Operation Bojinka (meaning explosion or big bang) refers to a thwarted plot of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) and Ramzi Yousef, in association with other members of Al Qaeda, to blow up 11 passenger aircraft flying from East and South-East Asia to the US on January 21 and 22, 1995. They reportedly intended causing the explosions by smuggling into the aircraft liquid explosives concealed in bottles which are used for carrying contact lens cleaning solution. They intended to set off the explosions through timers. The plot was discovered by the Filipino authorities on January 6/7, 1995.
Ramzi Yousef and KSM, who were planning to orchestrate the operation from Manila, managed to run away to Pakistan. Ramzi Yousef, who was earlier involved in the execution of the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February, 1993, was subsequently arrested by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was convicted and is now undergoing his imprisonment in a US jail. KSM orchestrated Al Qaeda's 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and was arrested at Rawalpindi in March, 2003, and handed over to the FBI. He is presently in US custody.
The latest terrorist plot in the UK, whose discovery was announced by the Scotland Yard on August 10, 2006, has all the elements of the thwarted Bojinka of 1995--simultaneous explosions on 10 passenger aircraft originating from the UK and going to the US and possible use of liquid explosives concealed in bottles which would not cause suspicion. The Scotland Yard are reported to have detained 18 suspects in the London-Thames Valley area and three in the Birmingham area. They are believed to be British nationals of foreign origin. While giving some details of the discovery, a senior Scotland Yard official emphasised that the arrests were not directed at any community but at criminal elements in order to protect the travelling public. This would indicate that the arrested persons were probably Muslims.
This discovery has come in the wake of a warning issued by Osama bin Laden through an audio message on January 19, 2006, in which he offered a truce to the American people if the American forces were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. It carried an implied warning that if his offer was rejected, another terrorist strike in the US homeland would follow for which, he claimed, preparations were already under way.
The discovery by the Scotland Yard indicates how public transportation systems continue to be the favoured targets of the jihadi terrorists and how despite the considerable strengthening of physical security in civil aviation, they have not given up their attempts to find ways of staging spectacular strikes against civil aviation. Since 9/11, the tightening of physical security all over the world has been the strongest in respect of civil aviation and nuclear establishments.
The conventional wisdom has been that of all public transportation systems, it is easier to ensure the effective security of civil aviation than of other means of transport. This discovery shows that the jihadi terrorists continue to look for loopholes in civil aviation security, which they can exploit.
This also shows the continued quest of the pro-Al Qaeda jihadi terrorists for simple substances, which can be procured and carried without causing any suspicion and then converted into explosives. It is believed that the explosives used in the 7/7 London blasts were self-fabricated with such substances of day-to-day use.
This would call for a re-look at the present civil aviation security infrastructure. One may have to consider banning permanently all duty-free sales on board aircraft and encouraging passengers to do their duty-free shopping at their place of arrival and not before their departure.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd.), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.