3, in which both pilots were killed. U.S. and United Arab Emirates investigators had said they had not found any evidence of an explosion or terrorist involvement in that incident. They were skeptical about the September crash claim, and suggested that it was probably an attempt by AQAP to claim responsibility where it had not played any role, in order to falsely bolster its image.[50][69] On September 10, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI said AQAP's claim that it was involved in the September UPS plane crash was false.[70]

On November 21, AQAP provided a detailed account of the plot (which it called "Operation Hemorrhage") in its English-language magazine Inspire, said that it cost only $4,200 to mount and was intended to disrupt global air cargo systems, and said it reflected a new strategy of low-cost attacks designed to inflict broad economic damage. The magazine included photos of the printers and bombs, as well as a copy of the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens that it said it had placed in one package, because AQAP was “very optimistic” about the operation’s success.[71][72]

Anwar al-Awlaki, who U.S. and U.K. officials believe was behind the attack

Anwar al-Awlaki

The Guardian reported that unnamed U.S. counter-terrorism officials suspected that Anwar al-Awlaki of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the plot. In addition, when Brennan was asked about al-Awlaki's suspected involvement in the plot, he said: "Anybody associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a subject of concern."[73] The New York Times reported that "some analysts believe the [attempted Chicago bombing] may also be linked to Mr. Awlaki".[74] The Daily Telegraph reported that "U.S. and British security officials believe" al-Awlaki was behind the attack.[75] U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein said "al-Awlaki was behind the two ... bombs."[76]

President Obama had previously put al-Awlaki on a targeted killing list.[77] The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have sued, seeking to have a U.S. federal court prevent the U.S. government from carrying out the targeted killing of al-Awlaki in Yemen.[78] Al-Awlaki has also been linked to the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing, and the failed 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt, as well as other terrorist incidents.[73] Al-Awlaki was later killed in a targeted killing, in September 2011.[79]

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri

US officials suggested that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the main explosives expert for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a likely suspect due to his history of creating explosive devices using PETN, including his involvement in the failed Christmas Day bomb plot.[3][30][35][75] Brennan said that evidence suggested the same person constructed both the Yemen parcel bombs and the device worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to ignite the Christmas Day bomb on a plane in 2009.[31] One of the detonators was nearly precisely the same as the one used in the Christmas Day attack.[80]

Al-Asiri had previously recruited his younger brother as a suicide bomber. His brother tried to kill Prince Nayef in 2008, using a 1-pound (454 gram) PETN bomb that al-Asri had hidden in his brother's rectum.[31][81][82][83][84][85][86] The brother approached the Prince and detonated the bomb, dying in the attempt as he blew himself up. Nayef survived with minor injuries.[83][86]

Released suspect

On October 30, 2010, a 22-year-old female Yemeni engineering student was arrested in Sana'a, Yemen, on suspicion of having shipped the packages. Her mother was also arrested. Both were released by the following day. Officials in Yemen determined that the student's identity had been stolen by another women who had assumed her identity, and mailed the packages in the student's name. The student and her mother are no longer suspects.[52]

Responses

Political

US President Barack Obama and his administration reacted quickly to the incident, making public statements that it was a "credible threat". A New York Times opinion piece suggested that the quick response would be well received politically for the 2010 U.S. elections.[77]

Security

Security alerts were triggered in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.[35] An Emirates flight containing a package in transit from Yemen to the U.S. was intercepted by Canadian CF-18 and U.S. F-15 fighter jets, and escorted to New York as a precaution.[29][87] Two FedEx planes containing packages originating from Yemen were also searched.[88]

The U.K., the U.S., Germany, France, and Belgium stopped accepting freight package cargo shipments from Yemen, and the Netherlands and Canada suspended all cargo flights from Yemen.[89][90] Germany also suspended passenger flights from Yemen until November 15.[3][91][92] In addition, Britain and the U.S. stopped accepting air cargo from Somalia, and prohibited passengers from carrying certain printer cartridges on flights.[60] Sweden advised its citizens to refrain from all travel to Yemen until further notice.[93][94]

Also, FedEx, UPS, and Mideast-based shipper Aramex suspended their shipping operations in Yemen.[29][35] The Middle East's biggest airline Emirates and Sharjah-based Air Arabia stopped carrying cargo from Yemen, and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways stopped carrying cargo from Yemen and Somalia.[95][96]

The U.S. increased air passenger screenings, and expanded a new, more thorough pat-down search procedure for airline passengers.[97] Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), complained saying "Americans now must choose between a virtual strip search and a grope", but declined to say whether the ACLU would file a legal challenge to the new procedure.[97]

Al-Awlaki

Four days after the bombs were discovered, al-Awlaki was charged in absentia in Sana'a, Yemen, in an unrelated matter on November 2 with plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of al-Qaeda.[98] Prosecutor Ali al-Saneaa announced the charges against al-Awlaki as part of a trial against another man, Hisham Assem, who had been accused of killing a Frenchman.[98] On November 6, Yemeni Judge Mohsen Alwan ordered that al-Awlaki be caught dead or alive.[99]

Separately, Home Secretary May said on November 3 that an associate of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was in touch with al-Awlaki, had been arrested earlier in 2010 for allegedly planning a terrorist attack on passenger planes in Britain.[28]

See also

  • Similar terrorist plots
  • 2010 European terror plot
  • Related lists
    • List of accidents and incidents on commercial airliners
    • List of terrorist incidents, 2010

References

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