Red alert

Larry Johnson:

I’m sitting in Europe, scheduled to take British Air back to the states on Friday, and I’m watching British Authorities meltdown in the face of an alleged terrorist plot. Rule of thumb–initial, panicked reports are usually unreliable. The Brits reportedly have taken at least 18 people into custody–all residents of Great Britain.

The last significant, successful plot to bomb a plane was in January 1995, when a group linked to Osama Bin Laden (this group included Ramsi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Khalid Sheik Muhammed, nephew of OBL) had devised a way to carry on a liquid explosive disguised to look like water. The detonator was a combination of gun cotton (looked like cotton balls), a small light bulb, a nine volt battery, and a Casio data watch. Ramsi Yousef conducted a successful dry run of this device and planted one on board a Philippine Airline flight in December 1994. That bomb killed one man (a Japanese citizen) and almost brought down the plane. The plan was to blow up twelve US jets transiting the Pacific basin. It was disrupted when an informant, Ishtiak Parker, walked into the US Embassy in Pakistan and ratted out Ramsi Yousef.

So, what next?

Instead of a common sense approach to security, the Brits have hit the panic button. Here’s what needs to be done:

1. No liquids on board a plane weighing more than one pound. Eight ounce bottles are okay but you must drink the liquid to demonstrate it is not an explosive.
2. One carryone bag per passenger. All carry on bags hand searched.
3. No cotton balls.
4. No third party cargo on passenger aircraft.

The latter is the real gap in aviation security. Right now most checked baggage is subjected to inspection by a machine that can detect explosives. Hand carry and cargo are not. You can deal with the threat of hand carry by physical inspection but cargo is a different problem.

In the back of my mind I worry that this threat might be trumped up in order to divert attention from the disastrous US and British policy (or lack of policy) in Lebanon. More likely, we have an informant in the UK that identified a potential plot that was in the dreaming stage but had not progressed to actual implementation. Rather than act like security professionals, the Brits are acting like panicked nannies. Very sad.