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Bombs in the Mail

02/11/2010

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.