British Authorities Thwart Airline Terror Plot
Thursday, August 10, 2006; 2:00 PM
washingtonpost.com Early Warning blogger William M. Arkin, who writes on national security issues, was online Thursday, Aug. 10, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Britain's announcement that it has thwarted a plot to blow up planes flying between the U.K. and U.S.
The transcript follows.
William M. Arkin: Hello all. Been fielding a lot of phone calls today and trying to understand what happened and what we know, just like many of you, so I'll do my best.
My initial take though: If we were following some set of potential hijackers and knew that they were going to use liquids to make explosives, why didn't we institute new security procedures at the moment we knew that rather than in panic mode today? It seems we still have not mastered the "actionable intelligence" thing, that is, in ensuring security first and intelligence and investigations second.
Washington, D.C.: Everybody, I think, sees a specific trend towards global terrorism singling out the U.S. and the U.K. for major future terrorist operations. Assuming this trend is a fact, which I believe it is, do you believe we (the U.S.) are giving al-Qaeda and any other terrorist organizations that are a threat, everything they need and hope for with regards to propaganda, recruitment and justification for their campaign? Do you agree that al-Qaeda has been the biggest beneficiary of the war in Iraq and the lack of focus on Afghanistan? Or, contrary to that, do you think we really have al-Qaeda on the run?
William M. Arkin: I do believe we have al-Qaeda on the run, that is, in the sense that we are engaged in a war with them. But seeing al-Qaeda as one organization doing one thing is a bit of a mistake. It is a terrorism subculture, a religious calling, political movement, and since 9/11, it has become mere inspiration for independent activity united under a common banner and approach.
I do believe that the war in Iraq has galvanized thousands to take up arms to defend Islam (or just to put the hurt on the United States). It is hard to forecast what could have happened had we not invaded Iraq, but the compulsion on the part of so many to take up arms against us is not being adequately addressed, Iraq or not.
Arlington, Va.: Bill,
You've been downplaying the global terrorist threat on your site for months. Why are you qualified to comment on it today?
William M. Arkin: Thanks for reading my blog. :)
I don't think I've been downplaying the global terrorist threat. I've been questioning how the government describes it and the war against terrorism.
Let's just take today's news: Something motivated these men (and they are most likely men) to take up arms and be willing to give their own lives. We can move forward just seeing them as evil, as dupes, as misfits, and follow the prevalent strategy of attrition. I'm arguing that doesn't work. We have instead to figure out what motivates them and then respond accordingly. I submit al Qaeda and other "terrorist" organizations want something and I reject completely the notion that if we listen we are either capitulating or appeasing them or acting weak.
Austin, Tex.: In a question asked during Dana's discussion earlier, a reference was made about checking their laptop vs carrying it in through security due to the increased security requirements associated with today's threat level. It was my understanding it's liquid, gel, pastes that aren't being allowed on flights. Any ideas why this person might think they would need to check their laptop with their luggage?
William M. Arkin: I imagine in the days ahead, lots of funny things will be done at airports until things settle down. And my guess will be that liquids will be back on board sooner than later.
Wilmington, N.C.: Help, please? Pre-arrest: no elevated threat level, we have the whole plot in our sights, everything under control.
Post-arrest: elevated threat level, not sure we have everybody, my sister has to trash her hairspray in the airport.
Could the arrest trigger be they lost track of one or more plotters, or are they just trying to get some PR mileage out of the arrest and remind us to vote Repub in Nov.?
William M. Arkin: Well, I guess the most important lesson to be learned will be whether they took advantage of what they knew about new threats to inform airline security, even on the QT. Secretary Chertoff says British intelligence and law enforcement accelerated the arrests when they "lost" a couple of the subjects. Can't fault them for that. But it does "stink" a little the color coding because during the 2004 election campaign there was so much promiscuous coloring by DHS.
