30 Oct 2010

Cargo plane explosives ‘show al-Qaeda weakness’

The explosives found on two cargo planes heading to the US from Yemen is deeply worrying, but also shows al-Qaeda’s weakness, writes former Cobra Intelligence Group chairman Colonel Richard Kemp.

A FedEx van is seen at Yemen's Sana'a International Airport where two airplanes with explosives hidden in their cargo left enroute to the US (credit:Reuters)

Colonel Richard Kemp is a former chairman of the government’s Cobra Intelligence Group and Head of the International Terrorism Team at the Joint Intelligence Committee.

It is deeply worrying that yet again extremists can succeed in getting explosive devices onboard aircraft destined for the UK and the US. But if this is indeed the work of al-Qaeda, it also demonstrates their weakness.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular is an evil and determined group. They are intent on attacking the USA but have failed this time as they failed last time.

Like the underwear bomber at Christmas last year, and of course Richard Reid, the 2001 shoes bomber, these devices apparently used PETN, a powerful but volatile explosive extracted from detonation cord and readily available from activities such as quarrying.

But we don’t yet seem to know whether the devices discovered in East Midlands airport and in Dubai were viable bombs. If not it was either a bungled attempt or an effort to spread alarm and terror, and to further disrupt air travel. If that was the aim, it succeeded to some extent.

The idea that this could have been a dry run seems unlikely, because the only effect would be to make the real thing more difficult for the terrorists.

If the intention was to bring down the airliners, even assuming the devices would have functioned, it is far from certain that small bombs placed haphazardly among a mass of cargo would have achieved that.

The idea that this could have been a dry run seems unlikely, because the only effect would be to make the real thing more difficult for the terrorists.

The devices were reportedly addressed to synagogues. This means of killing or maiming members of the Jewish community in the US seems unlikely have stood much chance of succeeding, even if the packages had got through. Most mail addressed to synagogues would be scanned, and items originating from Yemen would be closely scrutinized.

Of course the effects of bombs going off in President Obama’s home city of Chicago on the eve of midterm elections are obvious. Al-Qaeda are determined to impact Western politics, wanting to claim the kind of success that was achieved in the wake of the Madrid bombings.

Al-Qaeda remain intent on achieving another spectacular attack against the west. But their strategy is also to bombard us with a series of smaller scale strikes in the hope that at least some might get through. And they also believe that large numbers of operations could succeed in distracting Western intelligence agencies to the extent that a major attack gets in under the radar. That is also a possibility in this latest attempt: perhaps it was a smoke screen for something bigger.

It was only in the last few days that experts in the UK were talking about the need to relax security measures for air passengers. Of course air security must always be kept under review. But this latest incident demonstrates the dangers of dropping our guard when time has passed since the last attack.

Whether we like to admit it or not we are in the middle of a global insurgency. Al-Qaeda is obsessed with using aircraft for attacks and will continue to try to exploit every chink in our armour.