Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 15, 2006

Stratfor looks at the LA terror plot

Filed under: Aviation Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on February 15, 2006

Stratfor has an insightful new analysis of the al-Qaeda terror plot to target the Library Tower in Los Angeles, which was revealed last week by Pres. Bush. It’s available by clicking on the link at this search. The author of the analysis, Fred Burton, adds details to Bush’s speech and the background briefing by White House homeland security advisor Fran Townsend. He summarizes the plot and then looks at it in the context of other al-Qaeda activities around that time:

What is intriguing is the fact that the details revealed tend to cast other known plans and strikes by al Qaeda in a new light. Richard Reid’s attempted “shoe bombing” in December 2001 springs to mind. It raises the question of whether his failed attempt to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight was perhaps reconnaissance: an operational test of the explosives that would have been used in the West Coast attack, which by that time had been postponed.

The analysis then considers how this plot relates to the typical modus operandi of al-Qaeda, and what lessons it has for homeland security efforts. Burton wonders whether the post-9/11 investments in aviation security have deterred al-Qaeda from attempting similar attacks in the future. He comes to the conclusion that al-Qaeda is still interested in aviation, but would likely look at “softer” parts of the aviation system:

However, since al Qaeda also is an adaptive organization, we might assume that any future plans involving aircraft would be less likely to incorporate highly fueled commercial airliners, a la 9/11. In addition to newer federal security measures, such as expansion of the air marshal program, there also have been psychological shifts among the public: Consider the “let’s roll” mentality of passengers and air crews, who would be less likely to surrender the aircraft to hijackers without a fight.

These realities tend to push the risk toward other sectors of the air-travel industry — perhaps incorporating civil aircraft. This could take the form of a corporate jet or a large cargo-carrying aircraft, such as a Boeing 747 or a DC-10. Smaller aircraft, such as the Bombardier Challenger — one of the most common corporate jets — also could be used. Significantly, these jets usually are flown out of general aviation terminals, where security measures are not level with those at major commercial airports. The lesser fuel capacity of such an aircraft would not make it as efficient a missile as a large passenger jet, but plans could easily be modified to account for this and render a deadly strike.

There have been some solid measures taken to protect cargo planes and general aviation in the last few years. And the threat posed by many small planes is relatively minor. Still, I’m not convinced that security in these other segments of the aviation system is where it needs to be today.

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