Details on the British Terrorist Arrest

Details are emerging:

  • There was some serious cash flow from someone, presumably someone abroad.
  • There was no imminent threat.
  • However, the threat was real. And it seems pretty clear that it would have bypassed all existing airport security systems.
  • The conspirators were radicalized by the war in Iraq, although it is impossible to say whether they would have been otherwise radicalized without it.
  • They were caught through police work, not through any broad surveillance, and were under surveillance for more than a year.

What pisses me off most is the second item. By arresting the conspirators early, the police squandered the chance to learn more about the network and arrest more of them -- and to present a less flimsy case. There have been many news reports detailing how the U.S. pressured the UK government to make the arrests sooner, possibly out of political motivations. (And then Scotland Yard got annoyed at the U.S. leaking plot details to the press, hampering their case.)

My initial comments on the arrest are here. I still think that all of the new airline security measures are an overreaction (This essay makes the same point, as well as describing a 1995 terrorist plot that was remarkably similar in both materials and modus operandi -- and didn't result in a complete ban on liquids.)

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.

EDITED TO ADD (8/29): Seems this URL is unavailable in the U.K. See the comments for ways to bypass the block.

Posted on August 29, 2006 at 7:20 AM • 81 Comments

Comments

Carlo GrazianiAugust 29, 2006 7:36 AM

What I don't understand is that the alleged explosive du jour -- now HMTD rather than TATP -- is not merely insanely difficult to assemble in an airplane toilet, but rather basically impossible to so prepare. A homebrew recipe for HMTD is here:

http://business.fortunecity.com/executive/674/hmtd.html

Apparently in needs to be dried out, and the usable form is a dry precipitate.

So tell me again, why can't we bring liquids onto airplanes any more?

MilanAugust 29, 2006 7:38 AM

Regarding the immanence of the attack:

Did the attackers actually have bombs of the variety discussed, or just plans for making them? In the latter case, is it plausible they had the expertise necessary to produce them?

Stiff Upper LipAugust 29, 2006 7:41 AM

Unfortunately, the article does not appear to be accessible any more.
Basically, I think your comments are quite sensible and I am also put out by the stupid overreaction at airports.
This is only tenuously related to your blog post but I suggest that some USA readers might find this interesting:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/08/29/wsecurity29.xml

The French used to call London "Londonistan" in protest about the number of radical Islamics in our capital.

SteveAugust 29, 2006 7:51 AM

It seems the NYT article is unavailable to readers from the UK to avoid prejudicing the trials. I expect they are accessible by some means if you really try.

Thanks Bruce for continuing to push for realistic, sensible solutions. Is it true that the Ultimate Question is encoded in your beard? ;)

LisaAugust 29, 2006 7:51 AM

"a 1995 terrorist plot that was remarkably similar in both materials and modus operandi -- and didn't result in a complete ban on liquids."

Just to play devil's advocate, it's possible to say that they made the wrong decision then. Just because it wasn't done before doesn't mean it shouldn't have been done before.

Bruce SchneierAugust 29, 2006 8:08 AM

"'a 1995 terrorist plot that was remarkably similar in both materials and modus operandi -- and didn't result in a complete ban on liquids.' Just to play devil's advocate, it's possible to say that they made the wrong decision then."

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.

KieranAugust 29, 2006 8:25 AM

HMTD may still be impossible/infeasible to make in an airplane toilet, but what about making it in the toilets in the departure area (past security) in the hour or three before your flight and then carrying it onto the plane?

In fact, if more time was needed it might be possible for one terrorist to either miss his flight or pass it on to another one to continue the mixing until done - just so long as the result was stable enough to minimise the risk or premature detonation.

PS: Anyone got a copy of the NYT article? I don't expect to be called for jury service anytime soon and would like to know the details!

ScrumpyAugust 29, 2006 8:28 AM

Hi Bruce,

This is really interesting, thanks. Being in the UK I've used tor to read this.

P.S Any chance of getting you interviewed on the BBC, they seem to find it really hard to find anyone with an insightful view of security issues.

Matt DAugust 29, 2006 8:37 AM

"It seems the NYT article is unavailable to readers from the UK to avoid prejudicing the trials. I expect they are accessible by some means if you really try."

Yep: ssh me@kremvax; lynx www.nytimes.com ...

What gets me is the sheer chutzpah of the NY Times' "Sorry you can't view this in the UK for legal reasons" screen along with the several quotes in the article itself along the lines of "new details that emerged from interviews with high-ranking British [...] officials last week" and "But at the same time, five senior British officials said, the suspects were [...]"

I'd rather that not only did NYT allow the 'publication' of their article in the UK, but that they name the coppers, spooks, politicians and civil servants who've been placing themselves in contempt of court by briefing against the accused - after all, if they've all done nothing wrong, then surely they've got nothing to hide.

John RidleyAugust 29, 2006 8:45 AM

The US Government isn't so much interested in stopping terrorism as they are in generating PR showing that they're doing something.

This incident shows that either they are willing to actually hurt the long-term effort for their own political gain, or that they're too stupid to know that's what they're doing.

CaxAugust 29, 2006 8:59 AM

The reason we play the mentioned game is simple, it has to do with blame.

The old rule "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" covers it, mostly. Here, it would be "fool them once, blame the foolers, fool them twice, blame the foolees", "them" being the airlines and security people.

The "security arms race" is more of a victim's-angry-mother-repellant.

My solution would be naked people in induced sleep, Fifth Element style. Not happening anytime soon, I guess.

havvokAugust 29, 2006 9:09 AM

Expanding on Bruce's view of "security theatre", the airline security staff, the TSA, and CATSA (Canadian version of TSA) are not security people. They are security actors paid a nominal fee to appear to be performing security.

LollardfishAugust 29, 2006 9:17 AM

@Kieran,

I've always felt that the dangerous spot in airplane security was inside the security bubble. Once one has gone through security, everyone feels safe. With the advent of the airport shopping mall, however, it would seem a relatively doable task to construct an incendiary out of components smuggled through security and common things one could buy. They have pharmacies and electronic stores.

