Archive for November, 2010

Another new post over at Free Rad!cals again looking at the parcel/ink bomb scare, this time taking a slightly more historical view. Hat tip to James B for his tips on the Al Hayat case. It also occurs to me that I should have also included some mention of the series of bombs currently emanating from Greece. Oh well.

Filed under: Terrorism, Yemen

The weekend news was filled with stories of the failed attempt to deliver a series of bombs from Yemen to the United States using the international postal service (including a good early summary here by Shiraz Maher). Apparently, the plot was disrupted thanks to an intelligence tip off of from Saudi Arabia, and the blame has been almost universally ascribed to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the most curious thing is the fact that it has taken these groups so long to get to the point of trying to use this delivery vehicle for their explosives.

As James B pointed out to me on Friday in an alarmingly foresighted manner, back in 1997 a wave of letter bombs were apparently sent out of Egypt seemingly targeting the offices of the Al Hayat newspaper in London, New York and Washington, and Leavenworth prison in Kansas. Initial suspicions fell on Libya (ruled by our then-enemy Muhammar Ghaddaffi) and Egyptian extremists, in particular ones who it was believed were avenging the incarceration of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Rahman – Leavenworth held one of the men convicted alongside him for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He contacted Al Hayat through his lawyers denying he knew anything about it and blaming it instead on the FBI and Mossad.

Two security guards were maimed when the bombs blew up in London, and New Scotland Yard dispatched a team to Egypt to investigate. The United States similarly launched an investigation trying to track down the return addresses. But both failed and I believe that a $5 million bounty still awaits collection for whoever solves that crime.

Then in 2001 in the chaotic wake of the 9/11 attack, letters started showing up at a variety of locations in the United States containing anthrax and badly spelt messages hinting they were from someone linked to the attacks on New York and Washington. Five people died. After a protracted investigation, the FBI believes they solved the case, but no-one was actually ever convicted of the crime.

The point is that the criminals/terrorists behind them mostly got away with it. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski got away with sending bombs in the post for 17 years. Of course, others have actually been caught for doing such things, but in the larger scope of ways of delivering bombs it seems a pretty effective and danger free way of doing it. What is really quite surprising about this wave of bombs supposedly out of Yemen is that it has taken AQAP (or in fact any of the AQ affiliates) so long to cotton on to the notion of trying to use the international parcel delivery service as a way to send explosives around the world.

Two other remaining loose ends intrigue me about this plot: first, why the synagogues in Chicago? It seems a rather precise and unambitious target, even if the intention was, as David Cameron has said, to actually bring the planes down rather that deliver the packages. And second, was this the same warning that the French Interior Minister said that his nation had received from Saudi last week? Any thoughts or pointers on either are welcome

A new reaction piece to the recent parcel/ink bomb plot out of Yemen for HSToday. Lots more interesting information on this one still to come.

Parcel Plot Exposes Softness in UK Security

by Raff Pantucci

Tuesday, 02 November 2010

UK rushes to tighten up cargo security processes.

Weekend revelations by British Prime Minister David Cameron that the bombs being delivered from Yemen to the United States using the international postal service were meant to blow up in the air have added a further dimension to the already confusing flow of information emerging from the Yemen cargo parcel bomb incident.

The details of how the plot was uncovered are still filtering into the public domain. One report in the British press which was independently corroborated, suggested that one of the first streams for the plot came from a message picked up by GCHQ (Britain’s answer to the National Security Agency), which seemed to suggest that something was afoot. In parallel to this, information reached American and British forces from Saudi Arabia which pointed more specifically to a threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to the BBC, the Saudi’s intelligence came from information obtained from Jabr al-Faifi, a Saudi Guantanamo returnee who had been through the Saudi de-radicalisation program, returned to the battlefield alongside AQAP, before once again changing his mind and surrendering to Saudi authorities. Information from al-Faifi appears to have also been behind an earlier statement by the French Interior Minister in mid-October that his nation had received a threat warning from the Saudi’s about AQAP targeting “the European continent and France in particular.”

The combination of information from al-Faifi and GCHQ (and doubtless other sources) appears to have provided a rich picture to security forces to go and check a specific package which was tracked down to Dubai airport. It also sent a warning to British police in Leicestershire to go and check the cargo in an airplane at East Midlands Airport outside Nottingham. British police rushed to the scene with sniffer dogs and explosives experts, but were initially unable to find anything until they received specific information about what had been discovered in the Emirates. At this point, they went looking in a more targeted manner and were able to uncover a package which had originated in Yemen and passed through Germany prior to the UK. Similar to its Emirati partner, the parcel was headed for a Jewish institution in Chicago.

The devices, fabricated from PETN and carefully concealed inside printer cartridges, were undetectable by current technology. But it is uncertain when they were primed to go off: initial suspicions were that the target was the Chicago synagogues they were addressed to. The Prime Minister and John Brennan’s comments over the weekend were backed on Monday in Parliament when the Home Secretary Theresa May announced, “the devices were probably intended to detonate mid-air and to destroy the cargo aircraft on which they were being transported.” Disturbingly for security services, it now seems as though the packages may have spent some time on planes filled with passengers as well as freight – meaning a disaster was barely avoided.

While on the one hand British services deserve congratulation, it seems equally clear that there were some flaws in the system which allowed the package onto a plane in the United Kingdom and secondly that police were unable in the first instance to discover the device. As the former police head of counter-terrorism Andy Hayman characterized it to the BBC, “there was some indecision, first the cordons were on, then they were off, then they were on.”

This has led to a tightening of measures announced by the Home Secretary:

• A review of all aspects of air freight security;

• Updating of information given to airport personnel which includes the new relevant information;

• From midnight Monday the suspension of all “unaccompanied” air freight from Yemen and Somalia, and the suspension of printer toner cartridges larger than 500g in hand luggage;

• Finally, the prohibition of “air cargo into, via or from the UK unless they originate from a known consignor – a regular shipper with security arrangements approved by the Department for Transport.”

For Britain this plot exposed some weaknesses in the security blanket, while at the same time highlighting the impressive and effective work that counter-terrorist’s undertake. Nevertheless, the reality remains that the plot was effectively underway when the security services latched onto it. As the Home Secretary put it to the house, “at this stage we have no information to suggest that another attack of a similar type by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is imminent. But this organisation is very active.” It remains to be seen when they are next able to be effective.

 

Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Interpreter
Tags: ,

A new post over at the Lowy’s Interpreter, tracking my trip to China’s west. I’d highly recommend anyone go to these places if you get a chance. Fascinating and spectacular.

Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

By Raffaello Pantucci – 1 November 2010 10:22AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

In contrast to Urumqi, Kashgar is a distinctly non-Han Chinese city. While Chinese is still clearly present, it is not clear that Mandarin is the main spoken language. Kashgar is primarily a Uighur city, though there is also the fascinating mix of Mongol, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Han locals making the city a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities.

A vast array of other foreigners are also present, from the surprisingly high number of foreign tourists to Pakistani or Middle Eastern traders passing through on their way along the new Silk Road. One afternoon we met a local Pakistani importer-exporter who was stuck in the city with a group of brothers and cousins while they waited out the Chinese holiday which had closed the borders and left them with truck-loads of fruit stuck rotting on the wrong side.

The city itself is quite a dusty place, with donkey and carts as ubiquitous as cheap taxis. We stayed in the former Russian consulate that has now been turned into a charming, grubby, kitschy hotel – its British counterpart has instead been transformed into what looks like a communist dormitory. The latest twist in the great game.

One of the most famous sites is the Old City, which was used a few years ago in the film The Kite Runner as a double for Kabul. The entire region in fact could double for a war-stricken Central Asian state. Aside from the old cities and villages made of brick, mud and straw, the countryside is dotted with abandoned buildings which could have been bombed out and left to nature. Towering over the entire region are the Pamir mountains.

More recently, the Old City has become famous as one of the symbols of Han Chinese attempts to assert some control over the Uighur minority. The current plan is to turn it into a holiday resort city and it has been designated a ‘special economic zone’ in the hope it will attract tourists from across Central and South Asia. From the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city we managed to get a pretty good view of the whole city, and you can see the slow encroachment of modernity.

There are also distinctly Chinese additions to the city. Dominating the People’s Square is one of the largest statues of Mao in the country (some say there is a bigger one in Tianjin), and adjacent to one of the parts of the Old City is a giant Ferris wheel which turns lights up like Disneyland at night. But the majority of the city is Uighur and Muslim: women in hijabs are the most common sight, and some fully veiled women can be found. Mosques are very common and around the Old City small mosques echo at prayer time with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

The separation between Han and Uighur seen in Urumqi is not as visible here, in part because the Han population is so clearly the minority and there is the addition of so many other minorities. The dominant Uighurs clearly do not appreciate the Han influence, but one local Han man who had been born in the province complained that he too was suffering from the influx of people from outside.