The jetliner bomb threats behind Trump’s laptop ban
Beirut - The US ban on air travellers from ten Middle Eastern countries carrying electronic devices such as laptop computers, iPads and game consoles with them in passenger cabins appears to be directly linked to US President Donald Trump’s sharp escalation of the war against jihadist terrorism.
US officials said when the laptop ban was announced in March that it was not in response to new intelligence. Britain and Australia also launched crackdowns on electronic devices in passenger cabins of planes from certain Middle Eastern countries.
But it is becoming clear that the US ban and earlier travel restrictions the Trump administration tried to impose on travellers from Muslim countries point to a heightened threat and concerns over technological advances in bombmaking techniques developed by jihadist groups.
Middle Eastern security sources have said that among the factors behind the US action was the discovery of explosives hidden in a fake iPad. They gave no details of the plot or who was suspected of being behind it.
If the reports are true, it means that terrorists have found a new way to get explosives into airline cabins, where a bomb can be placed to have the most destructive effect, as opposed to being haphazardly buried in piles of luggage in the baggage hold.
Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is being singled out by the Americans for an unprecedented assault by air strikes and special forces raids. The group includes top bombmakers who have developed new techniques that are difficult to detect.
Adding to the tension are defeats suffered by the Islamic State (ISIS) at the hands of the United States and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Libya and the deepening concerns that this organisation is desperately seeking to outdo the carnage Osama bin Laden’s jihadist trailblazers achieved on 9/11 with their airborne suicide assault on Fortress America.
Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism specialist with the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, observed in the Long War Journal, which tracks global terrorism, that “more than 15 years after the September 11 hijackings, the US government has issued yet another warning about airline security,” underlining how the terrorists’ air war shows no sign of slackening.
Scott Stewart, a security specialist with the US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor, observed that this never-ending battle of wits was part of “an evolutionary arms race” that “transcends ideologies,” with jihadists particularly fixated on destroying airliners.
One of the principal drivers, he said, “is the massive media attention that attacks against aircraft have generated and how that media coverage has served as a terror magnifier.”
AQAP has been linked to an attempt to blow up an Airbus A-321 of Daallo Airlines en route to Djibouti City with a laptop bomb on February 2, 2016.
The bomb carried by a presumed suicide bomber, a 55-year-old passenger travelling under the name of Abdullah Abdisalam Borleh, exploded 15 minutes after take-off from Mogadishu, capital of war-ravaged Somalia, when the jetliner had reached 3,350 metres.
The bomb, apparently carried by Borleh in a laptop, blew a hole in the Airbus’s fuselage just above the right wing root. Borleh was sucked out of the aircraft but pilots were able to make an emergency landing in Mogadishu.
Had the bomb detonated a few minutes later when the aircraft had reached cruising altitude, the decompression caused by the explosion would almost certainly have killed the 73 other passengers aboard along with the crew.
No group claimed responsibility but security investigators suspect it was the work of al-Shabab, a Somali jihadist group which has particularly close links with AQAP in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden. Western security services said that AQAP’s Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the group’s bomb-maker-in-chief, may have trained Somalis to make his deadly bombs.
Joscelyn observed in a March 22 analysis that the Daallo bombing may have been a test run for one of al-Qaeda’s “newest inventions, a lightweight explosive designed as a laptop that is difficult to detect with normal security procedures.”
The recent attacks on airliners underline the critical lack of security at some Middle Eastern airports, which may have been a factor in the flights the US and Britain targeted in their latest crackdown.
What makes the Daallo attack of particular note in connection with the US-British laptop ban is that security cameras at Mogadishu airport filmed a ground services employee handing what looks like a laptop computer to Borleh just before he boarded the flight from Mogadishu.
In March 2016, less than a month after the Daallo bombing, al-Shabab attempted to smuggle two bombs — one hidden in a laptop, the other in a printer and both containing highly explosive Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), aboard aircraft at a Somali regional airport at Beledweyne, 325km north of Mogadishu.
The printer was found and defused but the bomb in the laptop exploded prematurely on the ground, wounding six people.
“These incidents could have been part of a test to gauge the devices’ effectiveness,” observed Stratfor in a March 22 report. “And because the war in Yemen has stopped all flights from AQAP’s main operating area, it follows that the group might have coordinated with al-Shabab to test its laptop explosive devices.”
The Daallo operation bore similarities to the ISIS bombing of a Russian Metrojet charter flight, also an Airbus 321, shortly after take-off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh over the Sinai desert on October 31, 2015.
That jetliner crashed, killing all 224 people aboard, mostly Russian vacationers homebound to St Petersburg. The bombing of Flight 9268 was Russia’s deadliest air disaster.
The attack was claimed by ISIS, its first operation against an airliner. Russia’s Federal Security Service said the bomb contained 1kg of TNT. Investigators found it had been put aboard the Metrojet Airbus by an airport employee who evaded security checks.
Trump’s strategy of ramping up the war against terror swiftly led to a special forces raid on a suspected al-Qaeda command centre in Yemen in January, in which dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, and to loosening regulations on air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is seen as a major threat because it is expected to retaliate for the steady collapse of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq in the face of major US-backed offensives in both countries against its last strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa.
Primary targets have been jihadist groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaeda, which in recent years has established a top-level cadre of veteran jihadists known as the Khorasan Group, which US intelligence says has been transplanted from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to establish an al-Qaeda emirate from which to unleash attacks on the West.
Since the start of the year, US and British forces have sharply escalated their counterterrorism operations against AQAP. One of the key targets is Asiri, the son a Saudi Arabian military officer. Asiri is a trained chemist who was radicalised when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
He turned to making bombs when he joined an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia that was plotting attacks on the kingdom’s oil industry and the ruling House of Saud and was placed on Riyadh’s most-wanted list.
Asiri is notorious for inventing all-plastic or liquid bombs, which are almost impossible to detect, that have been placed in US airliners, usually hidden in laptops or printer cartridges and often involving liquids. Three that he planted were only found because Saudi agents had infiltrated AQAP.
Asiri is “highly determined and fully committed to attack America” said Mustafa Alani, director of defence and security at the Gulf Research Centre in Jeddah. “For al-Qaeda, an attack inside the US is worth a dozen attacks outside. It has become their obsession.”
In August 2009, four months before AQAP’s failure to destroy the Northwest Airlines Airbus over Detroit, another of Asiri’s designer bombs was used in an elaborate plot to assassinate a Saudi leader, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, now the Saudi crown prince but then the kingdom’s deputy interior minister and the mastermind behind a counterterrorism campaign that defeated al-Qaeda.
Asiri’s commitment to the jihadist cause was such that he used his younger brother Abdullah to carry the bomb — half a kilogram of PETN, a white powdery explosive, planted in his rectum to avoid detection — and get close enough to the Saudi royal to kill him.
Abdullah had set up an audience with the prince by pretending to be a repentant jihadist who wished to surrender and participate in the kingdom’s much-touted terrorist rehabilitation programme. When he was presented to the prince at a Ramadan gathering in Saudi Arabia on August 27 as an important defector, he detonated the bomb — possibly using a cellphone — and killed himself. The prince was slightly wounded.
Western intelligence services said Asiri has been training a select band of jihadists in his dark and deadly arts so that if he is killed — and US special forces have tried at least twice to do that — his skills will not perish with him.