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China: An Outside-the-Box Terrorist Plot?

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Chinese authorities reported March 18 that an incident earlier in the month aboard a domestic flight was an attempted militant attack orchestrated by separatists living abroad. The incident in question occurred March 7 on China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901, which was flying from Urumqi in Xinjiang province to Beijing. Some 40 minutes into the flight, a woman reportedly was confronted by the crew, who discovered her in a restroom with two gasoline-filled soft drink cans she had managed to smuggle onboard. Apparently, she intended to ignite the fuel while in the restroom, which was located near the wing of the Boeing 757. The woman was restrained and the pilot made an emergency landing in Lanzhou, capital of northwestern Gansu province.

The reaction to this incident has been mixed in the West. Many analysts have eyed Beijing's report with skepticism, noting that it appeared in the midst of repeated government warnings concerning a Uighur militant threat. Others have called the incident an atypical, amateurish and impractical plot that could not possibly have been the work of a sophisticated terrorist group.

This plot, however, was potentially more devastating than some would believe. Fire is incredibly dangerous aboard an aircraft, and using fire accelerated by something like gasoline could provide the outside-the-box type of attack that militants could turn to in the face of security restrictions aimed at preventing explosives and other weapons from being smuggled aboard aircraft.

Claims and Reactions

China has invoked the specter of the Uighur militant threat quite frequently in recent months. Indeed, China has warned for several years now that the biggest security threat to its 2008 Olympic Games comes from Xinjiang's Uighur militants, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other East Turkistan militant groups. Many suspect that these warnings are intended to provide political cover for a crackdown on China's minority Uighurs, a majority of whom are Muslims, before the Beijing Olympics begins in August.

It is widely understood that China's government wants to prevent any incident that could cause it international embarrassment during its spotlight moment as the Olympic host. It also is believed that the Chinese government has played on Western fears of Islamist militants in order to avoid criticism for the aggressive security measures it is instituting for the Olympics. In fact, the security measures are designed to cover any eventuality — to prevent embarrassing political incidents as well as to counter legitimate security threats. The sense that the Chinese are "crying Uighur," however, has damaged their credibility abroad, so the claim that they have thwarted a militant attack has met with a large degree of skepticism.

Uighur dissidents and human rights activists deny Beijing's charges, saying the claims are politically motivated. It should be noted, however, that Uighur militant groups have conducted attacks in the past, and there are Uighur groups and individuals who seek to commit such attacks today. In several attacks during the 1990s, Uighur militants targeted transportation targets such as buses, bridges and trains in an effort to cause mass casualties. In some instances they succeeded. In February 1998, for example, an improvised explosive device exploded under a bridge in Wuhan, killing 50 people, many of whom were riding a bus. Uighur militants have conducted attacks in Beijing and other parts of China outside of Xinjiang.

Some observers and human rights activists believe the paltry evidence Beijing has released to support its claim suggests it manufactured the incident in order to meet its political objectives. If the Chinese government really thwarted a major attack, it would have been more forthcoming with proof, some skeptics have said. The skepticism was further heightened when the government twice amended its earlier report that a group of Uighurs was behind the plot. Beijing later said the plot involved only one woman. Most recently, the government has said the woman was acting on behalf of a group from abroad.

However, the slow release of information about this incident and the fact that it was labeled a militant plot well after the fact suggest that the plot was genuine. It seems the Chinese themselves are only slowly coming to understand the implications of the incident and the details of what occurred seem to be supported by accounts that have appeared on various blogs from people who were onboard the plane.

Chinese security sources have informed STRATFOR that the woman involved in the incident claimed she had recently married a member of the ETIM, who took her on two practice flights prior to the attempted attack. The sources advise that the woman was discovered when the crew noticed she took too long in the bathroom and they became concerned she might have experienced a health-related problem. When crew members entered the bathroom, they smelled the gasoline fumes and restrained her after they saw her hurriedly place the cans in a trash bin, according to the sources. The woman reportedly would have had more than enough time to light the gasoline and it is believed the plot failed only because she got cold feet and chose not to go ahead. The man who trained the woman and allegedly orchestrated the attempted attack was not on the plane the day of the incident and has reportedly left the country.

Some have claimed this incident is an attempt by the Chinese government to frame the Uighurs — especially given that Beijing has long invoked the Uighur threat. Although the Chinese government is sophisticated in its propaganda operations — and it certainly is capable of orchestrating such an event — this incident appears to have too many ragged edges to have been a professionally spun frame-up. In such a fabricated case, the Chinese authorities would have had everything neatly tied up and packaged for world media consumption. Everything would be crisp, clear and readily evident; it certainly would not be as murky as this case.

Furthermore, if a Chinese government employee had been assigned with manufacturing such an incident, he or she would have conjured up a more menacing substance than gasoline. For example, the government could have claimed that the woman planned to detonate two 12-ounce cans of PLX or Astrolite liquid explosives. The authorities could then have said the claim had been verified by a government laboratory — and nobody outside of China would ever have been the wiser. In other words, a fabricated scenario could have made the plot appear much more threatening.

