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Surprises from the airline plot


9:30 am - September 9th 2008

by Septicisle    


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There will be more than a few surprised people tonight, both in the media and outside it, at the verdict reached by the jury in the “liquid explosives” trial. The case, after all, had been presented, as George Tenet famously said, as a “slam-dunk”. Here were 8 Muslim extremists, caught red-handed with quantities of hydrogen peroxide, used by both the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers in their attacks, having recorded “martyrdom videos” and with apparent plans for the blowing up mid-flight of an unspecified number of transatlantic planes.

There were shrieks of initial incredulity then horror from the press, all liquids in containers above 100ml were banned from planes as a precaution, with mothers having to taste their babies’ milk, apparently as a result of claims that the bombers were prepared to blow up their children and use their bottles as containers for the explosives. This last claim, as Craig Murray notes, was nonsense.

Two years later and at the end of £10m trial, and just three of the suspects have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and even then not on aircraft. Already we have those with close contacts with the spooks being highly defensive: Frank Gardner on the BBC more or less suggesting that the security services were outraged that the jury had failed to reach the right verdict. The Sun tomorrow has a very similar, defensive editorial from what I’ve seen.

What is similar between this and the earlier ‘Ricin plot‘ is that both appeared to have ideas way beyond their station, that they imagined they could pull off an incredibly dastardly and fiendish, murderous plot, despite their own inadequacies and lack of training. If you examine the actual prosecution against the men somewhat closer, it soon becomes apparent that the case for planes to be blow up in mid-air was if not completely weak, hardly robust.

The only evidence that convincingly points towards airplanes being the target was the flight times which were found on a memory stick in one of the men’s possession, and the diary notes made by the alleged ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, that give the impression that the materials which were to make the bomb were to be smuggled through security at airports. It’s little wonder that the jury failed to reach a verdict, as such evidence was hardly likely to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt of their guilt, as the prosecution and security services surely knew.

The story at first was that the ingredients for the bombs were to be taken on the planes and mixed in the toilets, which was quickly laughed at by scientists for its impracticability.

Instead what the prosecution set out to prove was that the bombs were instead to be manufactured at the flat beforehand, then smuggled onto the planes in soft drinks bottles, before being detonated mid-flight using hollowed-out batteries filled with the explosive HMTD, with cameras or mp3 players used as the power source. To this end the prosecution showed the jury film of government experts detonating bombs to this specification, and as could be expected, they packed a mighty wallop. Those videos were replayed again today, accompanied by an American video of an aircraft being torn apart by an explosion, supposedly again via similar explosives, although no real explanation about this test was given.

What was not as well reported by the media was the fact that the explosives expert giving evidence admitted that it had taken them over 30 attempts to construct a viable bomb, and that the one they showed had been one of a series, doubtless the most powerful. They also had to admit that the components were so volatile that the detonator had to be added by mechanical arm, rather than by a human, lest the mixture go off in their faces.

Just to stress again, it’s clear that some of these men were potentially highly dangerous, especially those convicted of conspiracy to murder.

Exaggerated claims
Once again though, it’s difficult not to be shocked by the incompetence, arrogance, egotism and extreme exaggeration which took place both before and after the disruption of the “plot”. It’s worth remembering that just the day before John Reid had delivered a speech ridiculing civil libertarians as not getting it, when he most certainly knew that very night that raids were going to be taking place to bring the accused in. He and police officers then delivered bloodcurdling claims that this was to be “mass murder on an unimaginable scale”, already potentially affecting the possibility of the men getting a fair trial.

Then there’s the media, which swallowed wholesale from the very beginning the whole idea that such an attack involving liquid explosives was possible, even while experts were disputing it.

The coverage of the trial was an absolute joke, as evidenced by my attempts to get to the bottom of the claims about the explosives themselves. Half the reason why there will be so much surprise at the verdict is that they failed to bother to report almost any of the defence case apart from the stunt and documentary one. Even much of the prosecution case was ignored.

It has to be remembered that cases like this are the ones being used to further dilute our own liberty, the apparently limitless amounts of information which the group had pointed to for why 42 days or longer is needed, all without there being anything approaching a real, immediately dangerous plot being disrupted. We have comprehensively failed to keep the terrorist threat in perspective: it’s true that we have to be lucky all the time and the terrorists only have to been lucky once, but this needs to be seen in the context of the failures which are now totting up.

First 21/7, which was extremely lucky, then this plot, which was ridiculously overblown, then Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead, with no explosives but plenty of petrol and canisters. Add in Nicky Reilly and what we see are fantasists, unable to live up to their ambitions.

