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Expert: Terror Plot Similar to 1994 Airline Attack

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now is terrorism expert Daniel Benjamin. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Good morning.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: The government is taking some unprecedented steps, as we've just heard, including the alert level to red for commercial flights to Britain and the U.S. Sounds very significant. What - how do you see it?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, it's unquestionably very significant. Obviously, we're dealing with very little information at the moment. But the conspiracy, I mean what we've learned, suggests that this is actually very much like one that was undertaken by Ramzi Yousef and his relative, the famous Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in the 1994 and 1995 period.

Ramzi Yousef invented, as it were, a kind of an explosive device that used a liquid and he tried it out on a Japanese - on a - well, on a Philippine airliner - that - and he killed a Japanese businessman. They were going to blow up 12 planes in flight over the Pacific. This plot was called Manila Air and also Bojinka. And it appears that this is a replay of that.

This caused an enormous disruption all over the Pacific Rim, and the same sorts of security measures were taken then, all liquids being taken away from passengers. I think the only exception was baby formula at that point.

MONTAGNE: Right. As was the case actually today, with the baby formula. But just a quick - liquid - which seems to be a very easy thing to get on a plane, sort of innocuous looking - what exactly would a liquid bomb be? What would happen? What concoction would be made?

Mr. BENJAMIN: The material that it's believed Ramzi Yousef was using is something called triacetone triperoxide, TATP. And the reason that it had not been used before - and he was also using nitroglycerin - is that it's very volatile and it can go off when you don't want it to. But it can - a small amount can easily put a hole in an airplane and cause a disaster.

And it is not detectable by the standard measures that are used at airplanes - at least it certainly wasn't at that time. And I don't think anything has been done to be able to detect it now. The usual scanners scan for solids and for a particular density associated with explosives. So that, I think, is why we're seeing the measures we are.

MONTAGNE: So do you think this threat, as it's been described, bears al-Qaida hallmarks?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, if you're talking about multiple more or less simultaneous attacks, especially on aircraft, absolutely. And this has been an interest of jihadist terrorist now for quite some time. Whether this was ordered up by bin Laden from the border region of Pakistan is much harder to say. But given the sort of nature of the threat right now, which is a lot of dispersed cells - many of them homegrown or self-starters, as we call them - it would be inspired by the jihadist ideology but not necessarily ordered by bin Laden himself.

MONTAGNE: Why would a terrorist plot focus on aviation again when security at the airports is so strict?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, several reasons. First of all, this - the jihadist terrorists do like to come back to foiled plots. Remember, Ramzi Yousef tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and of course they came back to it in 2001. Aviation has a peculiar horror to it, or an aviation attack. It's spectacular, it causes mass casualties and an awful lot of follow-on disruption that can really cause enormous damage to the economy.

So you know, really, for as long as there's been - well, since it - for a long time, there's been an awful lot of terrorism associated with aviation. And that link, I think, is well understood...

MONTAGNE: Mr. Benjamin...

Mr. BENJAMIN: ...by the terrorists.

MONTAGNE: ...just briefly before - we have to go in just a couple of seconds. But does this reaction today, this - these arrests - suggest that this country is or Britain is better able to deal with plots like this?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, I think the British have done a very good job. I don't know that they're better able than we are, but they've certainly done very good work over the last - well, five or 10 years already.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. BENJAMIN: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of the book, The Age of Sacred Terror. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.