Fredericksburg, Va.: With the total ban on all liquids brought aboard aircraft, are the airlines still providing refreshments during the flights? And if they are, what security measures are being taken to ensure that those liquids are "safe"?
William M. Arkin: LOL.
I guess when someone figures out a way to make an explosive out of apple juice, we'll all be...
Kensington, Md.: I couldn't help but wonder as I heard this morning's news about Secretary Chertoff's portfolio. This man is charged with thwarting terrorist threats and attacks AND planning for responses to hurricanes and other severe weather events. Am I alone, or is there anyone else who thinks this is a somewhat odd - and perhaps dysfunctional - set of responsibilities?
William M. Arkin: The Department of Homeland Security is a poorly conceived and panicked effort to 9/11, one that we will pay the price for for years to come. Sure we could more clearly segregate disaster response from "security," and give DHS more intelligence assets, but I'm not sure that we have the right organization yet. This is a problem for the next President to solve.
San Jose, Calif.: If liquids can be easily mixed to make bombs (and apparently have been in the past) why hasn't our government banned liquids on flights long before now? After all, aren't they supposed to be protecting us against potential terrorist attacks?
William M. Arkin: Great question. We are talking about the Department of Homeland Security though, great at coloring, not so good at anticipating.
Phoenix, Ariz.: There is more talk lately of whether this plot or that plot are linked directly to al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It seems as though there is a growing "upstart" terrorism in the news. The group in Miami, Florida types with no links to terror groups. Which do you see as a larger threat in the future, official al-Qaeda cells or Miami style upstart cells with only hate as a common thread?
William M. Arkin: It is a mistake to see al-Qaeda as a strict hierarchical organization, and "homegrown" terrorists as something else. Since 9/11, I have a sense more that the "homegrown" are inspired by al-Qaeda ideology, and frankly, by its success. The terrorists perceive that they are defending Islam. I don't connect the Miami cultists to al-Qaeda, but I do see the Toronto cell and these London/UK incidents as linked to al-Qaeda in this way, even if they do not get direct command and financing from the cave.
Sherman Oaks, Calif.: With the revelations (and apparently connected resignations of two top-tier American counterintelligence officials) that contracts intended to protect our country may have been sold by members of Congress to the highest bidders, is it possible that the English system of counterintelligence is more efficient for its avoidance of Republican-style "free markets"?
William M. Arkin: Some have suggested, including some high-level commissions, that we adopt a domestic security agency approach of the British. I'm not sure that this incident says anything about OUR capabilities one way or another. It isn't as if the UK has thwarted all incidents -- remember July 7, London? -- and we haven't. So don't be a Beltway clone and think that the answer lies in organizations.
Madison, Wis.: Good afternoon, Mr. Arkin. Can you tell us what going to threat level "Red" means with respect to flights from other countries to the United States?
It's never happened before today, so it must involve some specific steps. What are they?
William M. Arkin: Great question. If you don't know what "Red" means then it is meaningless to the publish.
I'll assume inside DHS, the TSA and FAA there are specific measures that are implemented with each color threshold.
Seattle, Wash.: Homeland Security is touting this intervention as a success. Ironically, al-Qaeda and Bin Laden are alive and active while we are busy in Iraq. Bush loves to use 9/11 as a reason to "stay the course" but when was the last time you heard him mention Bin Laden? Maybe because we aren't pursuing him? We are no safer today than 9/11 thanks to this administration's agenda.
William M. Arkin: It is unfortunate that for political reasons the President and his aides have ceased making reference to bin Laden. He is, after all, the inspiration and the leader of a vast subculture and an international insurgency.
But I understand their desire not to focus attention on an individual who has proven so illusive. Still, bin Laden's survival is mighty inspiration for many: if he can survive against the best of what the U.S. and the west can throw at him, then maybe there is hope for a Muslim jihad against the west.
Washington, D.C.: Bill, I also read your blog, don't always agree, but also like your independence. So tell me: What would you do to improve homeland security?