If these are the pick of the al-Qaida crop from this country, do we really have so much to fear? It’s time that we looked more realistically at the threat and demanded that the age of spin and politicising of it came to an end. Only then might we then learn more about how to more effectively fight it before the raids become necessary.

(a longer version of the article is here)

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About the author
'Septicisle' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He mostly blogs, poorly, over at Septicisle.info on politics and general media mendacity.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Our democracy ,Terrorism

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Reader comments


“Their own inadequacies and lack of training” may have stopped this lot, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t get it right – even if by chance alone. Panning the media is fair enough if they got it all wrong, but you didn’t really address the fact that people are still willing to try and blow up airplanes.

http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com

I think it can be taken as read that a) there are people who would like to inflict mass casualty attacks on the UK and that b) that would be a bad thing done by bad people.

Surely it’s basic courtesy to assume that anyone talking about any other matters relating to terrorism is aware of that?

@Flying Rodent: Not necessarily. I’ve read too many blogs & comments by people who seem to think that everything terrorism-related reported by the media is some kind of conspiracy, and there aren’t actually terrorists out there who would like to inflict mass casualty attacks on the UK.

Not that this particular article is one of those. I do however object to this:

“They also had to admit that the components were so volatile that the detonator had to be added by mechanical arm, rather than by a human, lest the mixture go off in their faces.”

Suicide bombers are not known for their exacting cautiousness when it comes to this kind of thing!

Scepticisle, great article.

Flying Rodent, quite.

“Suicide bombers are not known for their exacting cautiousness when it comes to this kind of thing!”

Indeed, consider all those “workplace accidents” that Hamas members are known to suffer from. I think they have had more deaths from those than suicide bombings in the last few years.

think it can be taken as read that a) there are people who would like to inflict mass casualty attacks on the UK and that b) that would be a bad thing done by bad people.

Surely it’s basic courtesy to assume that anyone talking about any other matters relating to terrorism is aware of that?

You can’t have read many articles / threads on terrorist attacks against Israel if you think that assumption is so obvious!

“you didn’t really address the fact that people are still willing to try and blow up airplanes.”

But the point of the article was not to deny something that we all know – Septicisle stressed that they were dangerous men. It was to point out the deliberate exaggerrations that help develop a climate in which our civil liberties can be eroded and we or our our fellow citizens may be imprisoned for nearly a month without trial or even charge.

What I think is noteworthy is not, years after 9/11 and 7/7 and while we are still bombing and killing 350 civilians a month, that people are willing to blow us up – we *know* that – but that our government, supposedly elected to serve and protect us, is instead willing to imprison us, to inconvenience us in myriad small ways and to frighten us into co-operation. And if that wasn’t heinous enough, it also uses its own lies and exaggerrations to justify undemocratic wars of aggression, which exacerbate the very problems they use to cow us into submission!

Add to that the innocent civilians they are killing every day in our name by indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and their willingness to hand people over to be tortured, and the moral difference between our government and Al-Quaeda’s high command is heading towards – or below – zero.

“It was to point out the deliberate exaggerrations that help develop a climate in which our civil liberties can be eroded and we or our our fellow citizens may be imprisoned for nearly a month without trial or even charge.”

This is my favourite example:

The implication, of course, was that the new ricin threat was a lethal danger to all British citizens, and the Safety Elephant was quick to stress the ever more urgent need for ID Cards.

Needless to say, the entire episode was found to be nonsensical.

Ben

Woops, I meant to add a link to this front page.

Ben

You can’t have read many articles / threads on terrorist attacks against Israel if you think that assumption is so obvious!

Obviously I can’t read everything online, but I imagine that the number of articles and comments openly celebrating suicide bomb attacks on civilians make up a microscopic percentage of the total commentary on this subject – so small, in fact, that it’s reasonable to assume that anyone you’re speaking to is likely to deplore them.

Great article. I am very sure that we will see more of these conspiracies – political posturing on all sides and disproportionate responses to them by all concerned. That’s not to say that vigilance is not required- I for one very much welcome the disruption of terrorist fantasists in my neighbourhood but we do need to get it clear what the actual threats involve in the scale of things and keep a perspective. There ha to be more to life than a war against terror, after all.

http://archipelago-of-truth.blog.co.uk/2008/09/08/my-neighbours-and-terrorism-4699528

Equally, comparing suicide terrorism in the occupied territories to suicide terrorism elsewhere is fatuous; while I’d never condone suicide terrorism in the occupied territories there’s clearly a moral continuum that goes something like:

[bombing civilians in their own country -> bombing civilians who’re illegally occupying your land -> bombing military targets -> being the French resistance]

Meanwhile, despite proving that fear of this type of attack is completely irrational, we continue to endure obscene levels of disruption, scrutiny and paranoia from officialdom when travelling by plane.

