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INSTANT ANALYSIS: Attempted Attack on Delta Airlines Flight

26/12/2009

The internet is abuzz with rumours and speculation about the incident onboard the Delta Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Friday night. As you will have heard by now, one of the passengers attempted to ignite an explosive device shortly before landing. The US authorities are treating the event as an attempted terrorist attack.
It’s too early still to gauge the full extent of what happened. The following points, however, are sure to be prominent as the story unfolds:

THE ATTACK
Why did airport security fail? Amsterdam Schiphol – where the suspected terrorist got onboard the plane – is one of Europe’s largest airports, and has a good reputation for its security. Why weren’t the explosive materials detected? What were they, and how did they get on the plane?
UPDATE: The latest reports are saying that the suspect did NOT board the plane in Amsterdam, and that no secondary screening had taken place at Schiphol.
Similarities with the ‘shoe bomber’.  Richard Reid, the so-called ‘shoe bomber’ tried to blow himself up onboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami shortly before Christmas in 2001. As with today’s incident, Reid was caught fiddling with the explosive device, which failed to set off. Interestingly, it later turned out that Reid had an accomplice, Saajid Badat, who was hoping to bomb a different plane.
Al Qaeda still obsessed with blowing up planes. More than eight years since the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda – if it really was Al Qaeda – hasn’t come up with anything new. Most Al Qaeda-linked plots in the West have been directed at airliners or public transportation.  Also, they still prefer conventional explosives – none of the more adventurous predictions about chemical, nuclear, or radiological attacks have become reality.
THE SUSPECT
Who is Abdul Mutallad? The suspect – a 23 year old Nigerian national - is currently in hospital with injuries. According to the BBC, he might have been enrolled as a student at University College London at the time of the attack. Was he radicalised in Nigeria, or is he a product of London(istan)? Given that his name was mentioned in US databases, was he also known to the British authorities? What exactly did they know about him?
Leaderless jihadist or Al Qaeda operative? The suspect’s name appears on US government lists, but there is no evidence that the suspect was a trained, hard core Al Qaeda activist. This leaves us with the (by now) familiar dilemma of deciding if the attempted attack should count as Al Qaeda. Who recruited and equipped him? Who directed the operation? It seems fairly unlikely that he pulled this off all by himself, but the extent and level of Al Qaeda involvement will remain an issue of contention for months.
THE CONNECTIONS
Terrorism going global. The incident is a good illustration of how Al Qaeda inspired terrorism has become more and more transnational – a Nigerian national, who seems to have received training and instructions in Yemen, boards a plane in Holland, and nearly blows it up in the United States. Four continents – and that’s only the main suspect!
Nigerian Al Qaeda operatives. The involvement of a Nigerian in an Al Qaeda type operation is a novelty. Few, if any, Nigerians have played prominent roles in the organisation, and there remains little concrete evidence of significant Al Qaeda activity in Nigeria (though there are plenty of rumours). At the same time, the country is riven by civil unrest between the Christian South and the Muslim North, and there are several other, sometimes violent Islamist groups who are active in Nigeria, including Boko Haram, the Hisbah, the Zamfara State Vigilante Service, and Al-Sunna Wal Jamma (also known as the Nigerian Taliban).
Flashpoint Yemen. US government sources claim that the suspected perpetrator received the explosives and his instructions in Yemen – one of the hotspots for Al Qaeda activity about which Western security services have been warning for years. Only yesterday, Yemen launched a strike against an Al Qaeda training camp in the south of the country and killed eight aspiring suicide bombers in the north. Among the people who died were two top leaders and (possibly) Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist cleric who is said to have inspired the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan.

 

As we learn more about the plot, I will keep updating this post…