INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR: PAPER NO. 596
( I have attempted to answer some questions received from the readers of my earlier three articles on Al Qaeda’s unsuccessful attempt to have a North-West Airlines plane blown up as it approached Detroit on December 25,2009)
Q: You have said the Detroit attempt was part of Al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to target the US, but the US authorities seem to believe that the present evidence does not indicate that the Detroit attempt was part of a wider conspiracy.
A.A new method of concealment of explosives in the rectum region was tried out by Al Qaeda in its unsuccessful attempt to kill the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister in August 2009. A similar method would appear to have been used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to smuggle the explosive into the aircraft. It is unlikely that an individual with no previous expertise in the fabrication and concealment of explosive devices would have succeeded in fabricating the device and smuggling it in concealed in the rectum area. He had been trained in this technique by Al Qaeda in its training camp in Yemen. This shows that this was an Al Qaeda plot and not the plot of a lone wolf. The British authorities also feel that Abdulmutallab was not acting alone. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: “"We don't know yet whether it was a single-handed plot or (there were) other people behind it - I suspect it's the latter rather than the former." He added that the British police and security services were examining whether he was radicalised while at University College London (UCL) between 2005 and 2008. He also revealed that Abdulmutallab had been placed on a watch list earlier this year after UK authorities refused to renew his student visa. It has been reported that the British authorities refused because he had given false particulars of the educational institution where he intended continuing his studies. The Home Secretary hinted that the US authorities must have been aware of this by remarking that they should theoretically have been informed, and he doubted there had been a "hiccup" in procedures.
Q. It has been reported that he managed to obtain a tourist visa to visit the US around the same time the British refused to renew his visa. How could this have happened if the British had informed the US authorities?
A.There has apparently been a communication gap somewhere. This needs to be checked.
Q. Was he recruited by Al Qaeda during his stay in the UK from 2005 to 2008 or during his subsequent stay in Dubai?
A.It will be difficult to answer this question at present. However, it is significant that he obtained his US visa before he proceeded to Yemen for training. His value to Al Qaeda was because of his having a valid US visa. The reports till now are that he obtained the US visa from the US Embassy in London and not at Dubai. If this is correct, it will be reasonable to surmise that he was probably already in touch with Al Qaeda from London and that his obtaining a US visa before going to Yemen was the beginning of the conspiracy to use him to attack the US. Thus, Al Qaeda’s conspiracy involving the use of the Nigerian was at least seven months old.
Q.Some reports have alleged that he managed to get into the flight to Detroit at the Schiphol airport of Amsterdam without a passport.
A. Not correct. Reliable sources say that he had a valid Nigerian passport with a valid US visa.
Q.It has been alleged by some that he had only a one-way ticket, which should have sounded the alarm bell?
A. Again not correct. The British media has quoted the Nigerian civil aviation authority as saying that Abdulmutallab bought his return ticket from Lagos to Detroit via Amsterdam at a KLM office in Ghana's capital, Accra, on 16 December, with a planned return of 8 January. He paid the £1,775 fare in cash. Before the flight departed on December 24, he checked in as normal, taking only a carry-on bag. There are some intriguing aspects here. It has been reported that he flew from Yemen to Ethiopia, then to Accra, then to Lagos and from there to Schiphol en route to Detroit. Did he reach Accra from Yemen via Ethiopia before December 16 in order to buy the ticket personally or did someone else buy the ticket for him at Accra and hand it over him? Did he travel from Yemen to Accra via Ethiopia under a different name with a different passport? The fact that he bought the ticket right up to Detroit shows that the decision to blow up the plane over Detroit had been taken by Al Qaeda before he started his journey from Yemen. The decision to catch the flight to Detroit and blow it up was not taken by him on the spur of the moment. It was a carefully-considered decision taken by Al Qaeda in Yemen and his itinerary was worked out accordingly. It is not clear why Detroit was chosen for the attempt.
Q.What is the likelihood of the complicity of the Yemeni Government?
A. The Yemeni Government has been extending counter-terrorism co-operation to the US. Complicity with Al Qaeda at the Governmental level is unlikely. Complicity at the level of individual officials is likely in matters such as providing false documentation. Many Pakistani officials serve in the Yemeni Police and other security establishments in Yemen. There is a strong possibility of their complicity. In the past, many Palestinian and international terrorists such as Carlos, Yohannes Weinrach alias Peter of the Baader-Meinhof etc had even managed to obtain false passports----even diplomatic ones--- from contacts in the Yemeni security services.
Q. If it is a conspiracy hatched by Al Qaeda, would it have been done by the central command and control headed by Osama bin Laden based in North Waziristan or by the local unit of Al Qaeda in Yemen?
A. Generally, all operations directed at the US are planned and orchestrated from the central command and control in North Waziristan. However, the local command and control in Yemen plans and carries out other operations , such as in Saudi Arabia, Somalia etc. ( 28-12-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )