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Recent Commercial Airline Crashes Caused by Bombings:

December 1994
During Philippine Airlines Flight 434, a blast ripped a two-foot-square portion out of the fuselage, killing one passenger and injuring 10. The plane, which was bound for Tokyo from Manila, made an emergency landing at Okinawa. U.S. and Philippine authorities eventually linked Ramzi Yousef, an Iraqi national, to the explosion.

Dec. 21, 1988.
A Pan Am plane en route from London to New York crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 aboard the 747 died. Investigators determined a plastic bomb caused the explosion. It has not been conclusively determined who placed the bomb.

Nov. 29, 1987
A Korean Airlines plane en route from Baghdad to Bangkok crashed into the jungle near the Thailand-Burma border. All 115 aboard the 707 died. A North Korean agent admitted her guilt, saying the bomb was planted to discourage people from attending the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

April 2, 1986
A bomb blew up on a TWA plane en route from Rome to Athens, blasting a hole in the plane that four Americans were sucked through. They died, and nine others were injured. The State Department concluded the plastic explosive was left under a seat by a woman carrying a Lebanese passport, acting on behalf of a Palestinian terrorist with close ties to Yasser Arafat.

June 22, 1985
An Air India plane en route from Toronto to Bombay, via London, blew up off the Irish coast, killing all 329 aboard. Canadian officials determined the bomb was set by Sikh extremists who supported an independent Sikh state and wanted to retaliate after the Indian government attacked a shrine.

Aug. 11, 1982
A bomb exploded aboard a Pan Am plane en route from Tokyo to Hawaii, killing one and injuring 15. The plane landed safely despite the blast, which occurred about 140 miles out from Hawaii. A Greek court convicted a Palestinian terrorist in 1992.

Oct. 6, 1976
A Cubana Airlines plane blew up just after takeoff from Barbados, killing 73. Cuban exiles living in Venezuela were convicted.

SOURCES: Federal Aviation Administration, Associated Press

New Devices May Foil Airline Security

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 21 1996; Page A01
The Washington Post

Airline security officials have a recurring nightmare that goes something like this: A nondescript passenger boards a large aircraft. He is carrying entirely unremarkable personal items -- nothing metallic and suspicious looking, no bundles of wires, sharp objects or extraordinary electronic gear. The passenger passes uneventfully through airport screening devices, as does all his or her luggage.

The passenger does nothing untoward during the flight and deplanes quietly when the plane lands at the first stop. Then, on the next leg of the flight, a small bomb the passenger has hidden somewhere on the aircraft detonates at a carefully chosen moment, perhaps over the ocean, and triggers a broader explosion that rips apart the fuselage.

Unfortunately, this scenario -- of a terrorist able to elude most, if not all, of the airport safety precautions in place or planned for later this decade -- is not a glimpse of the future, but of the present. An explosion of this type, albeit smaller and not as deadly, occurred on a flight from Japan to the Philippines in December 1994, and a dozen more such bombings were narrowly averted in early 1995 when those behind the scheme accidentally alerted police to their preparations, according to information being disclosed in a New York city courtroom.

Investigators probing the Wednesday explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 shortly after its takeoff in New York have not determined whether a bomb provoked the disaster, and have found nothing so far that suggests ill motives on the part of anyone who boarded the aircraft.

But the possibility nonetheless is being taken seriously, partly due to a growing fear that in the cat-and-mouse game between bombers and airline security professionals, the bombers may be getting an edge.

One reason has been the emergence of a sophisticated breed of international terrorist who forswears the pipe bombs and crude clock-timing devices that contemporary airport security devices were designed to detect. The new terrorists favor smaller and much less detectable plastic or liquid explosives detonated by miniaturized and benign-looking timers, yet still capable of wreaking substantial destruction.

Against this threat, the challenge for security authorities literally is to find a needle in a haystack: one of the handful of bombs that might be placed aboard an aircraft amid more than a billion pieces of stored luggage and an undetermined number of carry-on items each year. The problem, as a National Research Council report on airport safety concluded dolefully in 1993, is that "a sophisticated terrorist can adjust his strategy more quickly than can the opposing security system."

The modern era of aircraft bombings was probably inaugurated in December 1988, when a plastic explosive planted in a Toshiba radio hidden in an unaccompanied suitcase blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people aboard. That disaster prompted airlines to toughen their procedures for screening passengers and luggage, as well as require that all baggage be accompanied. It also made the U.S. government accelerate work on a new generation of inspection devices capable of ferreting out such plastic explosives.

