Thursday, August 31, 2006

Details continue to emerge on the British terror plot

Bruce Scheier discusses the details (as few as are actually known) on the British "liquid explosive" terror plot.

Details are still sketchy, but those few that are emerging are in this New York Times article, which is unavailable for readers in the UK. A shorter version of the story is here.

In a nutshell, it looks like:

  • the plot was real;

  • there was no imminent threat as the plot was not very advanced despite being in motion for over a year;

  • the plotters had been radicalised by the Iraq war and were allegedly plotting the bombings as retaliation for US and UK alleged crimes against Iraqi civilians ("as you bomb, you will be bombed; as you kill, you will be killed");

  • while the chemicals the plotters wanted to use are dangerous, there are real questions about whether they are a practical threat, but they could likely bypass existing airport security systems;

  • there was strong pressure from the US government to arrest the plotters for political reasons, which has severely weakened the British case against them (it is hard to convict people of crimes when no crimes have been committed) and wrecked the chances of finding other, possibly more dangerous, terrorists linked to the plotters;

  • and the plotters were caught through old-fashioned police investigations, not highly invasive, civil liberty-destroying techniques like widespread surveillance.

Like all these political cases, what gets claimed in the press conference is not necessarily what gets said under oath in the trial. The press conferences about the ricin plot made it look like a real threat too, but that blew away like dust in a tornado once it came to trial. The most serious terrorism-related guilty verdict that came out of the ricin "plot" was conspiracy to make a public nuisance, so I'm keeping an open mind about this until the trial and appeals are completed.

Strangely enough, Schneier's silent on the Pakistan torture angle, but he makes an excellent point about the futility of the current security strategy being used:

As I said on a radio interview a couple of weeks ago: "We ban guns and knives, and the terrorists use box cutters. We ban box cutters and corkscrews, and they hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, and the terrorists use liquids. We ban liquids, and the terrorist will use something else. It's not a fair game, because the terrorists get to see our security measures before they plan their attack." And it's not a game we can win. So let's stop playing, and play a game we actually can win. The real lesson of the London arrests is that investigation and intelligence work.

There are some more interesting details: Schneier mentions a 1995 plot to use liquid explosives: the plot was foiled and planes protected without a complete ban of liquids. A reader commented on Schneier's blog "Just to play devil's advocate, it's possible to say that they made the wrong decision then", to which Schneier responded: "All we have to do is look at the enormous number of planes blown up in midair using the same technique to know the answer to that one."

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