Friday, January 11, 2008

Inadequate Deception: The Impossible Plots Of The Terror War

Terror Games

Suppose you were running a counter-terrorism unit. What would you need? A huge budget -- obviously! But what else? You'd need lots of good people, and you'd need good ways to train them, and good ways to test them. You'd also need to make sure that they passed their tests.

If you were running a conventional military unit, you could do quite a bit of training and testing using relatively short war games. A war game is a simulated battle, with people from the same army (or its allies) playing both "sides". One side "attacks" and the other side "defends", and even though it's not exactly like a real battle, it can be an excellent learning tool. Some war games are designed to last a long time, but many are not, because you can do a lot of training, and a lot of testing, in a week, or even a weekend.

But the war on terror is a different kind of war, and it requires a different kind of war game. Instead of a series of battles, the war on terror involves complex surveillance operations lasting months -- or years. So a war game in the war on terror -- a "terror game" -- would be designed to last a while.

If you were planning a terror game, you wouldn't want your people playing bad guys for months at a time, if you could get somebody else to do it. Fortunately for you, it wouldn't be too hard to recruit some "bad guys" and give them a "plot" to work on. Then your people could watch them while you waited for -- or arranged -- a most opportune moment to "foil" "their" "plot".

In this way you could "pass" your "test", "prove" your "worth" and "justify" an enormous increase in your huge budget.

Knuckleheads And Cutouts

As in most endeavors, much depends on your people. For this job you'd need to avoid anybody bright enough to suspect you of scamming, so you'd be looking for knuckleheads. Fortunately, plenty of knuckleheads are available.

You couldn't do the recruiting directly. The knuckleheads you'd be looking for would never knowingly work for you. Instead you'd have to use a "cutout" to do the recruiting for you. But this wouldn't be a problem. And it would have some powerful advantages.

If the cutout did his job properly, the knuckleheads would never think anything was amiss. They wouldn't suspect they were dealing with a cutout, let alone working for you. And they certainly wouldn't know they were part of a terror game.

It would all be very serious business to them -- and rightly so, for the aftermath of a terror game isn't like that of a conventional war game, when the two "adversaries" get together for steaks and beers to compare notes and so on ...

The "bad guys" in a terror game won't be invited to any barbecues. They'll be arrested; incarcerated and possibly tortured; tried, and potentially convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. For them, it's not a game by any means.

There's enormous deception going on here, and if you were running it, you could set it up in a couple of different ways. You could use a single cutout, but he'd have to be a great actor because he would have to deceive all the knuckleheads all the time. Or you could use two cutouts, one of them deceiving the other, who then passes the messages on to all the rest. In this model, the cutout dealing with the knuckleheads is himself a knucklehead!

People are always more convincing when they believe what they're saying. So using a knucklehead as a "leader" of knuckleheads is almost always a good idea. It simply requires a second cutout.

The term "cutout" comes from covert operations. In a covert op, a cutout isolates the perpetrators from the planners. The perpetrators think they're working for the cutout; they don't know anything about the planners. So even if the perpetrators are captured, they can't implicate the people who are actually running the operation.

This is one of the ways in which covert operations stay covert. And most covert operations do stay covert long enough to be considered successful, if not forever. But if things go wrong and the perpetrators get captured, then the planners can protect themselves by eliminating the cutout (or cutouts).

Using multiple cutouts may seem overly complicated to you. But to any reasonably sophisticated covert agency, it's child's play.

The Plot

If you were running a counter-terrorism unit, and you decided to recruit some knuckleheads for a terror game, you would want to engage them in some tactical or logistical planning, but not in any strategic decision-making.

In this way you could retain overall control of the plot, by proxy through the cutout (or cutouts). And there are many ways in which you could use this control to your advantage. Above all, you'd want to make sure that, technically, the plot was well beyond the knuckleheads' ability to implement it.

You'd do this for two reasons. First, you wouldn't want to cause any damage. (You may be scamming here but you're not trying to hurt anybody. In fact your job is to make sure nobody gets hurt.) And it would be time-consuming and very expensive to watch all the knuckleheads all the time. So you'd need other ways to make sure that their plot would never amount to anything. And you could achieve this quite simply by making the plot impossible.

It would still have to be frightening, so it would have to seem possible, at least superficially. Otherwise no potential victims would be scared, and no potential knuckleheads would be interested.