I take it we can expect Labour to lift the ridiculous and unnecessary restrictions now?

Charlotte, am I right in thinking that was a rhetorical question?

More like extreme sarcasm, with implied criticism. 😉

The plotters appear to have a pretty good bomb — assuming that they were able to assemble and transport it without blowing themselves up. Let’s assume that they booked into a hotel close to an airport and assembled it in the bathroom, and that it took an hour to go from the hotel to check-in to hand luggage inspection. During that time, the liquid explosive (a very crude cousin of TATP) would have started to decompose and those pop bottles might even start to bulge. Remember that it would be very difficult to protect the pop bottle in an airport — the 7/7 bombers used bubble wrap as heat and vibration insulation but that would not be possible 100% of the time for the Tang bombers.

More likely, however, they would have been spotted because of the detonators. They planned to use HMTD, derived from camping firelighters, as the detonator, concealing it in batteries. Anyone who has disassembled a consumer dry cell battery knows how difficult it is, and it is implausible to believe that one might be reassembled without it looking obvious.

HMTD doesn’t like being in contact with metal, so the use of dry cell batteries with their metal cases seems even more bizarre. A small leakage of HMTD from a container within the dry cell would cause a pop, followed by a minor bang as the detonator charge went off, which could happen at almost any time. There are ways around that, but the suggestion that dry cell batteries would be used indicates that the Tang bombers didn’t fully understand the problem.

At airport temperature, HMTD will decompose very rapidly unless it is well insulated, which is implausible if it is stuffed inside a dry cell case. As it decomposes it will give off fumes similar to acetone, possibly other fumes similar to ammonia. Sniffer dog training and electronic devices to identify traces of HMTD have been available for three or four years; spotting the crude TATP would be more difficult if it was in a sealed vessel.

The scientists who were asked to build a Tang bomb identify a further problem: it is very difficult to build one that works, and when it does work, it is very difficult to prevent almost spontaneous detonation. If you remember, the 21/7 London bombers got the detonator right but the primary explosive (crude TATP) was too wet and decomposed to explode, performing like a damp firework. Contrarily, if you are impatient during the chemistry, quality TATP will blow your hand off.

Conclusions? The ban on liquids on planes is irrational; Bruce Schneier argues the case better than I could, but here is a summary. Irrationalists will try to blow us up anyway, and if they can’t do it on planes they’ll do it somewhere else. Plane bombs are symbolic, so we have to defend them better (and rationally), but it is impossible to apply the same inspection regime on a train or bus.

Charlieman: that’s mostly in line with what I’ve been reading. Interesting though is that the BBC have now put up a video of their own expert carrying out a demonstration of a bomb: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7536167.stm

I’d like to know exactly what substances he was using and the preparation that went on beforehand before passing judgement, considering the other experts attempts that as you say either failed or resulted in the explosive becoming incredibly volatile, far too volatile to be used in the way the bombers were meant to. In any event, the damage done there, although it looks alarming would still not probably instantly result in the deaths of all on board: the damage is similar to that which the recent Qantas explosion resulted in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qantas_Flight_30 and is on nowhere near the scale of the catastrophic incident that befell the Aloha Airlines flight which still managed to land safely: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloha_Airlines_Flight_243

john b – sorry, I didn’t realise Tel Aviv was in the occupied territories…

The ban on liquids on planes is irrational; Bruce Schneier argues the case better than I could, but here is a summary. Irrationalists will try to blow us up anyway, and if they can’t do it on planes they’ll do it somewhere else. Plane bombs are symbolic, so we have to defend them better (and rationally), but it is impossible to apply the same inspection regime on a train or bus.

I agree with that.

Unfortunately part of that rational approach probably involves profiling…

Well it depends on what sort of profiling you’re talking about. This article of Schneier’s may be of interest, and this one too.

Septicisle, I think you’ve missed an element of the process.

The “experts” are asked by the CPS “here’s the ingredients, here’s the rough quantities… could this be turned into a bomb or not”.

The professional bomb-makers then go off and play with pipettes and measuring jugs and keep trying until they get one that goes “bang”. Whether they do it first try or 20th try, they’ve got to show it either is or is not possible.

Then they come back to the CPS and say “yes, you could actually make a bomb from this material”.

If they can’t then the case against the suspects loses a central pillar and the defence team have a better chance of clearing their clients

Carl, I think the point is that the Government and the media tried to make us fear something that was in fact unlikely to happen.