Now, at Heathrow (on the way to the US), there's a second security screening before one boards the plane.

KieranAugust 29, 2006 9:45 AM

@Lollardfish,

I'm aware of the second screening - not everyone gets screened though, just a selection (presumably profiling + some random others).

Andre FucsAugust 29, 2006 9:57 AM

"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."

Bruce, I like to read what you write, you have a out of box thinking but it seems that as like you did with PKI you are looking for a new snake oil.

Investigation and intelligence are nothing but a countermeasure against terror plots and enemies. They don't solve anything because as long you have a process(inteligence) this process will have failures and soon or latter a new plot will be successful.

Look at the Spanish or the Irish terror groups and you will see that as long they had somekind of support, new attacks happened. As you stated they are playing with the % margins that you cannot afford to protect.

There are limits to what a inteligence agency can do and more than that, people tend to get overconfident after a long time of threat alerts. I still remember that last year I was waiting for my flight in JFK when I saw a small package laying in the corner of the borading area. I notified the airline staff but instead of calling for security support, the employee started to touch the object like he were one of the primates of 2001 - Space Odissey. The same NY that suffered the biggest terror attack in history still completly unaware of very basic procedures of security.

Make no mistake. Inteligence won't solve nothing. Better start thinking in a way of reducing oil prices. The West never been so exposed. With circa 100 years of oil we still far away from real solutions for the depletion problem. :-)

Israel TorresAugust 29, 2006 10:07 AM

"And it's not a game we can win. So let's stop playing, and play a game we actually can win. "

The real problem is that "we" are handling this issue like "we" do with the virus writers v. anti-virus companies : a constant game of catch-up and guess-its. With such a model "we" will never win because "we" only exist to stop "them" and if "they" didn't exist "we" wouldn't either.

Israel Torres

Don't PanicAugust 29, 2006 10:13 AM

"We ban liquids, and the terrorist will use something else"

The next terrorist plot will use explosive underwear. Such a device would never succeed, but it doesn't matter. Once the plot is "foiled", the terrorists will have got their way.

I certainly wouldn't feel like I was winning the "War on Terror" when taking my seat on the plane with 217 other naked passengers...

BrianAugust 29, 2006 10:16 AM

"What pisses me off most is the second item. By arresting the conspirators early, the police squandered the chance to learn more about the network and arrest more of them..."

I give the UK police the benefit of the doubt on this one. The NY times article suggests that the Pakistani police arrested someone there, and that resulted in a possible tip-off of the UK suspects. Deciding to round-up the suspects was reasonable.

If it turns out that the Pakistani police didn't jump the gun, that something else triggered the round-up... well, that would raise some serious questions.

Frank Ch. EiglerAugust 29, 2006 10:22 AM

> So let's stop playing, and play a game we
> actually can win.

Not very prescriptive. Come out with it -
are you proposing elimination of security
checkpoints in airports?

> The real lesson of the London arrests is
> that investigation and intelligence work.

And yet, on many other occasions, you rail
against perceived civil liberties violations
involved in such efforts. Which is it?

I must keep forgetting whose weblog this is. Is Bruce the same person who, in the
domain of computer security, argues for
defense "in depth", and accepts "arms
races" with attackers? Why is this domain
so different, other than that here, real life
and death is involved?

royAugust 29, 2006 10:40 AM

Might this 'network' simply be a government scheme to draw known crazies into an unworkable plot, talking them into committing victimless criminal acts -- such as voicing aloud treasonous or murderous wishes, or talking about plans to blow up airliners -- simply to have warm bodies to parade through perp walks and show trials? As bread and circuses go, this would be very cheap to produce, and would provide endless news coverage, especially if the news copy was written by contractors, and the government kept the news media scared of them.

Rolling up such a network would be child's play since most of the members were already known to the police, and any new faces would quickly become known to the police. With the government running the network, evidence would be available by the truckload, and convictions guaranteed.

Key to taking down this 'network' was a government agent infiltrating a cell. Hmm. If the cell had five people at the outset, why did none of them ever notice a sixth member? More likely, the government agent created the cell and dished out the money, giving him de facto control of the cell.

moved-to-franceAugust 29, 2006 10:56 AM

I agree with the importance of security and good intelligence. However, I'm really fustrated by the fact that almost all the effort, investment and money is spent on managing the problem rather than the root cause.

The base issue as I see it is the reaction to foreign policy actions (mainly of the USA and UK, but also other countries). There have always been radicals and terrorists, including radical muslin terrorists. However, foreign policy actions, especially military actions in the middle east and Afganistan, have increased the numbers a thousand-fold or more. These actions, directly and indirectly, have led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The people who have died will all have had friends and family, a portion of which will have been radicalised.

If we devoted as much thought to preventing the creation of terrorists as we did with dealing this them, I thing that we would be much further ahead.

Perhaps my view is coloured by the fact that I moved from England to France 5 years ago. I do not feel the imminent security threat that many British must feel. However, perhaps this gives me more perspective as well.

Frank Ch. EiglerAugust 29, 2006 10:58 AM

moved-to-france:

> I do not feel the imminent security threat this past spring?that many British must feel.

What about all that muslim rioting some months ago?

GhaithAugust 29, 2006 11:03 AM

How about shifting the public attention from the war against Lebanon?

That issue was quite hot when the 'plot' was revealed, and it certainly diverted the public attention from the middle-east crisis.

Sounds to me like a gov. plot!

Now, how many of the arrested people will get convicted?

GhaithAugust 29, 2006 11:06 AM

and yeah, CRAP from the NY Times

this is their article

"This Article Is Unavailable


On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial. "

LollardfishAugust 29, 2006 11:11 AM

@Kieran

"I'm aware of the second screening - not everyone gets screened though, just a selection (presumably profiling + some random others)."

Yeah, I didn't mean to imply that it worked, only that it was there. It's that inside the first wave that worries me.

After all, last week I was not searched and so brought on a small bottle of saline solution (after the first one was confiscated in Milan).

anonymous236August 29, 2006 11:14 AM

Lollardfish sez:
"I've always felt that the dangerous spot in airplane security was inside the security bubble. Once one has gone through security, everyone feels safe. With the advent of the airport shopping mall, however, it would seem a relatively doable task to construct an incendiary out of components smuggled through security and common things one could buy..."
True. New security rule of thumb:

'Its not much of a security zone if I can buy a hamburger inside it.'

DDOS attacks become much easier. Outside the security bubble, mixing ammoinum nitrate with the icemelt sprinkeled on the streets and sidewalks outside an airport would cripple some of the bomb detection equip inside. Amonium nitrate sprinkled inside the security bubble would lead to bomb detection problems at all other airports linked to the target airport which would be hard to trace and cause larger scale confusion.

Clive RobinsonAugust 29, 2006 11:26 AM

From the posting of the artical the following struck my eye,

"The suspects had been working for months out of an apartment that investigators called the “bomb factory,��? where the police watched as the suspects experimented with chemicals, according to British officials and others briefed on the evidence, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, citing British rules on confidentiality regarding criminal prosecutions.

In searches during raids, the police discovered what they said were the necessary components to make a highly volatile liquid explosive known as HMTD, jihadist materials, receipts of Western Union money transfers, seven martyrdom videos made by six suspects and the last will and testament of a would-be bomber, senior British officials said. One of the suspects said on his martyrdom video that the “war against Muslims��? in Iraq and Afghanistan had motivated him to act. "

Two things,

"British officials and others briefed on the evidence"

This sounds like information passed along Political Channels to non UK personell who have then spoken...

"receipts of Western Union money transfers"

Woops now I am in Don't belive it land. Either these people are very very inept (ie either have not had or did not understand terorist training) or one of two other possibilities, one of which is deliberatly laying a trail that will be found prior to any terorist act.

One thing that has been known about for many years and the U.S. and other Western Goverments hate is "Arab Banking". Put simply it is based around promisory notes which are all but untracable. There main nafarious use has been for tax avoidance in one form or another (which is why the Goves hate them). They have also been used in the past to transfere money for terorist activites. So with a source of income that is vertualy untraceable why use Weston Union with it's traceable records???

The main reason for most ordinary people using the likes of Weston Union is to get some kind of gaurenty of recipt or protection to stop the funds going missing, if you where funding a terorist these would not be your main concerns (staying out of jail would be high on your list though).

One thing that is known at the moment is the boyant UK property market is being used by many people as a way to make a (reasonable) profit without much traceability for tax purposes. As a spin off it also has been used for money laundering in the past. However due to E.U. Money Laundering laws brought in a few years ago all financial transactions above 10K are supposed to be reported, as are odd patterns of money transfer for smaller sums. The likes of Weston Union are usually quite dutiful in this respect and I have been told report just about every transaction that is even remotley odd (more to protect themselves than for any other reason).

Which raises the question why take the risk of all the transactions being reported if you are a terorist, it is very likley to get you caught before you commit your act of terorisim.

My guess is that the money was being transfered for reasons other reasons.

A third point did strike me as well,

"where the police watched as the suspects experimented with chemicals,"

IF you where a trained terorist you would know how to do this you would have been given not only details of how to do it properly, but also how to do it in a covert way that does not tie you in to the other members of your "terorist cell".

I am thinking that IF they where terorists they where of the "home grown" variety without any training by those with experiance in these fundememtals of terorisum. It will be interesting to see where the "other end" of the Weston Union money transferes lead to...

Erik V. OlsonAugust 29, 2006 11:26 AM

Sorry, they're lying again.

HMTD is not a liquid explosive. It takes about a day to make. You mix hexamine with hydrogen peroxide, wait for it to cool (or it catches fire), add in citric acid, wait 8-24 hours, collect the precipitate, wash with distilled water, and dry carefully. It's not trivial to make, and you do have to keep it cold while your mixing the citric acid into the peroxide/hexamine mix, but this stuff is safer to make than flash powder. Still too sensitive, but at least it's not the "Hmm, it is thursday. BANG!" level of TATP.

However, there is no way for you to make this explosive inside of security without a large number of insiders working in the secure zone -- and if you have that, there's much easier things to do than mix up HMTD.

If you mix it up outside, you're looking at a dry powder.

This SCREAMS clumsly lie. First, I'm supposed to make TATP? Yeah, sure, that peroxide/nitric acid mix is going to just lie there in that airplane sink. So, they scramble to find something that can be mixed on a plane, and hey, Orange Juice and Hair Bleach! They'll fall for that!

Next time, Scotland Yard, read the directions along with the ingredient list.

I disagree with Bruce. I think there was no threat. Given the repeatedly clumsly lies about the explosives, I cannot trust the same source to be telling the truth about the money transfer.

Mick GordonAugust 29, 2006 11:35 AM

There must be more to the story than meets the eye, it is unlikely that the Government is going to lay their hand out so everyone can see it. The British are well known for their highly professional security operations - I can't think of any big operational screwups that they have made but several spring immediatly to mind with other countries. I am sure the optimum time for arrest was chosen and I doubt that one guy made the choice. Watch and see!

Brandioch ConnerAugust 29, 2006 11:37 AM

@Erik V. Olson

It is possible that there was an _INTENT_ to use those in an _ATTEMPT_ to carry out this plan.

A "threat" without any danger to anyone else.

...

But I'm going to have to agree with you. If there was the "bomb factory" as has been described, then the "terrorists" would know that their approach was flawed.

If they hadn't gotten to the point of even experimenting with the process, then we have nothing more than the "terrorists" who were captured in Florida "planning" to "blow up" the Sears Tower.

Bruce SchneierAugust 29, 2006 11:45 AM

"'So let's stop playing, and play a game we actually can win' Not very prescriptive. Come out with it - are you proposing elimination of security checkpoints in airports?"

No. I said this in an essay a few weeks ago: airport security catches the sloppy and the stupid, and that's reason enough to keep it. But pre-9/11 screening is enough for that, and that's what I think we should go back to.

"'The real lesson of the London arrests is that investigation and intelligence work.' And yet, on many other occasions, you rail against perceived civil liberties violations involved in such efforts. Which is it?"

Um, both. Intelligence and investivation don't automatically imply civil liberties violations -- they only seem to do so for the Bush White House. The judicial system acts as a security system, protecting citizens against the police. Remember, no one is saying that law enforcement shouldn't eavesdrop on the terrorists, but those of use who are paying attention understand that the warrant process is one that protects us from tyranny.

"I must keep forgetting whose weblog this is. Is Bruce the same person who, in the
domain of computer security, argues for
defense 'in depth', and accepts 'arms
races' with attackers? Why is this domain
so different, other than that here, real life
and death is involved?"

I don't think it's different. I think it's exactly the same. Defense in depth is important, which is why we shouldn't do away with airport security. But we only have a limited amount of resources to spend on security, and we have to make trade-offs. As a security consumer, I know my money is better spent on intelligence and investigation -- security measures that pay off regardless of the particulars of the terrorist plot -- than targeted security measures that are only effective if we happen to guess the plot correctly.

another_bruceAugust 29, 2006 12:04 PM

i'm astonished at the cravenness and futility of the new york times editors attempting to hide this material from readers in the u.k.

BrianAugust 29, 2006 12:07 PM

On the kitchen chemistry subject...

- No one who ought to know has ever claimed that TATP was the explosive involved in this UK plot. The media invented that detail, probably based on the 7/7 and Bojinko plots. Check the news stories: they talked to chemistry professors, not law enforcement officials.

- Manufacturing HMTD on a plane sure sounds impractical, but the details that are emerging are consistent with the idea that the plotters were studying how to make it at home, and would then try to bring it on to the plane.

Clive RobinsonAugust 29, 2006 12:16 PM

@Bruce Schneier

"imply civil liberties violations -- they only seem to do so for the Bush White House"

Sorry Bruce, try living in the U.K. especially in or around London. You kind of have it easier in the U.S. as you have a writen laws that to some extent protect your freedoms.

The U.K. is the land of the the CCTV camera, that tracks people and cars license plates. Which is in essence the "fine dusting of snow on top of the iceburg" in that atleast you can see the cameras where ever you go.

If you are a manufacture of survalance equipment (that can be used to raise fines/taxes) knock on Tony Blair's door first you will find a government that will not only give you big contracts (irespective of if you can deliver or not) and a nice seat in the House of Lord's as well.

Just as a note about the size and success of U.K. Government contracts have a look at a company called iSoft and what it was (supposedly) doing for the U.K. National Health Service in the biggest I.T. contract ever given out anywhere (which two years down the road has delivered nothing except "fat cat" bonuses").

Carlo GrazianiAugust 29, 2006 12:26 PM

@Brian: That is the only interpretation I can think of that makes sense. However, it still leaves unanswered the question "why he #&^$ are these TSA idiots confiscating my shampoo?"

If the "liquid explosives combined on-board" story -- which was definitely advanced by the authorities, and was not an invention of the media -- is bullshit, what is the point of the liquid confiscation ceremony at airport security?

AnonymousAugust 29, 2006 12:27 PM

Mr. Schneier.

You write: "What pisses me off most is the second item."

From the article:

The trigger was the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf, a 25-year-old British citizen with dual Pakistani citizenship, whom Pakistani investigators have described as a “key figure��? in the plot.

ghAugust 29, 2006 12:30 PM

I am anonymous, August 29, 2006 12:27PM
[ hit 'post' instead of 'preview' ]

It seems to me that this arrest was peripheral to the main investigation and threatened to compromise it. No (implied) rovian conspiracy required.

dlgAugust 29, 2006 12:48 PM

I'd like to second what Clive has said. The UK seem much more intrusive in surveillance than the US. The difference is that they rarely impose such standards on others, so the effects are mostly confined to their own territory (sometimes, they do: recently, the UK government pushed hard for the egregious EU directive on data retention). Also, while the implications for civil liberties in the UK are troubling, in the UK one does not have the constant feeling that the government is just one step away from actually abusing these new powers to its own ends (i.e. suppressing opposition). The level of paranoia is rather low in the UK, while in the US, it is tangible, not only on airports.

BobAugust 29, 2006 1:14 PM

Why would the NY Times even care about UK laws? Can the NYT be sued in the UK?

And is it just me, or is there a certain irony that the information sources for the NYT article are supposed to be bound by the same UK laws that the NYT is using to justify its censorship? "Selective ethics" anyone?

SerenityAugust 29, 2006 1:38 PM

"The real lesson of the London arrests is that investigation and intelligence work."

Assuming that an increase in spending results in more efficient intelligence work:

As long as a government and their citizens share the same agenda, this is good news.

As soon as a government's agenda turns against the majority of its citizens, a more efficient government-apparatus is bad news.

Given the recent developments on how trustworthy, honest and reliable some governments turned out to be, I am tempted to say:

Let's waste more money and invest into technology.

A less efficient government makes me sleep better at night.

BrianAugust 29, 2006 1:45 PM

@Carlos

My theory on the ban on liquids is that the TSA figures it is only a matter of time until someone figures out a viable binary explosive. I'm not a chemist, but my guess is that they are right on that point. It's not TATP or HMTD, but there have got to be two normally harmless substances that when combined become very dangerous. Bleach and ammonia, for example.

I still disagree with the policy. Locking down airplanes like fort knox might make the airplanes safer, but it doesn't make the country as a whole any safer. It will just move the attack somewhere else.

JDVAugust 29, 2006 1:49 PM

I've read various numbers, but the most recent is only 7% of domestic luggage is screened, but we'll still make that little old lady in front of you in line take off her shoes. Feel safer? Because no terrorist is going to blow up a plane via luggage right?

And it's been said many times, but yes, we all should be thankfull that Richard Reed wasn't an underwear bomber!

Critical infrastructure facilities around the country like nuclear power plants or dams are lightly guarded. But hey, we can feel safer knowing that little jimmy didn't bring his dangerous tippy cup on board the airplane!

Bruce is correct - most of what we see is security theater designed to make us feel safe. And I don't recall hearing any success stories about any of the new measures, instead it seems like all successes are due to good old fashioned police and intelligence work.

Matt DAugust 29, 2006 2:00 PM

"Why would the NY Times even care about UK laws? Can the NYT be sued in the UK?"

It's not a case of suing in the civil courts, it's a case of contempt of the criminal courts. If the article was published in the UK, then those responsible (editor, author etc) could be liable to arrest and imprisonment should they enter UK jurisdiction at a later date.

"And is it just me, or is there a certain irony that the information sources for the NYT article are supposed to be bound by the same UK laws that the NYT is using to justify its censorship? "Selective ethics" anyone?"

Agreed; I for one would prefer to see the UK subjudice laws substantially relaxed, because as they currently stand there is far too much scope for the police and others to slander and defame defendants via leaks and unattributable briefings, as appears to be happening here.

Any reply to these allegations by the defendants is itself stymied by the selfsame laws that the authorities are subverting - they're pretty much limited to a bland "this is all nonsense" from their lawyers, which by and large is never even reported.

This is basically what the laws on subjudice were intended to *prevent* in the first place...

I hate politicsAugust 29, 2006 3:07 PM

"Um, both. Intelligence and investivation don't automatically imply civil liberties violations -- they only seem to do so for the Bush White House."

Bruce, we get it. You hate George Bush. There are plenty of places we can get reasons to hate Bush. Can we please return to the subject of security and leave politics to political blogs? They do politics much better than you, and you do security much better than they. One could find some economics blog to get a discussion on specialization of labor to understand why this is the best arrangement.

BeansAugust 29, 2006 4:26 PM

@Andre Fucs:

"I notified the airline staff but instead of calling for security support, the employee started to touch the object like he were one of the primates of 2001 - Space Odissey. The same NY that suffered the biggest terror attack in history still completly unaware of very basic procedures of security."

It is arguably prudent to _not_ use a single person as solely representative of the tens of thousands of security personnel working in NYC.

Stiff Upper LipAugust 29, 2006 4:31 PM

@I hate politics

Yes, some of Bruce's recent security blogs do stray in the political domain; it's a shame but these are the times we live in. It is hard to avoid politics when the whole Islamic bomber thing is so obviously political. One recurring criticism of Bush and Blair is that their governments have adopted policies that sacrifice citizens rights for little gain against terrorists and sometimes waste lots of money that could be better spent in more effective ways. Bad security choices can be political.

Now I will pour petrol onto the flames; here is a recent article in the Telegraph that speculates about the effect on UK/US relations if the alleged liquid bomb plot had succeeded:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2006/08/27/do2702.xml

Personally, I find this rather worrying. Oops! It's another political ...

Geoff LaneAugust 29, 2006 4:43 PM

UK Cameras -- Fortunately most of the cameras you see on the streets are privately owned (and a good percentage are fake, don't work or produce tapes that are unusable.)

UK Police -- It seems that almost every part of UK security is leaking like a sieve about the plot. Already there are concerns about the impossibility of a fair trial. There is also concern that people are talking semi-officially to US and other non-UK media. This information is being reprinted in the UK can cause real problems when the court case is started.

Security at airports -- The government is being threatened with legal action from at least one airline (Ryan Air) which recently reorganised their entire system to encourage passengers to use carry-on luggage. Government spokesdroids are talking tough, but the new security rules will probably be relaxed within days rather than weeks.

LollardfishAugust 29, 2006 5:02 PM

@Geoff Lane

"but the new security rules will probably be relaxed within days rather than weeks."

I agree with you. I've been saying that since the day after the plot was revealed. But, um, we're still waiting and the days keep ticking by. Maybe we're wrong.

CaptainHousingCrunchAugust 29, 2006 6:13 PM

I wildly surmise that the Americans forced the Pakistanis to arrest the "key figure" Rashid Rauf, thus precipitating the events thus far and all for political reasons that some commenters have alluded to here.

Or maybe this whole plot was secretly setup by the CIA, hired deludable Moslem youth eager for fame and fortune who left alot of "obvious" evidence for convincing the police and the sensationalist driven global main stream media machine!

seamusAugust 29, 2006 6:22 PM

@I Hate Politics:

Politics is a critical factor in security. Excluding politics from any writing about security is like excluding money from writing about sports.

dragonfrogAugust 29, 2006 6:30 PM

@ I hate politics

Politics is the process by which groups make decisions.

If you can't discuss decisions made by groups, and the processes that produce good and bad decisions, then there's not a lot left, is there?

disgustedAugust 29, 2006 7:08 PM

They're worried about a "fair trial"?

Who needs a trial?

Just use a "control order", works here in Oz!

winsnomoreAugust 29, 2006 7:38 PM


- I believe terrorists would be better served by having NO plans but all the pieces ready.

- Making plans exposes them; no plan only means they reduce the time to act from months/weeks to days and hours and become opportunistic

- This is MUCH harder to detect and stop.

Why is it so hard to understand for Bruce; only because he doesn't want to, for him anything authorities do must be bad. Either they are dumb or evil ; though I think they are batting pretty good so far.

AOGAugust 29, 2006 9:12 PM

How are we going to win this war? We have the money, we have the power but we don't have enough will to do it. Peace is not the solution. We're dealing with people who have been brainwashed. No person in their right mind will kill themselves for the price of having 72 virgins in heaven. Yet, again we see educated people still fall for this madness. So brainwashed + hatred, can you see the close resemblance to Nazi? At the end of the day, you can't be a neutral party, you can't vote for peace. If we want to win this war, we gotta do it now and we gotta do it fast.

nbk2000August 29, 2006 10:09 PM

[QUOTE]
Posted by: roy at August 29, 2006 10:40 AM

Might this 'network' simply be a government scheme to draw known crazies into an unworkable plot

...

More likely, the government agent created the cell and dished out the money, giving him de facto control of the cell.
[/QUOTE]

Speculation has been made that this was the situation with McVeigh of OKC bombing fame.

He was a dupe being used by the BATF, who was supposed to be caught just in the nick of time by the heroic ATF agents, which would earn them praise to counter-balance the scorn they earned from Waco.

But he (McV) went 'rogue' on them, they lost track of him, and he carried out the mission they had set for him successfully. :p

As for the feasibility of HMTD and AP synthesis in an airline toilet:

http://www.roguesci.org/theforum/issues-opinions/5530-liquid-explosives-terrorist-plot-uk-foiled-1-hour-ago.html

OldFartAugust 29, 2006 10:59 PM

@nbk2000

Wikipedia's treatment notwithstanding, the Weathermen had steady, and secret, financing to run couriers around the country earlier than September of 1968, plotting and scheming, and getting mindless monotonous screed published again and again, always in papers which should have rejected such idiocy as a matter of course.

I know because I knew a courier, and I knew his comings and goings.

I also know that in the 60s, the Weathermen were alone in two striking respects: one, they had no visible means of support, and two, they always had money, just enough money, never not enough money. That they had money when nobody else had money marked them as a strange beast of an organization.

The various lefty groups prevailed upon well-off people to hear their politicizing and feel guilty about their class advantages and therefore cut them checks, which most everyboy knows about.

What very few will admit to was the primary source of income for all the real leftist groups.

Bake sales. Cookies mostly, sometimes brownies or cupcakes, rarely pies The best selling cookies were oatmeal-raisin. Ginger snaps and chocolate chips roughly tied for second place.

The Weathermen never had bake sales. They never made money from hawking printed screed. They never bothered trying.

They were clearly an invention to draw in the truly wacko people from the political fringes. The Weathermen got reborn as the Weather Underground, an obvious effort to re-jumpstart the whack magnet. And then, the money got cut off, and the WU turned to bank robberies as the only sure thing they could think of, and the Feds rolled up their entire organization overnight like clockwork.

Well, of course. The FBI had populated the WU with wackos from their known-extremists lists.

Q.E.D. The Feds operated the Weathermen, and their rebirth as the Weather Underground.

What was McVeigh and company about? My guess: the G wanted to show Arabist whackos how simple it was to launch a terrorist attack inside the heartland of the Great Satan, using materials readily available locally.

The sad thing is, all those people in Oklahoma City died for nothing. The Murrah Building bombing did not inspire anyone to play copycats.

It took a series of jump-startings to get Arabists to start thinking outside of the box and upwardly revise their revenge fantasies in the direction of the September 11th attacks.

OldFartAugust 29, 2006 10:59 PM

@nbk2000

Wikipedia's treatment notwithstanding, the Weathermen had steady, and secret, financing to run couriers around the country earlier than September of 1968, plotting and scheming, and getting mindless monotonous screed published again and again, always in papers which should have rejected such idiocy as a matter of course.

I know because I knew a courier, and I knew his comings and goings.

I also know that in the 60s, the Weathermen were alone in two striking respects: one, they had no visible means of support, and two, they always had money, just enough money, never not enough money. That they had money when nobody else had money marked them as a strange beast of an organization.

The various lefty groups prevailed upon well-off people to hear their politicizing and feel guilty about their class advantages and therefore cut them checks, which most everyboy knows about.

What very few will admit to was the primary source of income for all the real leftist groups.

Bake sales. Cookies mostly, sometimes brownies or cupcakes, rarely pies The best selling cookies were oatmeal-raisin. Ginger snaps and chocolate chips roughly tied for second place.

The Weathermen never had bake sales. They never made money from hawking printed screed. They never bothered trying.

They were clearly an invention to draw in the truly wacko people from the political fringes. The Weathermen got reborn as the Weather Underground, an obvious effort to re-jumpstart the whack magnet. And then, the money got cut off, and the WU turned to bank robberies as the only sure thing they could think of, and the Feds rolled up their entire organization overnight like clockwork.

Well, of course. The FBI had populated the WU with wackos from their known-extremists lists.

Q.E.D. The Feds operated the Weathermen, and their rebirth as the Weather Underground.

What was McVeigh and company about? My guess: the G wanted to show Arabist whackos how simple it was to launch a terrorist attack inside the heartland of the Great Satan, using materials readily available locally.

The sad thing is, all those people in Oklahoma City died for nothing. The Murrah Building bombing did not inspire anyone to play copycats.

It took a series of jump-startings to get Arabists to start thinking outside of the box and upwardly revise their revenge fantasies in the direction of the September 11th attacks.

Filias CupioAugust 29, 2006 11:29 PM

Following up on a few points:
The airport "security bubble":
If you have a shopping mall inside the security bubble, then you have large-scale shipment of goods into the bubble. While there is undoubtedly some security, I bet it is much more lax than what passengers go through.
Alice gets a job at an airport duty free shop. Bob gets a job at the supply depot for the shop. Bob fills some whiskey bottles with explosives and ships them. Alice collects, and hands on to Carol, the suicide bomber.

Binary explosives: There's one which I know of without even having searched for it - I stumbled across it in one of my father's old university chemistry texts: potasium permanginate crystals plus concentrated sulfuric acid (neither of which are hard to get) gives manganese heptoxide: Mn2O7. This is a green oily unstable explosive liquid. I don't know how practical it is for bringing down airplanes, but if I could find this without even searching for explosives, there must be lots more a determined educated terrorist could find.

Filias CupioAugust 29, 2006 11:42 PM

No, the Oklahoma city bombing was done by the Japanese government, in retaliation for the US government's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

I know this is true because I read it in a conspiracy theory magazine appropriately called "Paranoia". (This would have been published a year or two after those attacks. Alas, after looking for about 10 minutes, I can't find this theory on the internet.)

MechanicAugust 29, 2006 11:48 PM

I would like too see what would happen if we gave people the opportunity to vote with their feet. Lets set up two security bubbles in major airports, one with no liquids, plastic table knives only, cavity searches on all bearded men, fighters scrambled to deal with panic-attacked old ladies, and all the rest of the theatre.

