WAR ON TERROR: by John MillerNews Weekly
The deadly peril still very much in our midst
, October 3, 2009
Eight Islamic fundamentalists have recently faced trial in London for planning to set off in 2006 a series of coordinated explosions aboard seven transatlantic jets bound for North America. Had the plot been successful, the ensuing disaster would certainly have rivalled the 9/11 attack on the United States in terms of loss of innocent life.
Seventeen months ago, my report on the terrorist plot, "Too terrible to contemplate", was featured as News Weekly's cover story (April 26, 2008 issue).
Since then, the mills of British justice have ground slowly and thoroughly. Three of the terror suspects have been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Few could dispute the appropriateness of such a sentence, for these are evil men with evil intent. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the human cost in terms of hundreds of terrified men, women and children being sent plummeting to their deaths, would have been horrific. A transatlantic air disaster of this magnitude would also have seriously disrupted the Anglo-American alliance, which has been under strain for some time.
"Smoking gun" evidence
The second appearance in court of the defendants in the airline plot trial brought with it more information in the form of evidence, particularly the "smoking gun" variety so beloved of lawmakers.
Speaking from personal experience, it is like a crippling blow to the guts for police and intelligence officers when carefully garnered intelligence in an important trial such as this is rejected out of hand by the court as "inadmissible evidence".
There will now be a further trial for those suspects about whom the jury could not come to a decision.
I referred earlier to "smoking gun" type evidence. In this particular UK trial, the material the suspected terrorists were preparing to use was so simple that it would unnecessarily endanger public safety to publicise further the details of bomb construction.
Suffice it to say that the draconian rules and regulations about the sorts of fluids that could be carried aboard an aircraft were a direct result of this transatlantic terrorist investigation.
There has been some easing of the rules, largely because detection has become more sophisticated and thorough. But it is nevertheless still is a lurking worry for anyone travelling long distances, looking around an airline cabin and wondering whether a would-be suicide-bomber has slipped through the net.
In 2002, not long after the 9/11 attacks, British-born Richard Reid (also known as Abdul Raheem and as Tariq Raja), boarded American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami and, according to witnesses on the flight, proceeded to light a fuse protruding from his shoe. Two flight attendants struggled with Reid - afterwards known as the Shoe-Bomber - and foiled his intended attack.
According to the FBI, packed in the sole of Reid's shoe were enough high explosives to blow a hole in the fuselage of the Boeing 767 aircraft.
People sometimes laugh off the idea that a mere shoe-bomb could be so lethal; but the average person doesn't stop to think how vulnerable aircraft are, especially at high altitudes.
The thickness of the fuselage in terms of an aircraft's size is proportionately no greater than the thickness of skin in terms of a human's size; so any explosion at altitude is usually lethal.
It is true that there have been some remarkable escapes when pieces have been blown out of airliners; but, as far as we know, no such incidents have been bomb-related. The most startling was the survival 21 years ago of a Boeing 737 which lost most of its fuselage directly behind the crew cabin. Aloha Airlines flight 243, flying out of Hawaii on April 28, 1988, suffered explosive decompression attributed to structural failure.
One passenger was sucked out of the aircraft and killed. Some 65 passengers and crew were injured; but, as many have said, the eventual safe landing of the aircraft was unprecedented and remains unsurpassed. Believe it or not, aircraft don't come as soft tops/convertibles. As someone who has more than a passing acquaintance with flying and explosions, I could scarcely believe the filmed evidence at the time.
Those on trial and convicted in the London trial were intent on destroying much bigger aircraft. The Aloha Airlines 737 carried only 90 passengers and a crew of five. The many hundreds of innocent people who would have perished, had the transatlantic airline plot succeeded, would have been mass murder, the sheer callousness of which is almost beyond comprehension.
A dedicated and fanatical few with extreme beliefs were prepared to kill themselves along with the innocent - all in the name of Allah the Wise and the Merciful.
Whether in Britain, the United States, Australia or elsewhere in the Western world, it is clear that the deadly peril of Islamic fundamentalism is still very much in our midst.John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.