William M. Arkin: If a few airport security officials and FBI agents and CIA analysts had done their job on September 11 five years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation. That's my answer: accountability. The only way we are going to improve homeland "security" is by making the government more accountable, and that means making the Congress more accountable. It is a depressing state of affairs.
Herndon, Va.: What are some likely combinations of liquids that could be carried on a plane and used as an explosive?
William M. Arkin: Kind of a silly question, wouldn't you say? On the other hand, any search on the Internet can easily produce examples of various household explosives, all of which are relevant to airplane security. So the question is, at what point do we establish a working system of identification for airline travel that allows 95 percent of travelers to go through and then has effective screening of what the others are carrying. Panic mode after each incident just doesn't like effective security policy.
Cook, Minn.: Is there any relationship on the number of "terror alerts" raised or lowered on its scale and U.S. election cycles?
In other words, are we subjected to more changes in "terror alert" status during election years?
William M. Arkin: Well, as I said earlier, I think we were in 2004. But to be so cynical as to believe that this isn't a real plot unveiled today says so much about where we've come to in our country. I may not agree with the government's no-liquids decision, and I might question their holding this info (if they did), but I still think that it is the function of the government to provide security, and in that, life is inconvenienced. It is a valid question to ask whether political figures aren't intentionally taking advantage of the threat of terrorism -- and fear -- for political ends. I guess the answer is that they aren't intentionally. It just comes so naturally to some.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Dumb question: How did some airports get the fancy "no liquid" signs with pictures of shampoo bottles, etc., posted so quickly?
William M. Arkin: Hadn't heard that, good question. Maybe it means that quietly the word went out that there was a flaw in security. I guess we'll find out in the days ahead.
Not To Nitpick...: But Mr. Arkin, did you mean "elusive?"
Illusive means delusional. Elusive means avoiding capture...of course, perhaps both fit here...
William M. Arkin: Elusive is what I meant. Hey, I'm typing as fast as I can.
Fairfax, Va.: My family and friends are tired of the fear and hate. Who will ask if these code red alerts are nothing but Karl Rove trying to boost Bush's low ratings due to the failed Iraq war, as Tom Ridge confirmed after the 2004 election? Is this another "August Surprise"?
William M. Arkin: Again, I fear for America when people can't see an event for what it is. 21 men have been arrested, mostly British nationals, mostly from Pakistan, planning to blow up nine airliners from four different airlines in mid-air, killing hundreds if not thousands.
Karl Rove? Get a life.
New York, N.Y.: Why so little out there about these 21 people? Who are they? Where were they taken? how long until we know more?
William M. Arkin: I suppose we'll know more in the days ahead. I hear that they are all of Pakistani background -- I also heard one was Syrian -- and that a few had been in Pakistan recently for "training." I've heard that they were mostly British nationals.
Alexandria, Va.: Hi,
I am concerned that if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are hotheaded enough that if there were another successful, high-death toll terrorist attach against the U.S. they would passionately strike out fairly randomly against Arabs and Muslims. When we had 9/11, their immediate response was to seek war with Iraq.
Do you think this is a real danger, or are they actually more level-headed than that?
William M. Arkin: Level headed or not, I firmly believe that they are just wrong in the ways that they have decided to "fight" terrorism. The labeling of the enemy as evil with no room for understanding or compassion, sets us on a certain strategy -- attrition -- that is perpetual and not very strategic. The real danger we face is in not understanding our enemy.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: You seem to be very good at pointing out the shortcomings of Homeland Security, however have not addressed the history of terrorism that persisted more than twelve years ago and include the first World Trade Center bombing, Lebanon barracks explosion, the USS Cole, all happening under other administrations than the current Bush administration. Do you think the terrorists could have been encouraged by the fact that they went ahead unchallenged by the Clinton administration, the first Bush administration, and even going back to the Reagan administration?