Make the other bubble operate at pre 911 levels, just able to catch the really incompetent.

Even without a price differential to pay for the heavy security, I can bet where 95% of the travellers would insist on being before very long, which would put all the theatre into its proper perspective.

And least I know where I would be. I'd take my chances.

But then back in the day I had a certain amount of experience with explosives. If I could be relatively assured that my planning and preparation were airtight, I am pretty sure that I could take down a plane all by myself, given a certain amount of time & money anyway, even at the current ridiculous security levels. And it wouldn't involve much in the way of mixing nasty chemicals in airplane sinks.

Mr. Schneier is quite right: intelligence & police work is the only approach with much hope of success (ie no airtight planning & prep, no time & money). Of course, the best hope of success in the long run is not to panic at risks lower than the average US freeway trip, and not react much when (not if) a bomb does go off, because to be sure, there can be no perfection in any system.

Carlo GrazianiAugust 30, 2006 1:04 AM

@Brian, + other chemistry fans:

It is entirely possible that other binary explosives which are serious candidate weapons exist. However, I feel quite sure that the exhaustive list of homebrewable ones has been known to the authorities for years.

So, my question stands: Why are we banned from bringing liquids aboard planes *now*, as a direct and explicit result of this "plot", which seems to have advanced no further than rolling tape on martyrdom videos, and in which the purported weapon *had nothing to do with assembling binary explosives on board*?

Something is very seriously wrong with the logic behind these security measures. It is beginning to look very much as if some political high-flyers went to press with very bad information about the substance of the plot ("Binary Explosives!" "Harmless substances combined into fiendish weapons!" "Carnage on an unimaginable scale!"), and that bad information was taken seriously, and reified into an even crazier ban than toenail clippers, and now we're stuck with no nose spray or toothpaste in flight for the forseeable future.

That's just stupid. There's no other word for it. Saying "there may be *other* binary explosives out there" doesn't destupidify it. There may also be binary solid explosives. There may also be hundreds and hundreds of other techniques to bring down a plane. These are movie plots. If you want to defend against them, hire a movie star, but don't put a bug up TSA's ass about it, or we'll be paying the consequences for years to come.

Davi OttenheimerAugust 30, 2006 1:22 AM

Interesting but I thought the whole thing started when the Pak Army were able to get some intelligence from a 'rebel' they captured. Did not see mention of it in the articles you cited, although they talked about men travelling to Pakistan.

Someone was obviously paying attention. Reminds me of the lack of attention given to a fundraising dinner in 2004:

http://www.rosenblog.com/2004/09/28/cat_stevens_friend_of_hamas_enemy_of_jews.html

"Yusuf Islam, the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was the guest of honour at a Toronto fundraising dinner hosted by an organization that has since been identified by the Canadian government as a "front" for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas."

Compare that to the headline news when a certain celeb's flight was diverted:

http://www.cnn.com/2004/US/09/22/plane.diverted.stevens/

The real struggle, and the race ahead, will be for intelligence and identity.

And although the restrictions on gels and fluids are annoying, I sometimes have to smile when I think about the ban on items like toothpaste. After all, is it not a strange thing that Americans have no choice while thinking they do? Perhaps if the market were more diverse (powder, chew sticks, etc.) and less consolidated by mega-corps then the ban of "paste" would not be such an inconvenience. Maybe the security measures, although rudely inconvenient at fist, will finally help breathe some life and innovation into a market for American goods. But will Americans recognize new opportunities for diversity as a good thing or just miss the days of uniformity in their paste?

Let's see the terrorists try and use something like this to blow up a plane:
http://www.earthcultureroots.com/shopping/chewsticks.html

Davi OttenheimerAugust 30, 2006 1:41 AM

"it's not a game we can win. So let's stop playing"

I keep wondering what is meant by this "win" concept in political or even economic terms, let alone security. Do you win when you install a firewall, or do you win when you get the latest antivirus software? Do you win when no one has broken your code *yet*? How does time factor into winning (is the contest held once a day, minute, second)? In this sense can you tell us what can be *won* and why? What happens if we give up trying because we can't win, but giving up is worse?

Reminds me of two famous quotes:

"Only the dead have seen the end of war."
-- George Santayana "Soliloquies in England" (Scribners, 1924, p. 102)

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
-- Orson Welles, "The Third Man" (1949)

Just wondering...

Dave BellAugust 30, 2006 3:29 AM

There's a documentary programme on TV in the US called "Dispatches". According to the preview on Monday night, this week's report is on how poor the non-passenger side of security is, and how easy it is to get "airside" for criminal purposes.

If you get a job at a UK airport, you have to pass a Criminal Records check and a Counter-Terrorism check. Both take time, and you can work while waiting for the answer.

Figure in the legendary honesty of baggage handlers, and you wonder why anyone needs to blow themselves up.

averrosAugust 30, 2006 6:32 AM

Bruce - and how do you know that anything in this article is true? All we know is that it was written based on the information supplied by the obviously self-serving "authorities".

Besides, for those of us who know something about chemistry, this entire affair smells very fishy.

I would say that you only illustrated that propaganda works, not that intelligence works. Any psychologist can tell you that forcing people to make "sacrifices" is a sure-fire way to induce many of them to accept whatever theory their handlers proposed to justify the "sacrifice". To preserve their self-esteem a lot of people would rather ignore reason and rationalize any absurd than admit to themselves that they are powerless nobodies.

lenAugust 30, 2006 7:49 AM

1. What Bruce said about intelligence and police work is precisely right. Even the 9/11 event could have been prevented had two neighboring county police systems in Florida been 'communicating' and cross-checking wants on traffic stops. Do some homework on how many wanted persons are nabbed by traffic stops.

2. As you debate this, the next generation regional police systems and enabling standards for them are being developed and procured. Expect this to take about ten years to have decent coverage.

3. While that is happening, take a hard cold look at the policies for their use. Keep in mind that the same technologies that empower the TLAs of the US and Britain are making their way down to your local precinct. Your only ability to impact their use is in who you elect and the policies they choose to enforce.

