Among those presently undergoing imprisonment in the US for their role in the explosions in the New York World Trade Centre in February, 1993, is Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti resident of Pakistani origin. Before his arrest in Pakistan and conviction in the US, he had planned a series of explosions on board a number of planes. He plotted this from a hide-out in Manila. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a principal architect of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was also involved in this conspiracy.
2. However, the plot was thwarted by the Filipino police after an accidental fire in the Manila apartment of Ramzi Yousef alerted them to it. Ramzi Yousef ran away to Pakistan, where he was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the US. The investigation brought out that Ramzi and KSM were plotting to blow up the planes with the help of liquid explosives smuggled into the aircraft.
3. While Ramzi was facing a trial in the US for his involvement in the explosions of February,1993, in the New York World Trade Centre, the US Justice Department had persuaded Greg Scapra, a jail-mate, to develop friendship with Ramzi and sound him as to how to make liquid explosives. It was reported that Ramzi not only told him orally, but also gave him hand-written notes, explaining how to smuggle liquids into aircraft, how to mix them on board aircraft to make explosives and how to detonate them. This was in 1996.
4. In the London blasts of July,2005, the suicide bombers, three of them of Pakistani origin, had reportedly fabricated the explosive material by mixing in the bathtub of the apartment of one of them women’s cosmetic items.
5. In August,2007, the London Police discovered a plot by a group of terrorist suspects of Pakistani origin to simultaneously blow up a number of US-bound planes by taking into the aircraft liquids such as cosmetics of day-to-day use, mixing them in the toilet after the aircraft had taken off and using the explosive material thus fabricated to blow up the aircraft. Rashid Rauf, a British resident of Mirpuri (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir) origin, who was arrested by the Pakistani authorities, was reported to have given the initial information about this plot, which led to its discovery by the London Police and the arrests that followed.
6. Rashid Rauf is related by marriage to Maulana Masood Azhar, the Amir of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM). He was arrested in Bahawalpur, the home town of Azhar. The police recovered from his house a peroxide-based liquid. Rashid reportedly contended during the interrogation that the peroxide-based liquid was used by him to disinfect injuries. He denied that it was meant for possible use as an explosive material. For mysterious reasons, Rashid Rauf was not handed over to the British for interrogation. He was kept in detention in Pakistan. He escaped from custody on December 15, 2007, while he was being taken back to jail after a court hearing. He has not so far been traced.
7. Thus, since 1993 jihadi terrorists of Pakistan as well as foreign terrorists based in Pakistan have been planning to use liquid explosives made from day-to-day material on board planes to blow them up. After the discovery of the London plot of August,2007, physical security agencies all over the world initially banned the passengers from carrying any liquids on board the flights. Subsequently, they modified this to allow passengers to carry only liquids such as alcohol and cosmetics bought in the duty-free shops, which have to be carried in transparent bags provided by the shops.
8. Initially, they allowed the passengers to carry bottles of soft drinks and mineral water, but not cans, but the security staff made the passengers drink some portion of the drink inside the bottle in order to check for effects on the passenger if they had mixed the drink with a liquid capable of being used as an explosive.Subsequently, they apprehended that liquid explosives, because of their heavier density ,would go down the bottle and that drinking from the top would not have any ill-effect on the passenger. They, therefore, totally banned passengers from carrying soft drinks and mineral water bottles on board the flights.
9. In the light of this, one was surprised to note that the two terrorist suspects detained by the Chinese authorities on March 7,2008, for allegedly trying to blow up a plane going from Urumqi in Xinjiang to Beijing (a third person escaped) had carried the explosive liquid on board the aircraft in soft drink cans. If true, the fact that the airport security at Urumchi allowed these cans to be carried— when all over the world there is a ban on such cans and bottles being carried— speaks poorly of the physical security at some Chinese airports,
10. The ‘News” of Pakistan has reported online on March 21,2008, that the two suspects arrested— a woman and a man — travelled with Pakistani passports. The woman has been described as an Uighur living in Pakistan and trained in a Pakistani jihadi camp and the man as a Central Asian (Uzbek?). The third person, who escaped, has been described as a Pakistani, who had masterminded the plot. No further details are given. Could it be Rashid Rauf, who was knowledgeable on the smuggling and use of liquid explosives?
11. Even the meagre facts available so far about the thwarted plot speak of deficiencies in the physical security set-up in China. It is such deficiencies, which the jihadi terrorists wanting to disrupt the Olympics will exploit. As the Olympics approach, there is a need for a review of the physical security measures in the light of the lessons from the Urumqi incident.
12. As of now, there are two possibilities which have to be factored into by the Chinese authorities in their physical security plan. Firstly, a terrorist strike by pro-Al Qaeda Uighurs either at Beijing or in Xinjiang or elsewhere. Secondly,a Munich,1972 like terrorist strike by Al Qaeda or pro-Al Qaeda organisations in Beijing itself. Apart from the usual physical security measures, the Danish teams will need special protection. If there is an attempted repeat of Munich, it will most probably be directed against the Danish participants because of the continuing anger of the Muslims against the publication of cartoons in the Danish media showing a depiction of the Holy Prophet.
(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )