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Aug 17 / Jonathan

About that 8/10 bomb plot…

Skeptics are raising questions about the credibility of the airplane bomb threat uncovered in Britain on August 10. (BBC news & background 8/17 & 8/15.)

Here’s James K Galbraith in The Nation, 8/16.

On September 11, nineteen hijackers commandeered four airplanes and succeeded in killing some 3,000 people. On August 10, we are told, British authorities upended a suicide-murder plot aimed at destroying twelve airplanes, killing everyone on board including the bombers, possibly with more fatalities than on 9/11. As a senior British police official put it, “This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

From all official statements so far, we are led to believe that August 10 was a highly developed, far-advanced conspiracy, under surveillance for some time, which could have been put into action within just a few days. And perhaps 8/10 really was the biggest thing since 9/11. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t. We don’t know yet. And it’s not too early to ask the questions on which final judgment must depend.

Well, then. Here is a checklist of some things we should shortly be hearing about. Bombs. Chemicals. Detonators. Labs. A testing ground. Airline tickets. Passports. Witnesses. Suspicious neighbors. Suspicious parents. Suspicious friends. Threats. Confessions. Let me spell this out: By definition, you cannot bomb an aircraft unless you have a bomb. In this case, we are told that there were no bombs; rather, the conspirators planned to bring on board the makings of a bomb: chemicals and a detonator. These would be mixed on board.

So, there must have been training. That means there must be a lab, or labs. There must have been trial bombs. There must be various bits and pieces of equipment used to mix the chemicals and set them off. There must be a manual. There must be a testing ground. And each one of the young men under arrest must have been to these places. Interestingly, it must have all happened, too, without a serious accident, injury or death among the conspirators. If so, they are a lot more competent than the Weather Underground ever was, in my day.

Now, in order to get on an airplane, even the most devout suicide terrorist needs a ticket, and these generally must be purchased with money. Apparently, not one ticket had been purchased by the detainees. One little-known feature of airline security (in the United States, anyway) is that people traveling on one-way tickets bought at the last minute get special scrutiny at the gate. Those tickets are also (a lot) more expensive. If you want to pass unnoticed, you will buy your ticket round-trip, in advance, and also save money like everyone else. Actually, if you didn’t know this already, you’re not fit to be let out of the house.

Further, to get on an international flight from Britain to the United States, in these days of the modern nation-state, you need something else. It’s a document called a passport. Apparently, some of the detainees don’t have them. Someone lacking a passport can, I think, safely be excluded from the ranks of potential suicide bombers of UK-to-US flights. They could, of course, have a counterfeit or be operating in a support role–but so far we are not being told of any counterfeit documents or any support operation. And to pass security you would use a different person to carry each chemical you needed. For twelve flights, that’s twenty-four people.

Craig Murray, 8/14:

I have been reading very carefully through all the Sunday newspapers to try and analyse the truth from all the scores of pages claiming to detail the so-called bomb plot. Unlike the great herd of so-called security experts doing the media analysis, I have the advantage of having had the very highest security clearances myself, having done a huge amount of professional intelligence analysis, and having been inside the spin machine.

So this, I believe, is the true story.

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn’t be a plane bomber for quite some time.

In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year – like thousands of other British Muslims. And not just Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

Murray again, 8/17:

The idea that high explosive can be made quickly in a plane toilet by mixing at room temperature some nail polish remover, bleach, and Red Bull and giving it a quick stir, is nonsense. Yes, liquid explosives exist and are highly dangerous and yes, airports are ill equipped to detect them at present. Yes, it is true they have been used on planes before by terrorists. But can they be quickly manufactured on the plane? No.

The sinister aspect is not that this is a real new threat. It is that the allegation may have been concocted in order to prepare us for arresting people without any actual bombs.

Let me fess up here. I have just checked, and our flat contains nail polish remover, sports drinks, and a variety of household cleaning products. Also MP3 players and mobile phones. So the authorities could announce – as they have whispered to the media in this case – that potential ingredients of a liquid bomb, and potential timing devices, have been discovered. It rather lowers the bar, doesn’t it?

Update. Thomas C Greene explains how it’s done.

We’ve given extraordinary credit to a collection of jihadist wannabes with an exceptionally poor grasp of the mechanics of attacking a plane, whose only hope of success would have been a pure accident. They would have had to succeed in spite of their own ignorance and incompetence, and in spite of being under police surveillance for a year.

But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security). Nearly everything must now go into the hold, where adequate amounts of explosives can easily be detonated from the cabin with cell phones, which are generally not banned.

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