So it would have to be at least semi-plausible. But it would also need a very serious core difficulty. And this difficulty would have to be kept as secret as possible.

Foiling The Plot

The second advantage of making the plot impossible is that it would take the knuckleheads forever to get anywhere with it. So you could let the plot "simmer" for as long as you liked, and "foil" it whenever it best suited you.

And this would also work to your advantage, because you could plan things. You could make a big deal of the bust. You could get some quotables to exaggerate the danger of the "catastrophic act of terror" that you and your crew had "prevented". And so on. In another walk of life this would be called making hay while the sun shines.

It would be perfect. You'd be a hero, and your budget and your power would be increased. Your boss would never say a word -- even if he suspected (even if he knew!) that you were scamming -- because he'd be a hero too, and his budget and his power would be increased as well.

So even if you didn't play your cards quite right, there'd be nobody with both the incentive and the ability to stop you.

Politics And Terror Since 9/11

In the years since September 11, 2001, it has often happened that a spectacular bust has been made at a key political time, and a big splash has been created over a semi-plausible narrative, while a core impossibility has been hidden.

Thus Shahawar Matin Siraj became New York City's "Subway Bomber" in August of 2004 after he was arrested for allegedly planning to bomb the Herald Square subway station.

Politically, the timing of the Siraj bust was extremely oppotune. In the summer of 2004, many New Yorkers were furious that the Republicans had chosen to party in the city they hadn't managed to protect three years earlier -- yet here they were, using the ruins of Manhattan as a backdrop for their festivities.

But the publicity generated by the arrest of "the subway bomber" turned things around -- for that convention and for a long time thereafter -- and instead of having to defend themselves against charges of incompetence or even complicity, the Republicans were suddenly able to scold the protesters: "See how much danger you're in? See how well our policies work? How dare you criticize?"

And this sudden shift happened despite the facts that Siraj had no bomb, no bomb-making materials, no knowledge of bomb-making, no independent access to any of the above, and no desire to hurt anyone.

It is said that Siraj was planning to blow up the subway during the Republican National Convention. Judging by the absence of bomb-making materials, that couldn't have been the case. The police just chose to arrest him right before the convention started, in order to maximize the publicity value of the bust (and to provide a pretext for their coming assault on those who did protest at the convention).

The "Liberty City Seven" have become similarly infamous for a plot that was similarly implausible. Homeless men from the Miami area who couldn't even afford boots were somehow going to get themselves to Chicago and bomb the Sears Tower? Fanciful at best, no?

The so-called "JFK Airport Bombing" plot was even less plausible -- some would say "even more impossible" -- because of the technical difficulties in what the plotters were allegedly planning to do. And the same characteristic also appears in many less-famous cases.

But the most outrageous foiled terror plot of all was a very famous one, in conjunction with which the most drastic security measures have been taken.

The Liquid Bombers

On August 9th and 10th, 2006, British authorities arrested 25 so-called "terrorists" who came to be known as the Liquid Bombers.

We were told they were planning to to destroy ten or twelve airplanes simultaneously by smuggling common household liquids aboard the planes and using them to make bombs, which they would then detonate, killing "hundreds of thousands of people" in a coordinated attack even more devastating than 9/11.

We were also told that even though the police had been watching the suspects for many months, they weren't sure they'd captured all the plotters, and that the 25 arrests had caused an increased risk of something or other. Extremely tight security arrangements were implemented, virtually shutting down Heathrow Airport for a while and banning such innocuous items as books!

Eleven of the 25 suspects have been charged with "conspiracy to murder", and another four have been charged with lesser offenses. All fifteen have said "not guilty"; their trial is expected to begin in late spring of 2008. The other ten alleged "terrorists" were released without charges.

Realistically, there's never been any increased threat of anything because of those 25 arrests, and the security arrangements were relaxed -- a bit -- after a while, but a very restrictive regime of airport security remains in place. And we can still fly, but we can't take a bottle of water with us, unless it holds no more than four ounces and is enclosed in a clear plastic zip-locked bag, along with our passport and, presumably, all our other vital documents.