Also lending credence to the Chinese government's claim is the reaction to the incident by Chinese civil aviation authorities. On March 13, China's General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) implemented tighter security measures designed to guarantee passenger safety. The measures include a ban on liquids in carry-on items, increased hand luggage inspections and body checks. CAAC also ended express check-in services for frequent flyers. The woman involved in the March 7 incident reportedly used one of these inspection points to board the aircraft with soft drink cans that had been emptied of their contents and refilled with gasoline using a syringe. The tiny access holes in the cans were then patched.

China's new security measures are similar to those implemented in the United Kingdom in August 2006 — and then across the West — immediately after the disruption of a plot to destroy airliners using liquid explosives. International security measures were later relaxed to current regulations that allow travelers to carry small bottles of liquids that can fit inside a clear one-liter plastic bag. It is interesting to note that the restrictions just imposed on travelers in China clearly seem to be a natural knee-jerk reaction by aviation security authorities to a real threat. They do not appear to be what one would expect to see in a calculated response to a ruse.

Tactical Aspects

In addition to citing the political environment surrounding this incident, some security analysts doubt this plot was the real thing because of the method of attack. They argue that using an accelerant to start a fire is an unusual and impractical weapon.

It is important to understand that fire is extremely dangerous aboard aircraft. This not only is because of the oxygen-rich environment aboard a plane, the sensitive nature of avionic controls and the presence of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, but also because of the toxic smoke that results from burning plastics and other materials that make up an aircraft. Examples of deadly fires aboard aircraft include the September 1998 incident involving Swiss Air Flight 111, in which all 229 people aboard were killed after the crew members were overcome by smoke, and the May 1996 Value Jet crash in the Florida Everglades. In a case similar to the one at hand, a June 1983 fire that started in the restroom of Air Canada Flight 797 resulted in the deaths of 23 of the 46 passengers on board. Autopsies showed that most of them died as a result of smoke inhalation.

In fact, because of the danger presented by fire and smoke on aircraft, an arson attack aboard a commercial flight could prove even more deadly than an attack involving a small improvised explosive device (IED). Many small IED attacks on airliners have not resulted in catastrophic failures of the aircraft. On the contrary, several have produced only a few casualties. Cases in point include the bombing of TWA flight 840 in April 1986, which killed four people, and the bombings of Pan Am flight 830 in August 1982 and Philippines Airlines flight 434 in December 1994, both of which killed one person.

An aircraft lavatory is an ideal place to start a fire because paper products that can be used as secondary fuel for the fire are in abundance. It also allows the perpetrator to lock the door, thus impeding the crew's ability to extinguish the blaze quickly. Additionally, if a fire could be established behind the plane's plastic wall panels, it could spread quickly and be very difficult to extinguish. A fire created by 24 ounces of gasoline and fed by large quantities of paper towels and toilet paper could prove to be catastrophic to an aircraft. Had the March 7 attack succeeded — and it very well could have had the woman not backed out at the last minute — it could have been the deadliest terrorist attack in recent Chinese history, given the plane was carrying more than 200 passengers and crew.

Although some have said that using gasoline or other accelerants is not in the jihadist playbook, the explosive-actuated incendiary devices employed in London and Glasgow, Scotland in June 2007 suggest otherwise. Jihadists also have attempted to use timed incendiary devices in Germany and have successfully used incendiary devices to conduct a deadly attack against a train in India.

Incendiary devices are not only quite deadly if properly employed, they also have the advantage over explosive devices of involving readily available materials such as gasoline and kerosene. Even the aluminum powder and iron oxide required to manufacture a more advanced incendiary compound like thermite can be easily obtained, or even produced at home.

Others have suggested that "genuine terrorists" would not take down a plane in the middle of nowhere — as the March 7 plot likely would have done. A historical review of attacks against aircraft, however, shows that most of them have been brought down in the middle of nowhere and not over cities. Certainly the airliners hijacked on 9/11 were flown to attack targets in cities, but in other bombing cases — such as Pan Am 103, Air India 182 and the dual August 2004 suicide bombings involving airliners in Russia — there was no effort to destroy the aircraft over populated areas. Even Richard Reid's December 2001 attempted bombing of American Airline flight 63 occurred over the Atlantic Ocean.

Clearly, militants repeatedly have taken down airliners over sparsely populated areas, so not aiming for an urban area does not in and of itself suggest the plotters were incapable of causing great destruction.

A Sign of Things to Come?

Jihadists, lone wolves as well as those associated with al Qaeda, its regional affiliates and other groups have long demonstrated a fixation with destroying commercial aircraft in flight — and they have been quite creative in their efforts. Before 9/11, few people thought jihadists could commandeer planes armed with only box cutters and then use those planes to destroy the World Trade Center towers and attack the Pentagon. Their past plots involving improvised explosives hidden in dolls, shoes and even liquid explosive mixtures also highlight their outside-the-box thinking.

Given the vulnerability of aircraft to the dangers posed by fire and smoke, it is important that this threat not be dismissed. This is precisely the type of unconventional attack that one can expect from jihadist planners, and we anticipate that as security measures make it more difficult to obtain explosives and smuggle them aboard aircraft, we will see more attempts to attack aircraft with flammable liquids or, in the face of bans on liquids, with highly flammable solids or powders.

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