William M. Arkin: I don't think the motivation for terrorism is our weakness. But a weak response feeds a belief that terrorism has the potential for success, that something can be achieved. And it is a great recruiting tool: see, martyrdom is not in vain, they are cowards and on the run.
Of course, you could add to your list bin Laden's survival since 9/11. This has got to be the most important piece of evidence for those who wish us ill that there is hope of fighting America and surviving.
Re: laptops, electronics: Earlier today, the news was reporting people were being advised not to carry laptops, cells, blackberries, iPods, on board. I guess the thought something electronic could provide a spark? That is probably what the person talking about checking a laptop was referring to.
William M. Arkin: Thanks for the help. As I said, I'm sure all sorts of actions are being taken today that will look like over-reactions tomorrow.
Washington, D.C.: ABC News is just reported that there are five suspects still at large in Britain and that they are being desperately sought. This finally seems to be the justification for the heightened security after the bust this morning - but, practically speaking, what are the chances these guys are going to risk getting on planes now? Separately, is there any evidence as to whether these guys actually bought tickets?
William M. Arkin: Government sources were saying early this morning that they felt that they hadn't apprehended all of the suspects. I've heard that there are some 50 people peripherally involved in the plotting.
I agree; it is unlikely a threat any more, at least not right now.
As for buying tickets, my understanding is that a couple of weeks ago, inquiries started to be made about flights to the U.S., which is what brought the U.S. into the investigation in a big way.
Fairfax, Va.: RE: why the US Government didn't ban liquids before today ... nobody is ever happy, are they? First, if they ban liquids at the very first sign of a plot, we'd lose the ability to track and gather the evidence needed to arrest anybody. The terrorists would still be out there. That's police work 101. Second, if they ban something w/o any "big plot" evidence to show, Joe Q. Public screams that they're being too reactionary.
William M. Arkin: I agree with you about the dynamics, but it is not the answer about security. If the government had information indicating that terrorists were planning to use liquids to blow up airplanes, then that information should have been sent to TSA and other security types to take action. If it is a serious threat, then counter-measures should have been put into place.
Washington, D.C.: Back to your accountability comment. Say you were going to form a non-profit, you're now the Executive Director. How would you go about educating citizens on how to hold Congress accountable specifically on Homeland Security?
William M. Arkin: Such a WASHINGTON question. Chertoff is ultimately responsible for the Katrina mess but he walked. Just as Tenet and others did after 9/11. We just don't live in a society that prizes accountability. Period. I thought for a moment that the 9/11 families might be the anchor of a citizen's movement to bring more accountability to bear in national security but they became hijacked themselves.
Tempe, Ariz.: I suppose that we will all be entertaining our darkest fears and conspiracy theories for the next day or two. At least until some hard information about the plot and the plotters is revealed.
How long will we have to wait to find out what motivated this attack?
William M. Arkin: I think we know from the London bombers last year and from the Toronto cell what motivates these plotters: A sense that Islam is under assault by the United States and Britain and its allies. It is, of course, a lot more complex than that, but that is the bottom line. I have tried to develop some of this line in my blog (blog.washingtonpost.com/earlywarning) and also in a new book coming out next February: The Alternative: An Enduring National Security Strategy Based on American Values (Steerforth), if you want to read more.
New Market, Va.: Hi Bill, I read your blog and mostly agree!
Aren't we all suffering from "abundance of caution" and changes to transportation protocol, in part, due to a lack of profiling of Arab men? Sorry to pigeonhole anyone, but as I looked at the people at Heathrow throwing away their water bottles, I wondered how effective the transportation alerts really are in filtering out suspect criminals.
William M. Arkin: Profiling is essential, but more important, some system of separating "cleared" travelers is more practical and essential first. That we haven't solved this problem in five years is still stunning to me. I travel a lot and I just can't believe the rote routines still of turning out the belt buckle.
Austin, Minn.: Unless I'm mistaken, in the similar 1995 plot, masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, terrorists planned to blow up several airplanes using nitroglycerine mixed in contact lens solution and triggered by a battery-powered device hidden in a shoe. Why are officials cracking down now, eleven years later?
