A Brother, A Fiancé, A Human Bomb: Terrorist Plots Against Aviation Déjà vu


At the end of April, a Syrian based Islamic State terrorist had components for a bomb sent from Turkey to Australia. He then provided directions to build the bomb to the cell in Sydney, Australia. Once the improvised explosive device was built it was concealed in a meat grinder. Now all they needed was to get the bomb on board an aircraft. Khaled Khayat planned to use his own brother to carry the bomb in luggage aboard an airplane.

On July 15, 2017, Khaled Mahmoud Khayat gave his brother luggage packed with a bomb concealed in a meat grinder as he prepared to fly on Etihad Airways from Sydney International Airport. Khaled’s brother was flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi and had no knowledge of the bomb When questioned about the weight of the luggage at check in there was a problem.  Khaled ended up leaving the airport with the luggage with the bomb. His brother boarded the flight and made his way to Abu Dhabi. The Sydney cell dismantled the bomb and then began planning to conduct a hydrogen sulphide chemical attack. While the check-in security procedures and questioning prevented the luggage with the bomb from being introduced onto the aircraft additional questioning and checks should have been undertaken as to why would someone allow another individual to leave with one’s carry on bag.

Until an intelligence service intercepted communications between the Islamic State and the Sydney cell no one knew of the plot to down the Etihad Aircraft.  The intelligence service would alert Australian Police 11 days after the attempted plot. This is not the first-time terrorists have attempted to bomb commercial aircraft by using a relative who unwittily attempted to carrying an explosive device aboard an aircraft.

Thirty-one years ago, Nezar Hindawi, a Jordanian working with the Syrians proposed marriage to Ann Marie Murphy who was pregnant with his child. Hindawi offered to marry Murphy in Israel. Hindawi told her to tell no one about the marriage or the wedding in Israel. He purchased her a rolling suitcase, provided money for her passport and had her purchase a ticket on El Al airlines. Hindawi told her his company had purchased his ticket on another airline.

On April 17, 1986, Hindawi escorted her to Heathrow Airport in a taxi. While in the taxi he put a battery in the Commodore Calculator that served as a timed triggering device for the bomb he had put in her luggage. Ann Marie Murphy had no idea what she was carrying in her luggage as she cleared through Heathrow’s security checkpoint. But the El Al security check was different. They discovered the bomb set to detonate five hours into the flight. Murphy was handcuffed and led away not realizing that her fiancé was willing to not only kill her and her unborn child but 374 other passengers. Her luggage contained a bomb with over 3 pounds of Semtex explosives. Nezar Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

These two plots show the depths that terrorists will go to attack aviation and use anyone including an unsuspecting brother or fiancé. The Sydney cell weren’t successful in getting the IED aboard an aircraft. They dismantled the bomb for later use and moved on to a chemical attack plot.

That bomb components were sent to Sydney, Australia from Turkey and not discovered should cause some concern. This highlights the issue of air cargo being sent globally and the need for additional procedures. In October 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sent explosive devices via cargo planes and passenger planes concealed in  printer cartridges of printers. Only because of intelligence was this threat thwarted. We will continue to see additional plots by terrorists against aviation and that is why the initial security questioning at check in is so important. While important, the initial security procedures at check in constitutes the first of many layers of airport security.  But just as terrorists are always adapting so too must security procedures.

Terrorist plots over the years have evolved from bombs smuggled in checked bags, carry-on luggage, firearms, altimeter devices, Operation Bojinka style attacks, building the bomb from components on the aircraft like Ramzi Yousef, seizing aircraft like on 9-11, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the printer cartridge plot, liquid explosives, clothes soaked in liquid explosives, end runs around security,  and insiders are just some of the plots we have seen. We have already seen drones near airports and even strike aircraft. If a bird strike to US Airways Flight 1549 can force an aircraft down into the Hudson River then drone attacks of aircraft pose a danger that we can anticipate at some point. One thing is certain-security procedures must evolve and adapt or aviation will endure additional attacks.

History has shown that aviation security hasn’t been at the level needed to stop terrorist threats. Generally, the first time a terrorist tactic or new weapon is used to attack global aviation this segment of transportation is caught off guard. Ramzi Yousef was able to bring components onto an Philippines Airlines Flight 434 and build a small rehearsal device which successfully detonated. September 11th took the aviation segment by surprise when Al Qaeda terrorists seized multiple aircraft using them as the weapon. Just months later, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber attempted to detonate his shoe bomb on American Airlines Flight 63. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb wasn’t discovered until he tried to detonate the underwear bomb on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. AQAP’s printer cartridge plot was thwarted but the devices had already flown on cargo aircraft and were enroute to their targets. Operatives were able to skillfully move a computer bomb around security and get the device on board Daallo Airlines Flight 3159. Suicide bombers in Brussels Airport, Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Glasgow Airport Attack, firearms attack at LAX, all happened and caught airports flatfooted.

Until intelligence services learned of the communication between Islamic State operatives and the Sydney cell no one knew about this plot. We need to become more predictive and think about what would future attacks would look like. Until that time we will continue to be at the mercy of a first attack which is unacceptable. Sun Tzu said “Don’t depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him.

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