Why must we do this? Are we afraid some terrorists are going to smuggle bomb-making ingredients aboard an airliner and mix them up and make a bomb and blow the plane out of the sky? Not at all! It can't happen! But if you got all your news from the papers and/or the TV, you might have no idea just how outrageous the "Liquid Bombers" plot was.

It's not just that they didn't have tickets, or reservations, or passports. These facts prove that the attack was not imminent, and lead some skeptics to question the timing of the bust, which in the political context seemed most opportune. Such questions tend to challenge the sudden increase in security that came along with news of the arrests.

But the timing is not the main point, in my analysis. Terrorists can get passports, they can buy tickets, and they can make reservations. So even if no attack was imminent, that doesn't mean the plot wasn't dangerous.

It's not a question of whether the danger was imminent or not, in my view. There was no danger -- ever! -- because the plot was impossible.

As with all the other implausible plots, the main difficulty is always hidden from the public. In this case, the hidden difficulty lies in the chemistry.

Mother Of Satan

It is definitely possible to make explosives out of household liquids. The simplest such explosive is TATP (tri-acetone tri-peroxide), which can be made from hydrogen peroxide, acetone and bleach. But it's not easy, nor is it quick.

If you wanted to make some TATP, you'd need good quality glassware, otherwise the impurities might cause a weak or premature explosion. And the ingredients themselves would have to be pure, otherwise you'd get the same result, a weak or premature explosion, or none at all.

If you're a suicide bomber, there's no point in killing yourself if you don't hurt anybody else. So you'd want to do it right: you'd want to get the purest ingredients you could find. You'd want to store them in the best glassware you could get. You'd want to do everything possible to protect the purity of these liquids, which would be vital to your plan of attack.

If you'd been studying your chemistry, you'd be ready to go once you got yourself and your liquids on the plane. But you'd wait until the plane was "safely" aloft. And then there would be no time to lose.

You'd mix the acetone and the peroxide first. From that point on, the reaction would generate a lot of heat, and you'd need to watch the temperature carefully. If it rose above 10C (50F) you'd be finished. So you'd need a thermometer -- and plenty of ice.

Having mixed the acetone and peroxide, you would then start adding the bleach -- one drop at a time -- while stirring constantly. Once all the bleach was added, you'd stop stirring and leave it alone for a while. Quite a while, actually.

The reaction takes at least 6 or 8 hours -- some sources say overnight, while others say 2-3 days. And the TATP -- the explosive compound produced by the reaction -- is a white crystal that must be filtered out, then rinsed and dried before it can be used.

They must have been hoping the transatlantic flight was going to be a long one. Only a very hopeful plotter -- or an utter knucklehead -- would imagine that there'd be enough time for all this, between London and New York.

Worse still, it would take a bathtub full of acetone, peroxide and bleach to make enough TATP to knock a hole in the fuselage of a commercial airliner. But that didn't stop the Liquid Bombers.


According to the official story, the "terrorists" were planning to disguise their bomb-making ingredients by adding dyes to make them look like Lucozade -- a popular British "sports drink" which comes in yellow, orange and red (or "citrus", "orange" and "fruit punch", if you prefer).

The plotters were going to make false bottoms for Lucozade bottles and dye their ingredients the same color as the drinks. Then they would fill the bottoms of the bottles with their color-matched bomb-making ingredients and the tops of the bottles with real Lucozade, or so we're told.

Then, presumably, if they were challenged while trying to bring the bottle onto the plane, they could drink from the tops of the bottles. And when they tipped the bottles upside-down and started drinking, the security guards would never notice that the bubbles rose only halfway up the bottles.

So the terrorists would get through the gates that way, and once they had boarded their planes and got themselves over the Atlantic, they were going to step into the restroom, mix their ingredients together, and come back out a minute later with a bomb. Or so we're told.

But what we are never told is crucial. Making such a bomb would take hours -- or days -- even if the ingredients were pure. And it wouldn't be possible at all if the ingredients were contaminated -- no matter how much time and space the terrorists were given on the plane, and no matter how many false-bottomed Lucozade bottles they were carrying.

Thus the "Liquid Bomber" plot wasn't just impossible. It was beyond impossible. And the natural next question is: Why? Who would recruit so many knuckleheads for a mission that was so thoroughly doomed?

Rashid Rauf

We were told that Rashid Rauf was the recruiter. Given the little we know about him, he would be the perfect man for the job.

