Al Qaeda's Flight 253 Blueprint
An al Qaeda magazine published a how-to article in Yemen outlining similar terror techniques that marked the attempted Christmas Day bombing. Howard Altman reveals the chilling details.
Nearly two months before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly smuggled a home-made incendiary device onto Northwest Flight 253 and tried to blow it up over Detroit on Christmas Day, al Qaeda’s official magazine in Yemen printed an article calling upon members of the shadowy jihadi network to use stealth tactics to attack aircraft and airports, according to a translation by terror expert Evan Kohlmann.
The article, which came out in the Oct. 29 edition of Sada al-Malahim—the official Internet-distributed publication of al Qaeda in Yemen—was written by that company's top commander, Abu Basir al-Wahinshi. Titled “War is a Trick,” it appeared on page 8, advising “would-be al Qaeda members on how to utilize all available weapons to kill ‘apostates’ and Western nationals,” says Kohlmann, who released a translation of the article on Saturday.
Titled “War is a Trick,” the article, appearing on page 8, advises “would-be al Qaeda members on how to utilize all available weapons to kill ‘apostates’ and Western nationals,” says Kohlmann, who released a translation of the article Saturday.
"You do not need to sacrifice huge efforts, or large amounts of money, to make 10 grams of explosives, or more or less, and do not search for long for these materials as they are in your mother’s kitchen and between your hands, and in every city you reach, and you will reach what Abu al-Kheir has reached, may Allah have mercy on him,” according to Kohlmann’s translation.
• Our Big Fat Story: Inside the Attack on Christmas• Gerald Posner: Missed Warning Signs The reference to al-Kheir is of particular interest. According to Kohlmann, al-Kheir is a nickname for Abdullah Aseri, “the most wanted Saudi al Qaeda member who managed to ingest an explosive and sneak it through airport security in Saudi Arabia and Yemen a few months ago in a bid to assassinate Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif.” Abdulmutallab, 23—who was charged Saturday with trying to blow up the plane—employed similar subterfuge, according to the FBI.
Abulmutallab—the son of a prominent Nigerian banker and former government minister—boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam Dec. 24, and had a device attached to his body, according to the FBI. As the flight was approaching Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Abdulmutallab set off the device, which resulted in a fire and what appears to have been an explosion. He was then subdued and restrained by the passengers and flight crew and was taken into custody by Customs and Border Patrol officers when the plane landed. A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a high explosive.
Beyond the manner in which the FBI says Abdulmutallab carried out his attack, there appears to be another troubling nexus with the al Qaeda in Yemen article. The New York Times reported Saturday that Abdulmutallab told investigators he obtained explosive chemicals and a syringe that were sewn into his underwear from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with al Qaeda.
The Daily Telegraph reports that “Abdulmutallab is reported to have told authorities that the explosive device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions on when it was to be used from al-Qaeda operatives, although it is claimed he later withdrew that remark.”
The al Qaeda article went on to urge operatives to use a wide variety of bomb-making techniques, according to Kohlmann. Operatives should take bomb-making materials and “make it in the shape of a grenade to throw, or [an explosive] to time, or your ignite it from a distance, or a martyrdom belt, or any electronic device like a stereo by which you listen to the tones of the explosives, or a picture frame, or a paper folder, or a letter envelope, and bombed with it any tyrant, or intelligence forces den, or a prince, or a minister, or a crusader wherever you find them, and also in airports in the Western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways."
The al Qaeda magazine article was no surprise to the intelligence community. Last month, STRATFOR, a Texas-based security firm, published a report on the article calling on investigators to maintain vigilance over what it calls the “discernable attack cycle” that precedes most jihadi attacks.
The article, writes Scott Stewart, STRATFOR’s vice president of tactical intelligence, is troubling in that it urges attacks by “grassroots” jihadis, not hardcore al Qaeda operatives. That its author “gave these instructions in an Internet magazine distributed via jihadist chat rooms, not in some secret meeting with his operational staff, demonstrates that they are clearly intended to reach grassroots jihadists—and are not intended as some sort of internal guidance” for al Qaeda members in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Stewart and co-author Fred Burton write that “the most concerning aspect” of the article “is that it is largely true. Improvised explosive mixtures are in fact relatively easy to make from readily available chemicals—if a person has the proper training…”
While it is unknown at this point whether Abdulmutallab ever saw the magazine article, or if he really obtained the materials in Yemen, the incident over Detroit is exactly what al Qaeda was hoping for when it published “War is a Trick,” according to Charles Faddis, a former CIA ops officer who until May 2008 was the head of the CIA’s weapons of mass destruction terrorism unit.
“I think there is a connection in that they are now trying to encourage attacks by a wider range of individuals independent of a small number of large attacks directed from the center,” says Faddis.
Kohlmann, in an interview, says regardless of whether there is an explicit connection to the article, the attack is another indication that al Quaida in Yemen is establishing itself as a major threat. “It's hard to tell whether there is an explicit connection as of yet, but it's fair to say that even setting aside the events over Detroit, al Qaeda in Yemen has demonstrated a repeated recent interest in developing PETN-based explosives that are designed to defeat airport security measures,” says Kohlmann. “The only other global al Qaeda faction that I've seen moving in that direction is AQ central in AfPak.”
There is good news and bad news to the story of Flight 253, said Larry Johnson, a former CIA operative who now works with U.S. military special ops forces on counterterrorism and terrorism war gaming.
The bad news, said Johnson—who also served as the head of transportation security when detached to the State Department—is that there is really no available technology to detect bomb-making chemicals being smuggled aboard aircraft. “The real troublesome problem here is that if you want access to liquid explosives and you have a partner, you could bring over two pounds onto a plane and not be detected,” he said. “The reality is that we have not developed any effective, deployable technology that can reliably detect the whole range of explosives, unless everyone is strip searched and flies naked.”
The good news?
“We have case after case after case of so-called al Qaeda-trained operatives not being able to do anything,” said Johnson. “They try. There is no doubt about intent. But their training program sucks, thank God.”
Howard Altman is an editor in the converged newsroom of TBO.com, WFLA-TV and The Tampa Tribune. He has written about jihadi websites since shortly after 9/11, when he broke the story about the Saudi Bin Laden Group Web site’s pre-set expiration date of 9/11/01. Altman has won more than 50 journalism awards and had his work translated into several languages.