But these new machines, which use a combination of standard medical X-ray and CAT scan technologies to produce three-dimensional images of the contents of luggage, so far have been deployed at only eight airports around the world, including those in Atlanta, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Brussels, London and Tokyo. Neither of the two airports transited by TWA Flight 800, in Athens and New York, has them, and no federal rule requires their installation in domestic airports.

After the downing of Pan Am 103 and the destruction in 1989 of a French UTA jetliner over Chad -- both allegedly at the hands of operatives directed by Libya -- there was a remarkable four-year hiatus in foreign and domestic aircraft bombings. But 1994 spelled the beginning of what some experts fear might be a resurgence of such terrorism, this time involving persons with more advanced bomb-making skills who knew how to defeat even the best airport security devices.

Three Middle Eastern men -- Abdul Hakim Murad, Wali Khan Amin Shah, and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef -- who are on trial in New York City on 13 conspiracy and explosives charges, epitomize a new class of high-tech bombers with an international reach and an extraordinarily fervent, anti-U.S. bent, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.

Yousef is already known for his alleged role as the principal buyer of materials used in the 1994 bombing of the World Trade Center. Less well-known are the details of his alleged plot to join the other two men in blowing up a dozen U.S. jumbo jetliners carrying 4,000 people in January 1995, a plan code-named "Bojinga."

"This is . . . the best thing. I enjoy it," Murad admitted to a Pakistani interrogator last year when asked why he wanted to kill so many Americans, according to a transcript read in court on Thursday. He went on to explain that "the United States is the first country in this world making trouble for . . . Muslims and for our people." He said that is why he was prepared to help put 12 bombs on U.S. aircraft that would blow up over the ocean in a two-day reign of terror meant to provoke an end to U.S. support for Israel.

The impressive workings of the bombs these men were making for that purpose are spelled out in Murad's confession and in documents retrieved from the hard drive of a portable computer allegedly owned by Yousef, which he inadvertently left behind in a Manila apartment where police showed up to investigate a fire caused by the mixture of some of the chemicals. Murad made clear that their intent in designing the devices was to ensure they could be readily slipped past airport screening devices and assembled in the washrooms of the planes once the flights were underway.

At the heart of each device was a timer built by rewiring a commonly available Casio digital watch, which could be connected to a stabilized form of liquid nitroglycerin stored in a bottle ostensibly filled with contact lens solution. The stabilizer for the nitroglycerin looked like cotton, and Murad told interrogators that "nobody can think that it's . . . explosive."

Murad said that even if the liquid nitroglycerin is put "in the X-ray, you will never" detect it, which several U.S. airplane security experts say is true. Even newer screening devices that can see through clothes would have difficulty ferreting out such a substance, according to these experts.

Once the liquid was assembled with two small, 9-volt batteries and a detonating material that the men planned to conceal in their shoes, the bombs were to be hidden under aircraft seats. When the planes landed at the next stop, the men were to disembark. The planes would "never reach their [next] destinations" because the bombs were to detonate when the watch alarms went off, according to assistant U.S. attorney Michael J. Garcia. Thousands of passengers would have died, Garcia said.

One advantage of the scheme from the terrorists' perspective was that none of them would have had to get a U.S. visa. They would only have to fly on U.S. airliners making an intermediate stop at a foreign city before leaving for the United States.

For practice, the men allegedly detonated one of their bombs underneath a seat in a Manila movie theater on Dec. 1, 1994. Ten days later, Yousef allegedly planted another in the life jacket pouch beneath a seat occupied by a Japanese businessman on a Philippines Airlines flight out of Manila en route to Tokyo. Yousef got off the plane at the resort town of Cebu; the bomb detonated on the second leg of the flight, killing the businessman and injuring 10 others but causing only minor structural damage to the aircraft.

"These are the type of things that are constantly upping the ante on staying ahead of the potential bomb-making capability of a terrorist," said Edward Badolato, a former assistant secretary of energy who chairs the National Cargo Security Council, an industry group that worries about transportation security.

Badolato said that besides using materials that are increasingly hard to detect, bombers from different ideological causes appear to be sharing some of the tricks of their esoteric trade with each other, helping to spread knowledge of advanced technologies. He said investigators determined that a fuse used by one anti-Israel bomber in recent years was similar to another one used by the Irish Republican Army.

Staff writer David B. Ottaway and special correspondent Nancy Reckler in New York contributed to this report.

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