The Gel-Bombs of August A Real Threat or a PR Stunt?
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
September 3, 2006

A sketch of the alleged UK "terror scare" bombers. Why didn't they have passports or plane reservations?
The arrest of 24 Britons for conspiracy to bomb US-bound commercial jets has prompted politicians to warn of a "new 9/11." A review of the initial information surrounding the plot, suggests that there are some troubling parallels with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon -- but not the ones politicians are pointing to.

As in the case of 9/11, the threat of mix-on-board liquid explosives was known to authorities long before the current episode. And, as was the case in the 9/11 attacks, US authorities failed to act on warnings in a timely manner.

According to the August 11 Washington Post. "Pakistani officials said they had worked closely with US and British intelligence since December to counter the plot." Quoting US and European counter-terrorism officials, the Post further reported that: "the probe had expanded to involve several hundred investigators on three continents who kept dozens of suspects under close surveillance for months."

Despite this foreknowledge, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) failed to take action to prevent travelers from carrying liquids and gels onboard commercial aircraft. Washington only informed US airports of the security threat shortly before the announcement of the British arrests.

DHS head Michael Chertoff told the press that the US was aware of the plot to smuggle bombs and detonators aboard planes "disguised as beverages, electronic devices and other everyday objects." But Chertoff failed to explain why the DHS had taken no steps to ban these carry-on items for eight months.

Since the threat of liquid explosives first become known following an airline bombing in 1994, why did the DHS fail to ban these potentially deadly carry-ons until AFTER the alleged plotters were arrested?

The belated ban did nothing to "protect travelers" or "deter terrorists." It only served to inconvenience thousands of airline passengers. The only "mission accomplished" the creation of a major civic disruption that provided a new opportunity to inflame fears about the "terrorist threat."

George W. Bush was quick to seize the opportunity. In a story headlined "President Says Plot Validates his Priorities," Bush claimed the alleged plot provided "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." Instead of admitting to yet another failure to take pre-emptive protective steps, Bush declared: "We've taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously, we're still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in."

Bush had a warning for critics who fear his authoritarian edicts are eroding American freedoms: "It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the USA. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people."

Bush directly linked the airport disruptions to his War on Terror. "The inconvenience," Bush lectured, "occurs because we will take the steps necessary to protect the American people. The American people need to know we live in a dangerous world."

Bush's manner recalled his May 24, 2005, comment to a gathering in Greece, NY: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

The old trick apparently had the desired effect. The headline on the August 22 USA Today read: "Poll: GOP Up after Terror Arrests. Dems' Advantage in Fall Vote Narrows."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was not cowed by Bush's rhetoric. Pelosi called for immediate steps to implement all of the airport security measures recommended by the 9/11 Commission -- precautions the White House has resisted. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) complained how, "right after 9/11, I told (then-FAA Administrator) Jane Garvey [that] we needed to get liquids off airplanes. The danger is not just explosives, but flammables as well."

Even Bush's former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism, Richard Clark, complained that "five years after 9/11, we have not dealt effectively with the terrorist threat."

A San Francisco Chronicle article recounted how "Airline security experts have been talking for years about the threat posed by liquid and gelled explosives and the inadequacy of current airport screening devices to detect them."

But instead of ordering a simple ban on suspect cargo, Washington handed the private sector millions in government contracts to invent new gel-sniffing technologies. This boondoggle assures that $76.6 million will flow into the pockets of private industry over the next fiscal year.

SWAT Teams vs. Toothpaste Tubes
The suspicion that the incident was being spun for political gain began gaining traction in online chatrooms. A poll on the Daily Kos asked whether the plot was "legit" or "more drama from BushCo to keep us all afraid." As of August 14, 51% of the respondents suspected a hoax. These suspicions were reinforced by a host of illogical responses to the announced threat.

  • In addition to seizing personal cosmetics at the check-in gates, security personnel also started commandeering bottles of lotions, perfumes and teeth-whiteners purchased from stores located inside the security zone. There was no logical explanation for this. .

  • In California, Governor Arnold Schwazenegger dispatched 300 National Guard troops to state airports. "I can assure the people of California that we're doing everything to keep them safe," the governor proclaimed. How these troops were supposed to neutralize suspicious toiletries was not explained.

    The Chronicle illustrated the disconnect with a story that featured a photo of two heavily-armed, camouflaged, flack-jackets soldiers facing off against a photo of a half-dozen beauty-care products and a tube of toothpaste.

    The "Dry Run" Conundrum
    A US counter-terrorism official told the New York Times that the plotters had been within days of staging a "dry run" intended to test whether they could board flights simultaneously. Does this make any sense? Do suicide bombers stage "dry runs"?

    Why would potential bombers question whether they could board flights simultaneously when they could simply book tickets for simultaneous flights weeks in advance?

    Wouldn't a "dry run" invite the possibility of some glitch or failure that would result in detection, discovery and arrest? Wouldn't it make more sense to go-for-broke? If a bomber successfully gets on the plane with the bomb why wouldn't the bomber detonate the bomb?

    Let's try to imagine what a "dry run" would entail. First, the bomber succeeds in boarding the plane. He succeeds in mixing the liquids. He succeeds in attaching the wires from a disposable camera to the bottle of explosives. But he doesn't press the trigger.

    That would mean that the "dry run" bomber would arrive in the US with a bottle of explosive liquid on his person. He would then have to buy a return ticket to Britain. Whereupon he would have to repeat the whole exercise again -- but this time "for real." Again: Does this make sense?

    Operation Bojinka Was No 'Dry Run'
    In the mid-1990s, a group of al Qaeda supporters launched Operation Bojinka, a plan to use nitroglycerin to simultaneously destroy 11 airliners over the Pacific. The plot was uncovered after a fire broke out in the conspirators' Manila apartment. A police search of the apartment turned up dolls wearing clothes made from nitrocellulose.

    (Picture a bearded man walking onto a plane carrying a doll. Now picture the same passenger carrying the doll to a washroom and stuffing the fabric into a bottle of chemicals to create a bomb. If airports are serious about security, they might wish to ban other potentially dangerous nitrocellulose products like guitar picks, ping pong balls and celluloid packaging.)

    A Chronicle article by Simon Reeve reports how, in December 1995, Bojinka bomber Ramzi Yousef successfully tested a gel-bomb. He boarded a plane, mixed the liquids in the plane's bathroom, placed the bomb, a 9-volt battery and timer under his seat and left the plane at the next stop. After the plane took off for the last leg of its flight, the bomb exploded, killing the Japanese passenger who took Yousef's seat.

    Although the plane was badly damaged, the pilot managed to land safely. This wasn't a "dry run." It was expected that the plane would crash into the sea, destroying any clues as to the cause of blast.

    US Wanted Plot to Proceed "Even Further"
    If the plotters were under surveillance nearly a year, why didn't the authorities act sooner to arrest them? According to Post reporters Craid Whitlock and Dafna Linzer: "British and US law-enforcement authorities decided against breaking up the cells right away, in hopes that they could learn more about the origins of the network and assemble evidence for prosecutors."

    And, they added: "Some US counter-terrorism officials said plans originally were to allow the conspiracy to develop even further." Given that the bombing reportedly was set to take place within days, what did these US officials hope to gain by allowing the plot to proceed "even further"?

    This odd "stand down" recalls the FBI's under-reported role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In October 1995, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and nine associates were found guilt of conspiracy in the bombing. (None were accused of actually participating in the bombing.) In order to gain these convictions, the FBI used an infiltrator -- a former Egyptian Army officer named Emad Salem.

    Court transcripts leaked to New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal revealed that the 1993 WTC bomb was built by Salem, the FBI's inside man. In one of the phone transcripts, Salem boasted to his FBI handlers: "We was start already building the bomb which is went off in the World Trade Center. It was built by supervising supervision from the Bureau and the DA and we was all informed about it and we know that the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant."

    According to transcripts of recorded conversation with his FBI handlers, Salem warned agents that the bomb was ready to be detonated and begged to substitute a harmless powder for the explosive. Salem's pleas were ignored and the operation was allowed proceed "even further." On February 26, 1993, the bomb tore a crater in the underground parking lot of WTC, killing 6 and injuring 1,000.

    On October 27, 1993, the New York Times published an article that included portions of Salem's taped conversations with FBI agent John Anticev. "They told me that 'we want to set this'," Salem complained. "You were informed. Everything is ready. The day and the time. Boom. Lock them up and that's that." Instead, the bombing was allowed to proceed. "That's why I feel so bad," Salem told Anticev.

    The Real Bombers Got Away
    In another bizarre twist, two of the men who worked with Salem to build the WTC bomb were allowed to flee the country. One of the bombmakers had illegally entered the US using an Iraqi passport. He was fingerprinted for attempting an "illegal entry" but was released pending a hearing.

    A few hours after the bomb ripped through the World Trade Center, both bombers caught a ride to JFK Airport. Using falsified travel documents, they flew to freedom -- one to Pakistan; one to Jordan.

    The names of the real WTC bombers who worked alongside FBI infiltrator Salem, were Ramzi Yousef and Mohamad Salameh. Yousef (the man who was fingerprinted for entering the US illegally) went on to mastermind Operation Bojinka, the 1995 plot intended to destroy 11 US-bound airliners.

    Back to the Present
    While London officials took every opportunity to trumpet the news of the arrests, they refused to answer reporters' questions about whether they had recovered any actual physical evidence or bomb-making materials nor would they describe what kind of liquid explosives the suspects were allegedly planning to use. (By August 21, the authorities had released several of the suspects and brought bomb-plot charges against eight.)

    In the US, TV reports on the plot were accompanied by full-color illustrations of sports-drink bottles filled with orange liquid -- the explosive component lurking in the bottom. In San Francisco, an explosives expert from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was interviewed by local reporters. The official arrived for the interview cradling a sports-drink bottle filled with orange liquid -- an exact replica of the "weapon" flashed on America's TV screens. Reporters failed to ask where the bottle came from or who placed it in the hands of the LLNL staffer.

    "Homegrown Terrorists"
    The gel-bomb arrests served to advance a new message in the "War on Terror" -- the threat of the "homegrown terrorist," a theme that was introduced by FBI Director Robert Mueller back in 2004 when he warned that al Qaeda "appears to recognize the operational advantage it can derive from recruiting US citizens."

    The Chronicle further stoked these fears with a story that stated: "Homegrown terrorists may not need to travel through secure airports to reach their targets [and]... are less likely to appear on watch lists or arouse suspicion from law enforcement for looking or sounding out of place."

    Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, expanded on this theme. "When the threat has evolved as it has to this homegrown phenomenon," he told the Chronicle, "most of the tools we have been using to date to identify terrorists... are simply not adapting to that." "But that's changing," Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror assured the Chronicle.

    Since 9/11, Americans have been taught to fear terrorists abroad. Americans have learned to fear foreigners in their midst. Now Americans are being schooled to fear one another. As the lines in US airports grow longer, Americans will have even more time to ponder the question: "Is the person standing next to me a loyal citizen or a 'homegrown terrorist'?"

    The more important question should be (as it was after 9/11): "Why was it that the Bush administration, with months of foreknowledge of a major terrorist plot, failed to act to protect the American people?"
    A version of this essay originally appeared on the Web site of Environmentalists Against
    Gar Smith is co-founder of EAW and is the editor of the EAW Web site.

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