Terrorists keep their options fluid


For nearly two decades, liquid explosives have served as a central ingredient in terrorist plots, including several targeting the United States.

From Germany to London, the Philippines, British Columbia and Pakistan, terrorists have conjured scenarios using nitroglycerine and other deadly liquids disguised in glass bottles, contact-lens-solution containers and even Tupperware.

And more often than not, the liquid bombs were intended to be used in airliners.

The alleged plot disrupted in London on Thursday bore the same profile, and, like most of its predecessors, proved unsuccessful.

British officials said an apparent cadre of more than two-dozen likely Islamic extremists were engaged in a sophisticated plan to blow up 10 U.S.-bound airliners using an unspecified type of liquid explosive and simple detonators.

In fact, the thwarted London conspiracy bore several similarities to a failed effort in 1994 by al Qaeda conspirator Ramzi Youssef to bring down about a dozen wide-bodied commercial airplanes simultaneously as they flew from the Philippines and other Asian airports to the United States.

The weapon of choice then: nitroglycerin in contact-lens-solution bottles, which would be used along with digital watches, 9-volt batteries and light-bulb filaments to cobble together crude bombs in airplane bathrooms and planted in life jackets under passengers’ seats, according to Christopher Farrell, a retired Army intelligence officer who now is head of investigations at the Judicial Watch think tank in Washington.

But Youssef, who had played a role in the 1993 bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center, was foiled in 1995 when he accidentally set his Manila apartment on fire while mixing chemicals. Youssef was apprehended a month later.

Another planned anti-U.S. attack in which liquid explosives were to be employed was aborted in 1999 by an alert U.S. customs agent at the Washington state border with Canada. The agent noticed Ahmed Ressam’s nervousness and searched the trunk of his car, finding liquid explosives ingredients hidden inside toiletry jars.

A native of Algeria and an Islamic extremist, Ressam eventually confessed that he was part of a conspiracy to plant a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport around the dawn of the new millennium.

That plot came 14 years after a terrorist of a different stripe was apprehended before he could blow up a plane in Frankfurt, Germany. That time, the suspect was Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a member of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group now battling Israel in Lebanon. He was caught in 1987 before he boarded a plane with bottles of liquid explosives in his luggage.

Hamadi, who was released last December after serving 18 years in a German prison, was better known for his part in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 bound from Athens to Rome. U.S. Navy seaman Robert Stethem was shot and killed by the terrorists, his body dumped on the tarmac.

Almost two decades later, another attempt to use liquid explosives in an anti-U.S. act was disrupted in March 2004 when security guards found a 200-gallon bomb in a van parked next to the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan.

The most recent terror episode involving liquid explosives came last summer in London, when al Qaeda sympathizers mixed the liquid chemicals acetone and peroxide, packed them in Tupperware containers and detonated the crude but effective bombs by cell phones. In those coordinated attacks on London’s bus and subway system, 52 commuters died.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)