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Initial thoughts on the attempted attack on Delta Airlines

This is a crosspost by Shiraz Maher from Standpoint

Peter Neumann from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, provides some instant analysis of the attempted bombing of a Delta Airlines flight travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit. He’s got all the main bases covered, so I’ll only provide some footnotes to a few his points:

Similarities with the ‘shoe bomber’. Richard Reid, the so-called ‘shoe bomber’ tried to blow himself up onboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami shortly before Christmas in 2001. As with today’s incident, Reid was caught fiddling with the explosive device, which failed to set off properly. Interestingly, it later turned out that Reid had an accomplice, Saajid Badat, who was hoping to bomb a different plane.

Flashpoint Yemen. US government sources claim that the suspected perpetrator received the explosives and his instructions in Yemen. This makes a connection with Al Qaeda highly likely. Yemen is one of the hotspots for Al Qaeda activity about which Western security services have been warning for years. Only yesterday, Yemen launched a strike against an Al Qaeda training camp in the south of the country and killed eight aspiring suicide bombers in the north. Among the people who died were two top leaders and (possibly) Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist cleric who is said to have inspired the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan.

This last point about Yemen is highly significant. I think it’s unlikely that the abortive attempt yesterday was a ‘revenge’ attack for the drone attacks carried out in Yemen a few days ago, but it does underscore just how much of a battleground Yemen is becoming. While al-Qaeda has effectively been eliminated in Iraq, its fighters are now regrouping in the horn of Africa and Yemen. It confirms our worst fears of the global jihad movement: an almost ubiquitous force with broad and piercing tentacles giving it unparalleled reach.

The last time al-Qaeda inspired this kind of global network was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when terror attacks carried out by its regional affiliates rocked Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and North Africa. From 2003 their efforts seemed to concentrate on Iraq, with the conflict becoming a focal point for jihadists everywhere. We now appear to be re-entering a phase of renewed and revived ‘global jihad’ with al-Qaeda doing what it does best – spreading chaos through localised branches and affiliates, rather than operating a concentrated campaign through a centralised command and control structure.

Al Qaeda still obsessed with blowing up planes. More than eight years since the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda doesn’t seem to have any new ideas. Most Al Qaeda-linked plots in the West have been directed at transport, especially airliners and urban public transportation.  Also, they still seem to prefer traditional explosives – none of the more adventurous scenarios about chemical, nuclear, or radiological attacks have yet become reality.

This is an interesting point that was brought up recently in court during the trials of the British airline plotters – some of whom were convicted earlier this year of planning to blow up several transatlantic airliners midflight. Of course, al-Qaeda’s obsession with bombing aircraft did not start with 9/11. That attack was, after all, merely an adaptation of an earlier plot hatched in the mid-1990s known as the ‘Bojinka plot’. The plan then had been to simultaneously blow up a series of aircraft midflight over the Pacific as they travelled from South-East Asia to the United States.

Nigerian Al Qaeda operatives. The involvement of a Nigerian in an Al Qaeda operation is a novelty. Few, if any, Nigerians have played prominent roles in the organisation, and there remains little concrete evidence of significant Al Qaeda activity in Nigeria. At the same time, the country is deeply involved in a civil war between the Christian North and the Muslim South, and there are several other, sometimes violent Islamist groups who are active in Nigeria, including Boko Haram, the Hisbah, the Zamfara State Vigilante Service, and Al-Sunna Wal Jamma (also known as the Nigerian Taliban).

Terrorism going global. The incident is a good illustration of how Al Qaeda inspired terrorism has become more and more transnational — a Nigerian national, who seems to have received training and instructions in Yemen, boards a plane in Holland, and nearly blows it up in the United States. Four continents – and that’s only the main suspect!

As I said above, I think we are reentering a much more dangerous phase of renewed global capacity for al-Qaeda, particularly as it strengthens its foothold in the horn of Africa and Yemen. Finding a way to stop this renewal of capacity by the global jihadist movement will be something Western leaders will need to think about very carefully.

Why did airport security fail? Amsterdam Schiphol – where the suspected terrorist got onboard the plane – is one of Europe’s largest airports, and has a good reputation for its security. Why weren’t the explosive materials detected? What were they, and how did they get on the plane?

This requires urgent investigation. The fact someone could so brazenly smuggle any kind of explosive device – however small – on board an aircraft from a major European airport is alarming. To make it worse, Amsterdam Schipol is one of the few airports currently trialling the latest body-scanning machines on passengers, raising further questions about the failure of their pre-flight screening procedures. There are also some reports that the alleged terrorist was also on a US Government ‘watch list’ list. Establishing exactly what went wrong must now be a major priority.

We will keep following this story as it develops.