William M. Arkin: Good question. Don't know the specifics of the liquid under question today, but it is true that such "threats" are known, and a multi-plane plot hatched by Mohammed Atef -- al-Qaeda's military chief -- is also discussed in the 911 Commission Report.
Tempe, Ariz.: RE: Karl Rove. While I don't necessarily agree with this as an "August Surprise", I can see where this is a concern. The Bush Administration has played politics with terrorism since 9/11. So I don't think that that criticism is unfounded. On the other hand, suspects have been arrested, something that never happened since the Color Politics of 2004. But wouldn't you agree that this kind of uncertainty only helps GOP polling numbers?
William M. Arkin: I don't see terrorism through a lens of GOP polling numbers and urge you not to either. On the other hand, if there were a political official out there who was articulating a sensible counter-terrorism strategy in accordance with American values, we'd have one heck of a hero in our society. Alas such an individual doesn't exist.
Arlington, Va.: When traveling to Maui in the Summer of 2002, I was required by airport security to have a sip of water from my Aquafina water bottle. Obviously, they have been concerned about liquids on planes for a while, but why haven't they required this sort of thing as a matter of practice (like taking off our shoes?)
William M. Arkin: I see nothing wrong with a set of random measures implemented against suspicious persons. It is just that we are talking about ... uh, a particularly mindless group, TSA security people at airports. At the risk of lots of hate mail, let me just say that if you can fit into a TSA uniform, you'll never go hungry in America.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Is there room to work with leaders in moderate Islam to fight for the hearts & minds of the average Muslim? Any idea what Karen Hughes is doing these days, last I heard she was supposed to be working on this. Is fighting for the hearts and minds an effective counter-terrorism strategy?
William M. Arkin: Karen Hughes. She must be vacationing with Tony Blair!
Hearts and minds is all well and good, but there is also the matter of our policies and practices. We can't just make people love us through "strategic communications" when they have reasons -- even if only in their own minds -- to hate us.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I keep hearing that this plot would have created "unimaginable mass murder" and "casualties beyond imagination," etc. Now, of course blowing up 4 airliners over the ocean would be truly horrible. But if 3000 people died on 9/11, it seems that 4 airliners wouldn't have as many people killed. Is there more to the plot than has been revealed?
William M. Arkin: Good question. Nine airliners, even full, would be less than 3000 people, so it isn't "beyond imagination." Maybe Chertoff knows something more and the airliners weren't to have been blown-up in mid-air. Maybe he is just being hyperbolic to get on the news. :)
Fairfax, Va.: I'm a local contractor with a large defense company who's had a Top Secret clearance for over 8 years. I've had polygraphs and periodic investigations. Why cant we be smart enough to say "Hey OK this set of folks who are the highest we can clear someone, they should be free to go through a separate line of security". Maybe combine it with some biometrics, fingerprints or iris scan or whatever. But we go through all this trouble to clear people why not use it?
William M. Arkin: I totally agree, and I'm surprised that since there is money in this, someone hasn't invented and sold the system. But again, we are talking Homeland Security, and it does seem a bit overwhelmed by its responsibilities. Maybe this incident will result in people demanding more from its government and not more statements and fear-mongering.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Sir, you mention four airlines, while most news reports mention only three airlines -- the big three American airlines United, American, and Delta. Can you explain the certainty --or uncertainty --with which British Airways is -- or is not -- considered a possible target of terrorist activity? Did the British intelligence services find American airline schedules, but not British Airways schedules?
William M. Arkin: My understanding is that British Airways, Continental, United and American were the four airlines. I'm sure we'll learn more in the coming hours/days.
Cleveland, Ohio: You suggest that we should try and understand what motivates the terrorists. I would suggest that we already need all there is to know about their motivations from their frequent audio and video messages.