So again Bruce is right. I won't come down on one side of that debate, but it is a fact that there has never been a time in history when it made more difference who and what you vote for.

Choose wisely.

clintAugust 30, 2006 8:03 AM

@ davi
"... when I think about the ban on items like toothpaste."

Hey, do any of us really know what that green stripe in toothpaste is? Talk about your binary mixtures.

AnonymousAugust 30, 2006 8:06 AM

Bruce says:
"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.

No matter what we do, a terrorist gets to see security measures before planning an attack. That's whether boxcutters and banned or not. Clearly some things can not be allowed to be brought aboard an aircraft, yet we see no guidance from you as to what those things are. It's easy to shoot at the target, but why not put up one of your own?

Bruce says:
"By arresting the conspirators early, the police squandered the chance to learn more about the network and arrest more of them -- and to present a less flimsy case"

Understandable. It's a tradeoff between intelligence and capture of enemies. It's nice that the police have some of these terrorists in custody, and it's probably a bit unfair to second guess when we are in the Monday morning quarterback position. When planning something of this magnitude, you aren't really committing a crime, but an act of war. Even worse, it's an illegal act of war. These soldiers aren't uniformed nor belong to an official army. They aren't protected under civilization's laws.

Bruce says:
"I still think that all of the new airline security measures are an overreaction"

Can't disagree here. Longer term it would be better to see continuing objective evaluation of security measures, which is hard. Instead, we may just see a continuation of wasteful measures, which is easy.

Bruce says:
"The conspirators were radicalized by the war in Iraq, although it is impossible to say whether they would have been otherwise radicalized without it."

I'm glad you qualified this statement. Anyone who decides the way to solve their problems is to specifically target civilians is a terrorist, no matter what their stupid reason is. I am highly skeptical there is any validity to the term: "The Terrorists", as if to imply there is a group (such as Al-Qaeda). With no string of attacks to ratchet up fear and terror, it seems more like a largely disorganized group of individuals, that seeks venture capital funding from sponsoring "angels" (certain governments and individuals).

If there is an organized group or network, they are simply failures.

HarroldAugust 30, 2006 1:02 PM

@Clive Robinson

"Sorry Bruce, try living in the U.K. especially in or around London. You kind of have it easier in the U.S. as you have a writen laws that to some extent protect your freedoms.

The U.K. is the land of the the CCTV camera, that tracks people and cars license plates. Which is in essence the "fine dusting of snow on top of the iceburg" in that atleast you can see the cameras where ever you go."

It is interesting to note that the land that has all of these extra security that deny rights also has more homegrown terrorists.

While it is true that crime-ridden areas need extra security patrols, the security in the U.S. was NOT brought to us by the military or police or cameras everywhere, nor was it brought to us by having the government snoop into our lives without warrants that require something more than possible interest.

The more people are treated like rats, the more likely they will behave like rats. The terrorist we suffer today come from lands of totalitarianism, and that doesn't make anybody safer, except perhaps the tyrant in charge.

Liberty has risks built-in, but a free populace is much less likely to produce terrorists than one that thinks the heavy hand of the law or military is how to bring peace.

Matt DAugust 30, 2006 3:54 PM

@harold: "It is interesting to note that the land that has all of these extra security that deny rights also has more homegrown terrorists [than the US]"

I'd say that, on the whole, that was a dubious assertion. UK terrorists over the last thirty years or so have been largely limited to Irish Republicans (and their Unionist opponents) and, more recently, Islamic radicals. The latter, once you remove press hysteria and mere sympathisers, are seemingly quite a small grouping so far.

The pIRA et al, while numerous and persistent, were tied to a single, well defined set of political motives, to which they clung with literally religious zeal. Much the same can be said for the (so far) much smaller Islamic terrorist groups.

Aside from these two groupings, we've had a fairly small number of random acts of terror on other agendas, e.g. David Copeland's Neo-Nazi attacks of a few years ago, and some persistant animal-rights stuff.

Thinking now of the USAs homegrowns, there are/were various racially motivated cells (Black Panthers, various white supremacists, the Oklahoma bombing and so on), anti-abortionists, the Unabomber (and his imitators), the Washington snipers, the Tylenol poisoner (and his imitators) and so on and so forth.

Remove the pIRA and their compatriots from the equation, and the UKs record on home-grown terrorists seems to be much the same as, or even rather better than, that of the United States.

The pIRA et al can be removed from the equation because not only do they predate the excessive security apparatus which you suggest spawns terrorists, but that apparatus was itself in part spawned by the resurgence of "The Troubles" in the late 60s and early 70s, and the subsequent attacks on mainland Britain.

Mr PondAugust 31, 2006 6:46 AM

@ Bruce:

While I don't allways agree with your arguments or conclusions, on the subject of intelligence & investigation I agree with you 100%. Far, far better than security theatre.

It should be noted that though I don't allways agree with you I respect the fact that your arguments are in the vast majority well thought out & reasoned.

'Boots on the ground' is and will be the only way to win the WoT. Throwing endless technology at a problem and subsequently expecting a miraculous end to the problem just won't work in this case.

Chris StilesSeptember 1, 2006 9:33 AM


I would like too see what would happen if we gave people the opportunity to vote with their feet. Lets set up two security bubbles in major airports, one with no liquids, plastic table knives only, cavity searches on all bearded men, fighters scrambled to deal with panic-attacked old ladies, and all the rest of the theatre.

Your wish has been granted - sort of. Frequent travellers in Europe on multiple sector flights are already starting to avoid LHR as a transit hub. In favour of AMS, CDG etc.

JoeSeptember 10, 2006 10:38 PM

Those linked-to cartoons (speaks volumes about the real intellectual maturity of techies) are fucking stupid.

BearSeptember 28, 2006 4:53 AM

While I don't allways agree with your arguments or conclusions, on the subject of intelligence & investigation I agree with you 100%. Far, far better than security theatre.

It should be noted that though I don't allways agree with you I respect the fact that your arguments are in the vast majority well thought out & reasoned.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..