Toy planes and miniature bombs: How al-Qaeda plots terror |
Al Arabiya TV - 15 August, 2012
Picture this: Members of a terrorist cell meet to plot attacks. Shrouded in secrecy, they scheme to wreak chaos and protect themselves from enemy advances.
We assume the fighters huddle together in a rural area, drawing vast plans using complex bomb technology in underground laboratories.
But it’s more simple than that.
A video reportedly shot by al-Qaeda this week shows how members of the group used “dumbed down” mock ups for attacks. A toy plane depicts a drone. A miniature package depicts a real bomb.
The grainy video, believed to be shot in southern Spain and recovered and released by Spanish security services, shows al-Qaeda members training for an attack that would use a model plane and explosives.
A colorful remote-controlled plastic plane, which is about three meters long, is seen taking off and dropping two small objects from either wing. The objects fall to the ground and a man enters the frame to retrieve them.
CNN reported that Spanish officials believe this video was “made not by an enthusiastic hobbyist, but by a committed terrorist trying to convert a toy plane into a potentially deadly bomber.”
"Terrorists innovate and adapt to security measures. We have to always keep this in mind," Spanish terrorism analyst Fernando Reinares told the news channel, stirring concern that a toy plane carrying out terror attack may not be far-fetched.
Security officials are well aware pilotless drones could deliver a fatal attack -- model planes have been used before in terrorist plans.
In July, Rezwan Ferdaus, a Muslim-American Massachusetts resident, admitted that he plotted to use remote-controlled model planes packed with explosives to blow up the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. The plot would also involve using improvised explosive devices detonated by modified cellphones.
In the plan, a small model of the F-86 Sabre, a fighter jet used in the Korean War, was among the those to be packed with C-4 explosives , court documents stated.
According to media reports, Ferdaus, 26, was inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology.
“Al-Qaeda could plan something smarter than the September 11th, 2001 attacks with this technology,” Pakistan-based risk and security analyst Shaukat Qadir told Al Arabiya English.
“It may be less dramatic and damaging than the 9/11 attacks, but it would be smarter in regards to their technological capabilities.”
However, “these plans are not from the mother ship,” said Mustafa Alani, Director of Security and Defense Studies at the Gulf Research Center told Al Arabiya English, implying that the al-Qaeda associates using toy planes to visualize their attacks were not necessarily carrying out orders from top al-Qaeda leaders.
A U.S. State Department report on terrorism released earlier this month said the killing of bin Laden has sent al-Qaeda’s core leadership into a downward spiral “that will be difficult to reverse.” But the report also noted that regional affiliates of the terror network remain a threat.
While the death of its leader and other top operatives has weakened al-Qaeda’s leadership particularly in Western Pakistan, affiliates in Yemen, Iraq and northern Africa have made advances.
“They have shown resilience; retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks; and, thus, constitute an enduring and serious threat to our national security.
“As al-Qaeda’s core has gotten weaker, we have seen the rise of affiliated groups around the world,” the report reads.
For these fractured affiliate groups, analysts said, planning an attack with a toy plane guided by GPS would be relatively simple.
Model versions of the plane - between 5 feet and 6 feet, and capable of speeds greater than 100 mph - can be acquired “for less than $ 200 from websites serving model plane enthusiasts,” reported CNN.
A promotional statement for the model on one website reads: "Provides authoritative rudder control so you can execute point rolls and knife-edge flight with precision."
“There is nothing surprising about this,” said security analyst Qadir. “The U.S. has been using drones with regularity. It is about time that we expect that somebody imitates them.”
Qadir noted that with the global spread of al-Qaeda, high-end technological advancements are becoming more viable.
“[Al-Qaeda] was mostly concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but now the group’s members are appearing in Western regions, where technology is more accessible.
“They may not have all the gadgetry available for the research and development phases that, say, the U.S. goes through, but they’ve got good engineers, with innovative minds who think of ways to defend themselves,” added Qadir.
As terror tactics evolve to new heights, concerns are now swarming over al-Qaeda’s technical capabilities. Bomb-making developments and advances in disguising detection.
In recent years, two bomb designs have defined al-Qaeda’s “ingenious” technological capabilities, according to counterterrorism analysts: The “Christmas Day” bomb and the “printer bomb."
A bomb smuggled aboard a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009 by a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was specially sewn into a pouch in his underwear. It contained the main PETN explosive charge, which was connected to a detonator.
“PETN is a white, odorless powder that cannot be detected by most X-ray machines. An explosives expert says that a likely explanation for the failure of the underwear device to fully detonate was wear and tear during Abdulmutallab's lengthy transit through Africa,” explained a report from CNN citing U.S. officials.
Meanwhile, printer bombs delivered to UPS and FedEx offices in the Yemini capital of Sana’a in October 2010 were another sign of al-Qaeda’s amplified technological sophistication. Inside the ink cartridge, 400 grams of PETN was found – a bomb that was not detected by specially trained dogs or an X-ray scanner.
“They proved to the world their high technological abilities – the underwear and printer bombers could not be discovered,” Mustafa Alani, Director of Security and Defense Studies at the Gulf Research Center told Al Arabiya English.
Qadir said that improvised explosive devices were also being regularly improved by al-Qaeda, noting in May the FBI announced it was analyzing a device that was similar to one used in a failed attempt to kill a senior Saudi security official, Muhammad bin Nayef, in August 2009.
U.S. officials believed the device, an improved version with a better detonation system, to be built by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen in an effort to target Western aircraft.
"It is clear that AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is revamping its bomb techniques to try to avoid the causes of the failure of the 2009 device," an unnamed US intelligence official told US media in response to the FBI analysis.
Alani said al-Qaeda had made good use of remote-controlled planes to spy on U.S. bases in Iraq, but the videos of toy plane enactments managed to create the “fear factor,” even if such an attack would not be as large at the one on the World Trade Center.
“These videos create imaginative publicity. After the death of Osama bin-Laden, al-Qaeda leaders are not doing much to publicize their strength and threats. They do not appear in videos as much, for instance,” he said.
“This is an image al-Qaeda wants to create in the minds of the public. Another attack by air, which may not have much operational value – but the publicity is immense.”
Meanwhile, the threat of an airborne remote-controlled attack would bear similar hallmarks as the 9/11 attack, noted Alani.
“This sort of plane,” explained Alani, “could do some damage if in fact an attack is carried out this way [by loading with explosives], but issues with accuracy and the size of bomb would make this attack not entirely feasible.”