UK Airliner Bombing Plot Bust Questioned

Larry Johnson, a reputable terrorism expert, has published an essay in which he assails Bush and Blair for the revelations concerning the UK Sky Bombing Plot. He says, to put it succinctly, that the plot was not mature and that the move to stop the terrorists was political. However, he did not specifically state 'I question the timing,' an obvious and clear omission.

He based his conclusions on a few keen observations that I will address here one by one so that you may see if they hold water (or liquid explosives if you prefer).

First let me state that I am reluctant to tackle an expert in his own field of expertise. I am sure he knows more about the subject than my limited experience will ever match. So I will provide the counter—argument directly with the refuting source, so you will see this argument is based on research.

Mr. Johnson tackles the technical aspects of the plot. He addresses the apparent use of liquid explosives as reported by the media:

First, no evidence has emerged that the plotters had in hand a functioning prototype of the device they wanted to take on board a plane...Yousef, Mohamad, and Murad are in jail. Walid Khan is dead. No one from that group is around to provide technical advice on the amount of explosive required to down a plane.

The implication is that these men are the repository for terrorist knowledge on how to build a bomb using liquid explosives. It is a terribly misleading comment for what purpose, I won't speculate. In fact the use of liquid explosives has been demonstrated by the very organization that has been linked to this Sky Bombing Plot.

A Jihadist by the name of Matiur Rehman has been identified as the Pakistani contact with al Qaeda affiliations. He is a member of Harakat—ul—Jihad—ul—Islami (HUJI) and Lashkar—e—Jhangvi (LeJ) two (of many) Islamic Jihad groups in Pakistan.

Recent activities of the HUJI provide specific evidence that they are well versed with liquid explosives. The South Asian Intelligence Review chronicles the HUJI:

October 12, 2005, a suicide bomber walked into the Special Task Force (STF) office of the Hyderabad Police and detonated a pressure—activated bomb carried in a backpack.

Investigations pointed to a joint operation by cadres of the JeM, HuJI and LeT.

The liquid explosive used in the Hyderabad suicide attack had been smuggled in by HuJI—B militants from Dhaka....carrying a five—litre jerry can containing explosives, crossed over to India through the West Bengal border and reached Howrah. They boarded the Hyderabad—bound East Coast Express, but the journey was discontinued at Kakiwada as the jerry can started leaking, giving off a pungent smell.

A five—liter jerry can? That's it? Of course they would need a power source, something quite easy in this iPod generation. So clearly we have strong evidence from a very reputable source that these Brits of Pakistani origin were working with at least one man who could have (and certainly would have) provided the technical knowledge for this plot. This is a far cry from the picture of improbability Mr. Johnson is trying to paint. And a working prototype is not the complicated technical feat one might imagine from a term such as 'working prototype.' Pour the explosive in a water bottle, apply energy, ka—boom.

Mr. Johnson also states:

I'm also struck by the fact that more then twenty people were allegedly involved in this plot.  The Al Qaeda of Ramsi Yousef's day had a viable plan for blowing up 12 planes using only 5 people.  Now we learn that the radical Islamic copycats need 20 folks for at least 6 planes.  Is this evidence of Al Qaeda's degraded capability?

Or is it evidence of a plot similar to 9/11 that was executed by apparently 19 hijackers?

He continues:

Second, no evidence has emerged that the group had purchased tickets or even had passports that would allow them to board a plane to the United States.  How exactly were they supposed to bomb planes that they could not even board.

Now this may seem like a slam dunk until you compare it (again) to other terrorist attacks, as it you might think someone who was a terrorism expert would do.

CNN reports on the double suicide bombings by Chechnyan women to bring down Russian airliners:

The Grozny resident, born in 1977, was the last passenger to board the Tu—134 and had purchased her ticket an hour before the flight departed.

So clearly we have direct evidence that contradicts Mr. Johnson's speculation that because the terrorists had no tickets, they were not serious. Terrorists can and do wait until the day of attack to buy tickets, at least sometimes. His conjecture here is not worthy of his professional reputation, but again I decline to guess as to why.

A bit of reasonable speculation about the issue of passports would be that the lack of them does not indicate absence of imminence but rather the operatives haven't all been caught. It is widely known and should be obvious to a terrorism professional that terrorism tactics have become refined and the operators will often be sequestered from the rest of the support cell. We may have one part but not the full.

Mr. Johnson continues:

Fourth, there is the curious response of the Bush Administration to this news.  Instead of coming to the White House Briefing Room to announce new initiatives to develop technology to detect liquid explosives at passenger screening checkpoints or to close loopholes posed by unscreened cargo, the Bush White House attacked Democrats for making America vulnerable to terrorists. 

Let me get this straight, politician are behaving in a political manner? That is his fourth point to show the bombing suspects were not close to execution phase?

The rest of the piece smacks of the sort of Huffington Post rhetoric you wouldn't expect from a terrorism professional. In general, his essay is a startling example of how professional expertise can be drafted into a wafer thin argument for the masses, I won't speculate as to why.  

Ray Robison is the proprietor of the website RayRobison: Pointing out the obvious to the oblivious.

If you experience technical problems, please write to