Not to mention the economic effects of the liquid bomb scare and associated ‘security’ measures.

It seems to me that sometimes the Government and media do the terrorists job for them.

ukliberty
Yes, I did get that from the piece. In fact, I would consider that bleedin’ obvious and I very much agree with that point of view.
However, what I also got from the piece was an incredulous “look how many times it took them to build the bomb, talk about pushing it” line. The single point I was raising was that’s how the legal system works. It’s not about creating hysteria or a biased view. If there is a suggestion by the accused that there was never any intention of actually making a working bomb, the prosection have to prove there was capability. And the only way to do that is to have it built using the same ingredients. So the experiment takes place.

As for “unlikely to happen”… well, so was the World Tracd Centre. Frankly, anyone who posited that “plan” in a Hollywood film was laughed at. The film “The Seige” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133952/ was considered preposterous right up until Sept 11. So what’s “unlikely” these days?
It was “unlikely” that Exeter would ever be a target for a terrorist attack… oops.

As for “it seems to me that sometimes the Government and media do the terrorists job for them”.

Well – I can’t speak for the former, but can for the latter. If you’re told something as a reporter, you try to verify it before reporting it. If you can’t veryfiy it, you report it, but state that’s what the speaker (Minister, PM, MP) has claimed, and counter it with any other sources which agree or disagree.

But thanks for your blanket criticism all the same, it’s much appreciated. By the way, I think some bloggers are really exceptional journalists with incredible writing skill. Others are just fucktards.

Cheers

Looks like something touched a nerve there.

The London 7/7 bombers had a good chemist who could adjust his/her skills to bomb making. The London 21/7 attempted bombers did not.

The Tang bombers had a good idea but were prevented from implementing it. Fortunately, we don’t know whether our airport controls would have spotted the detonator. But we do have more knowledge to improve controls so that they are less likely to get on a plane. To maintain a functioning society, we can’t apply the same controls to buses, trains, shopping precincts etc, so we have to look beyond a technological fix.

Carl Eve: “If they can’t then the case against the suspects loses a central pillar and the defence team have a better chance of clearing their clients.”

A prosecution for conspiracy to cause an explosion can be brought when the alleged perpetrators believe that they have a viable bomb. That their chemistry is wonky is irrelevant; prosecution simply requires that the alleged conspirators think that they have a bomb and design to use it.

Carl, I seem to have upset you but I’m not entirely sure how I did so.

I think it is fair to say that most members of the public following coverage of the arrests and the trial would have believed that the terrorists were capable of building liquid bombs and exploding them on board our aircraft and that we were in imminent danger of them doing so prior to their arrests. We were made afraid (intentionally or not) by such coverage.

But in fact the prosecution said there was no evidence to confirm that the defendants had managed to build a “viable device” (let alone be capable of smuggling the components on board and build them in the aircraft toilet) – something, by the way, very poorly covered by some (OK?) of the media, as Septicisle says in the article here – and apparently the authorities had been watching them experiment with chemicals for some time, so it strikes me as highly unlikely the suspects would have been allowed to board the aircraft.

Similarly there are some people with the impression that no-one from this trial has been convicted of anything because of the (apparent) focus by the CPS, police, and some of the media on the failure to reach a verdict on the specific charges relating to exploding devices on aircraft, when in fact three people have been convicted of conspiracy to murder and will receive a life sentence and a possible 30-40 years in prison.

It seems to me reasonable to say some of the media is interested more in selling sensationalist stories than reasonable stories, while some are more interested in the truth. I think there are politicians interested in the Climate of Fear and some of the media jump on what they say and resell it.

If there is a suggestion by the accused that there was never any intention of actually making a working bomb, the prosection have to prove there was capability. And the only way to do that is to have it built using the same ingredients. So the experiment takes place.

Well, the prosecution has to prove intent – this may or may not involve evidence of capability. Evidence of capability does come in handy when it comes to sentencing – someone incapable will receive less of a sentence than someone capable.

Carl,

As for “unlikely to happen”… well, so was the World Tracd Centre. Frankly, anyone who posited that “plan” in a Hollywood film was laughed at. The film “The Seige” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133952/ was considered preposterous right up until Sept 11. So what’s “unlikely” these days?
It was “unlikely” that Exeter would ever be a target for a terrorist attack… oops.

I think you’ve missed the point here, too, and that’s about the impression we were given of a plot, one where we were in imminent danger of being blown up while going on our holidays, that the authorities were aware of and could disrupt at any time (you’ll note that among the recriminations in the media is the accusation that we arrested the suspects only because the USA was going to move against Rashid Rauf), as opposed to one which the authorities were merely speculating about in the general sense (and one where the authorities failed to follow advice, intelligence and procedure).

