|Etihad flight over Sydney [Image Source]|
An Associated Press analysis of an elaborate and potentially devastating terror plot to bring down an aircraft and its passengers in Australia raises some disturbing concerns – mainly by not focusing on them.
The syndicated report [“Australia police: Men tried to get bomb on Sydney plane“, Kristen Gelineau | Associated Press | August 3, 2017] describes a scheme to hide an explosive device on an Etihad Airways flight (the airline is based in Abu Dhabi) out of Sydney in July. The Australian authorities got their first inkling about the plot and the plotters through a tip from unspecified foreign intelligence agencies on July 26, 2017. The suspects were arrested in Sydney on July 29.
The Australian Federal Police said in a media conference today (Friday) that Islamic State played a central role. They described how four men were arrested in a series of raids in Sydney last weekend. The relationships that tie them together have been described vaguely in numerous media reports over the past week:
Four men are being held at the Sydney police station under special terrorism powers after being arrested during counter-terror raids on Saturday night. The ABC has been told the group allegedly planned to conceal the bomb in a kitchen meat grinder before smuggling it onto a plane. A senior police source told the ABC that Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat were among those being held. The two other men, Khaled and Abdul Merhi, are believed to be related, but it is unclear how. [“Sydney terror raids: Police scour raided homes for third day over alleged plane terror plot“, ABC Australia, August 1, 2017]
The government has so far declined to reveal any further details of the plane threat… All it will say is that the four – believed to be two fathers and their sons – planned to use a “non-traditional” device and had “an Islamist, extremist terrorist motivation.” [“Four arrested over alleged plot to bring down aircraft“, SBS News Australia, July 31, 2017]
In today’s account:
Khaled Khayat, 49, and Mahmoud Khayat, 32, have been charged with two counts of planning a terrorist act. A third man remains in custody, while a fourth was released without charge. Khaled Khayat’s brother has not been charged in connection with the plot, because police believe he had no idea the bag contained explosives… They were refused bail and the case was adjourned until Nov. 14. Police have not detailed the men’s relationship… One of the men, a 49-year-old from Sydney, brought the device to Sydney airport on July 15 in a piece of luggage that he had asked his brother to take with him on the flight — without telling the brother that the bag contained explosives, Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan told reporters. But for reasons still unclear, the bag never got past the check-in counter. Instead, Phelan said, the man left the airport with the bag, and his brother continued onto the flight without it… [Associated Press | August 3, 2017]
A little more detail:
Phelan said police still don’t know precisely why the bag containing the explosives never made it past the check-in counter. Some theories are that it was too heavy, or that Khaled Khayat simply chickened out... [Associated Press | August 3, 2017]
Reuters today focuses on that grotesque twist – that one brother attempted to send his allegedly-unwitting brother to his death:
Police allege that one of the two men charged late on Thursday had been introduced to Islamic State by his brother, who they said was a senior member of the group in Syria.
Communication between the accused man and Islamic State began around April, police said. Under the instruction of the unidentified Islamic State commander, the men built a “fully functioning IED” (improvised explosive device). One of the brothers was unaware that he was carrying a bomb, disguised as a commercial meat mincer, in his luggage, and tried to check it in at the airport, police said. [“Islamic State behind Australians’ foiled Etihad meat-mincer bomb plot: police“, Reuters, August 4, 2017]
Now the bombshell:
The components for the device, including what Phelan described as a “military-grade explosive,” were sent by a senior Islamic State member to the men in Sydney via air cargo from Turkey. An Islamic State commander then instructed the two men who have been charged on how to assemble the device, which police have since recovered, Phelan said. [Associated Press | August 3, 2017]
|No one knows at this stage how the military-grade explosives got from
Turkey to Australia [Image Source]
Which airline out of Turkey? Which airport? How, if at all, was the incoming consignment checked when it reached Sydney? What do the Turkish authorities say about it?
Turkish Airlines, for the record, carried more passengers to and from Tel Aviv than any other foreign airline serving Tel Aviv back in 2015 when relations between the two countries were frigid. It’s a two-way street. At the time, one of Turkish Airlines senior managers said: “The number of flights to Tel Aviv is the greatest on Turkish Airlines network of global routes. It’s a profitable route, and it’s very important for us to continue promoting it….” Relations are (a little) warmer now between Israel and Turkey since diplomatic relations were restored last summer; we flew with them last year to and from Istanbul and enjoyed the experience.
But as the Australians will now be realizing, it hardly matters whether bilateral relations are warm or cool when you’re at risk of terrorists from outside your own country.
The allegation that the Islamic State was able to ship explosives to Australia undetected was troubling, Phelan acknowledged. “All the security agencies and those responsible for security of cargo and so on have put in place extra measures since that time,” Phelan said. “It is a concern that it got through, yes, it’s hard to deny that.”
Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the immigration minister had ordered extra security of air cargo.
“You would appreciate it is a very big job to screen, and Australia is a very open economy — there is an enormous number of packages moving both inward and outward on any given day,” Keenan told reporters. “But we’ve taken measures to improve screening.” [Associated Press | August 3, 2017]
The plot then morphed:
After the July 15 bid failed, the men changed tactics and were in the early stages of devising a chemical dispersion device, which they hoped could release highly toxic hydrogen sulfide, Phelan said. No specific targets had been chosen, though an Islamic State member overseas had given the men suggestions about where such devices could be placed, such as crowded areas or on public transport.
Public transport? An Uber car? A train? A jumbo jet? The Manly to Sydney ferry?
In cool, calm Australia, the island continent where air travel is an economic essential, there’s genuine and well-founded concern that this deeply disturbing plot
signifies a change in tactics for the Islamic State — from the uncomplicated and bloody attacks we’ve seen recently to complex, mass casualty attacks against hardened targets… While Australian authorities haven’t confirmed the type of explosive police allege Khaled Khayat and his conspirators tried to smuggle onboard the Etihad flight, it is likely it was the same explosive repeatedly used by Al Qaeda in a series of bomb plots targeting the US —PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate). PETN is valued by terrorists because it is hard to detect and has a relatively high yield for its size: about 100 grams can reportedly destroy a car. It’s also the explosive of choice for Al Qaeda’s most prolific and effective bombmaker, Saudi Arabian citizen Ibrahim al-Asiri. Al-Asiri is a member of Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based cell, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and remains one of the most dangerous men in the world. He is responsible for creating the bombs used in most of Al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plots against the US, including ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid in 2001, ‘underpants bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009, and a plot involving two bombs smuggled on separate cargo planes bound for the US in 2010. Al-Asiri remains free despite a decade-long manhunt. [“Sydney terror plot: Why police and government concern shouldn’t be dismissed as hyperbole“, ABC Australia News, August 4, 2017]
If there ever were, it’s clear today that there are no safe corners.