Rashid Rauf was raised in Birmingham, UK, and moved to Pakistan in 2002, just after the fatal stabbing of his uncle. Shortly after he arrived in Pakistan, he married a very close relative of the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, so we are told.

J-e-M is a vicious terrorist group which likes to attack India and Kashmir, and which has made successful bombing attacks on Indian trains and train stations. J-e-M is also suspected in the London bombings of 7/7/2005.

Rashid Rauf is elsewhere described as affiliated with Lashkar-e-Toiba, another vicious Pakistani terrorist group, which has received open support from members of the Pakistani government, and which has also made successful attacks on India and Kashmir. L-e-T has recently gone underground in the face of the GWOT, only to re-appear as JUD.

In August of 2006, when the Liquid Bombers were arrested, we were told that Rashid Rauf was the mastermind, or the bomb-making expert, or maybe just the messenger. But no matter what his role was, he was always described as the link to al Qaeda.

Given his family connections in the UK (including his brother Tayib, who was one of those arrested and released without charges in August of 2006), plus his "street credibility" as a fugitive from British justice (and a potential killer), and his affiliation with various terrorist groups, Rashid Rauf had an admirable profile -- as a potential cutout.

It was Rashid Rauf's arrest in Pakistan that triggered the 25 arrests in Britain, according to the official tale, although the mechanism is unclear.

Some analysts think Rashid Rauf was tortured into giving up the names of the British plotters, who were promptly arrested; others say that when he was arrested he (or perhaps an accomplice) sent a text message to the plotters telling them to go ahead with their attack, and that this message was intercepted by the police. The questions may never be answered -- satisfactorily or otherwise.

There are many ways to eliminate a cutout. Rashid Rauf supposedly "escaped" from the Pakistani police, even though it's fairly clear that he was deliberately released. And we may never see him again.

Thus the cutout has been removed, and the trail from the knuckleheads to the planners has been cut. But if you could follow it, where would the severed trail lead? To J-e-M? L-e-T? al Qaeda? More than one of the above -- or even all three?

Here we can get profoundly confused, especially if we forget that J-e-M is tolerated and L-e-T openly supported by the military government of Pakistan, which itself doesn't like India very much. Both these banned terrorist groups are apparently protected by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, which itself cooperates closely with Britain's MI6, as befits a virtual branch of the CIA.

You may recall Major General (Retired) Tanvir Hussain, who in the previous session served as Parliamentary Defense Secretary. Major Hussain raised a few eyebrows in a parliamentary debate when he said he had been a member of L-e-T. When he was asked for clarification, he didn't distance himself from the terrorists, nor did he claim that his association with them had ended. Instead the Parliamentary Defense Secretary of America's leading Asian ally in the Global War On Terror said that he speaks at L-e-T's conventions and admitted that he gives them other forms of assistance, too.

Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of this. Tanvir Hussain's statements were reported matter-of-factly in the Pakistani press, mentioned in a quizzical way by an Australian daily, and howled over by the Indian papers. But they were never reported anywhere else; no Western "news" outlet breathed a word of the story.

The connections between and among the various banned and/or state-sponsored terrorist groups are enough to make your head spin, and potential understanding of crucial issues can easily be lost on this very point.

In my view of the plot, and of the surrounding context, it doesn't really matter which -- or how many -- of these terrorist groups Rashid Rauf belongs to.

The confusion is irrelevant here, so the deception is ultimately inadequate. It's clear that the central and essential question looks like this:


Why would any terrorist group waste so much time and effort -- and sacrifice so many people -- trying to do something that's six kinds of impossible?

There's no question that J-e-M and L-e-T know how to make bombs. Hundreds -- thousands! -- of otherwise healthy people are now dead because of their bomb-making skills.

And we've been warned once or twice about al Qaeda and their sophisticated style of coordinated attacks, how they can bomb an embassy, or a warship, or a couple of office buildings and a military headquarters -- all on the same day!

So it seems only fair to ask: If they can do such things, why would any of these groups waste their time -- and their people -- trying to implement a plot that's beyond impossible?

And if you don't believe the world's most dangerous terrorists would knowingly waste their time and energy instigating plots that were doomed to fail, then you have to ask youself: Who would?

The answer to that question seems clear:

Suppose you were running a counter-terrorism unit...

thirty-first in a series