No ukliberty, I haven’t missed the point. As I said in my earlier response “I very much agree with that point of view” – that point of view about the exaggeration.

What I didn’t agree with was Septicisle’s highlighting of the testing of the materials and I tried to explain why legally it’s done. Go back and re-read the 2.26pm comment. There’s no nerve touched, I purely take issue with one “element” of what he’s written. That’s all.

But I also didn’t like your blanket slight against the entire media. Yes, I work in it and frankly I’m fed up with the “oh, the bloody media”. It’s the sort of crap I expect from Guido Fawkes who’s endlessly trying to score points against the “dead tree press”, but not from Liberal Conspiracy for cyring out loud.
A broad swipe against “the media” is like lumping William Hague and Margaret Thatcher in with Michael Foot and Mo Mowlam in attacking the Government.

Please, if you want to have a go at the culprits, be specific. If you read the tabloids or any partisan broadsheet then you can’t expect them not to go down that road. But please keep in mind the media is bigger than just the seven or eight national newspapers which account for a very small percentage of all newspapers sold in the UK. I accept, and I say this as a reporter, that you can’t believe as gospel everything that’s written in the press… but that doesn’t mean it’s all shite, does it? Look, I hear what you’re saying, but I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition for explaining how the legal process works in relation to whether a bomb works or not. Your reply of – effectively – “well, it’s all the bloddy Government [a given] and the media’s fault [not a given]” got my goat. Apologies if I went off on you.

Anyway, lastly – these days, what is “unlikely”? Like I said, look at Exeter. I’m not saying “let’s buy into the Sun’s doom-mongering”, I’m saying just think to yourself, as an individual, “what’s unlikely these days”..

Carl, I apologise for my blanket slight of the media and my implicit insult of you.

As for ‘unlikely’, I think it depends on how you look at it: each individual instance of terrorism is unlikely; but I don’t think it’s unlikely that we will have an instance of domestic terrorism at some point (I think it’s inevitable). My comment about unlikely was really relating to the actual danger we were in (I have faith the police would have prevented those terrorists from exploding their bombs) rather than the probability of any one event occurring. (I’m not sure I’ve explained that very well.)

Ukliberty
Many thanks and much appreciated.
I agree with you completely – frankly, I deal with more road accident deaths, industrial disease deaths and accidental deaths than I ever will from terrorist attacks. I recall the “anthrax” panic a few years back. What a pathetic load of old balls that was. We’re in far more danger of multiple deaths from flooding than terrorism.

Personally speaking though, I’d have more faith in the police preventing terrorists from acting out their fantasies if it was just the police doing the whole job. As it is, the job is a tug-of-war between the spooks, the military, the politicians, the “interested” parties and the fuzz. And the result is Jean Charles de Menezes.

By the way, did you see the C4 news piece about the Preventing Violent Extremism Projects debacle. Now there’s cause for concern.

Cheers again and peace.

No I was unaware of that piece, thanks for the heads up.

I’ve changed my mind slightly on the viability of the plot having read this: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/10/liquid_bomb_verdicts/

My response to which is here: http://www.septicisle.info/2008/09/crying-over-spilt-liquid-part-4.html

(Yes, I’ve been sad enough to write another 3 posts on the same topic after this one.)

It has to be repeated, though – the issue of whether the bombs would actually have worked or not was, ultimately, beside the point for the purposes of the trial. An acquaintance of mine spent a while in prison in the early 70s for attempted murder after sending a voodoo doll to a police officer. The offence came in coming up with a plan which he believed would result in the death of the officer in question and executing it – the mere fact that voodoo is a lot of made-up old toot and he’d have caused him more measurable physical harm by sending him a half-bottle of vodka didn’t help his defence in the slightest.

Can anyone point me to a court report that describes how the Tang bombers intended to assemble the device, please. Lewis Page (at The Register) and I made different but equaly valid assumptions about how the bomb might have been assembled, but I can only find speculation, not facts.

Well, that’s just the thing. Very few that I’ve seen have gone into the minute details, although probably for good reasons. From what I understand, as Page suggests, the detonators would have been kept separate and hidden in disposable cameras until the time came to assemble them once on board the flight. They would have either then been inserted into the top of the bottle or strapped to the side of it before being set off using the flash of the camera.

Panorama I think went into the most detail, with reconstructions of what the camera installed by MI5 in the bomb-making flat picked up: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/7540926.stm


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