William M. Arkin: I completely agree. Bin Laden declared war on American in 1996! He has been clear in his grievances and demands. al-Qaeda has been pretty consistent since then in what it has said. We are sometimes though so taken with what he is wearing or the atmospherics of the videos and audios that we forget to examine the content.
Arlington, Va.: Someone asked me why terrorists would bother using airplanes as weapons again so soon. They stated it seemed like an obvious target and could easily be stopped. I said, because al-Qaeda is not stupid, and are probably going to use an airline attack as a distraction to the real attack (i.e. bioterrorism, etc). They are patient and smart, and it's doubtful they would try the same approach twice. Since they attack infrequently and aggressively, they will choose the least secured target that will get the most bang for their buck, so to speak.
William M. Arkin: The success of al-Qaeda has been the simplicity of their diabolical plotting. No diversions needed, and in some ways, no WMD either. That is the lesson I take from 911 and its aftermath. The Bush administration, on the other hand, and most Washington hands, believe WMD is the next logical extreme. It is a viewpoint that is more driven by emotion than evidence and one that has gotten us into trouble in our "war against terrorism," specifically in our group-think drive to go to war against Iraq.
Arlington, Va.: It is interesting that this terrorist attack was foiled by a "police action" and not a military intervention. It seems that we have learned little over the years. Combating terrorism is more akin to battling a street gang, like MS13, than it is to fighting a sovereign state. When we apply military force, we make little headway in "eradicating the threat." Instead, the "collateral damage" of dead bystanders only serves to swell their ranks. It's classic "political jujitsu."
The only way to eliminate terrorism is to win over the hearts and minds of the children 10 - 14, as they become aware of the world around them and make assessments of how "just" they perceive it to be. We will make no progress on this front by "accidentally" killing them, their innocent parents and their innocent relatives. No wonder so many have so little reservation about killing innocent Americans and British...
William M. Arkin: When we declared war five years ago, a few voices questioned whether it was necessary. They were drowned out. There's no question in my mind that there is a military dimension to the battle against terrorism, but I agree that old fashioned police work is the core. Well, maybe not old fashioned. In the war against terrorism, it is more important to arrest first and put together the case later. That is just the price we pay, and we should be grateful that our intelligence agencies and law enforcement types have modified their behavior to deal with plotters in this way.
Arlington, Va.: Can/Will you comment on Mr. Bush's statement, regarding today's events, "that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." This statement would seem to me to be, at a bare minimum, inflammatory.
William M. Arkin: Well, our President is taken to saying all sorts of things because he likes the way they sound or because he reads the script. I imagine if you asked him to define what a fascist was, he'd have a hard time. But then, I imagine all of the people who call me a fascist in my blog don't really know either, they just are ... imitating the President.
San Jose, Calif.: Not to sound like a conspiracy nut, but I have read there are many reasons to question the validity of the Bin Laden recordings.
William M. Arkin: Conspiracy nut.
Baltimore, Md.: Hello Bill. I often disagree with your conclusions about terrorism and the Bush administration. However, I would like to thank you for consistently denouncing the lunatic-fringe conspiracy theories regarding the 9-11 attacks. Unfortunately, these theories, that don't even work as a Tom Clancy plot, seem to be gaining an increasing number of followers in the American population (one statistic I saw had 33% of the population believing that 9-11 was an inside job). Why do you think these nonsense theories are embraced by so many people? Does it just stem from a desire to hate Bush?
William M. Arkin: Long before Bush, there were conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, UFOs, etc., that were just as rabid and self-deceptive as the 9/11 ones today (they still are). So I don't think it is about Bush. It is about finding meaning in complex events. People don't want to think that the world is as random as it is.
William M. Arkin: You can read my daily blog at:
Thanks for participating.
William M. Arkin: I've tried to answer as many questions as I can and still have loads left that are really good. Let's continue the dialog in the future. I'll be doing more of these live onlines, maybe even a regular time slot, so stay tuned.
Thanks again all.
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