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Terror Analysis: Who is Behind the Flight 253 Plot?


On December 25 2009, Abdulfarouk Umar Muttalab, a 23-year-old Nigerian attempted to detonate an explosive device which was sewn into his underwear, while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam, about to land in Detroit Michigan international airport. Technical malfunction of the device and the quick response of some passengers and crew members who were able to subdue Muttalab save the passenger jet from crush in mid air. Muttalab, member of a distinguished, secular and wealthy Nigerian family that was studying in recent years in London, seems to have adopted a radical Islamic approach and supported the Taliban and Al Qaeda. According to early reports Muttalab claimed to be a member of “Al Qaeda” and that he had received the explosive device in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the plot on an Islamic website,

It is yet too early to determine who was behind Muttalab's attempt, but early indications suggest he was not acting alone nor on his own initiative. According to US law enforcement officials, the explosive device Muttalab attempted to detonate was composed of PETN as the main explosives. PETN is a standard plastic explosive that is not accessible (in contradiction to an improvised explosive device (IED) which can be manufactured using accessible homemade raw materials and is very common within different Jihadi organizations).PETN can be found in charges of detonators , land mines and shells, and also use as the explosive core of detonation cord. It is one of the ingredients of the Semtex plastic explosive as well. Hence, it seems that Muttallab was not able to manufacture such a device on his own and received the complete device and ready to activate.
PETN was used recently in the 28 August 2009 foiled attempt to murder the Saudi Arabian Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. This attempt was conducted by a Saudi suicide-bomber Abdullah Hassan al Asiri, listed on Saudi Arabia's most wanted “Al Qaeda” activists, operating from Yemen on behalf of the newly declared Al Qaeda in the Peninsula (AQAP) group. Al Asiry had hidden his bomb inside his anal cavity.

Much earlier, on December 21st 2001 Al Qaeda used PETN in its attempt to crush American airline flight 063 operating from Paris to Miami using suicide bomber British Richard Reid hiding the explosives in his shoes (The “shoe bomber”).

The use of PETN in the August attack originated in Yemen, Al Muttalab declaration he received the device in Yemen and AQAP claim of responsibility indicates of a pivot role for the Yemenite arena in constructing the flight 253 plot.

The one year old AQAP is the main “global jihad” entity operating in Yemen, yet traditionally it focuses its activity inside the peninsula and on the Peninsula (Mostly Saudi Arabians and Yemenis) targets, rather than in the international arena. Al Qaeda's hard core sole branch for international attacks is the organization’s external operation unit (Responsible for the “shoe bomber” attack for example) usually operates from Pakistan using world wide regional extensions and logistics.

Although there isn't enough information to determine which of these two entities was behind the flight 253 attack one can not rule out the possibility it was eventually an inter organizational cooperation between AQAP and Al Qaeda's hard core external operations unit. One should remember with this regard that the two entities have a long tradition of cooperation which started far long before AQAP was even established and can be dated back to the Early 1990’s. The founder and undisputed leader of AQAP is Nasser Abd Al Karim Al Wahishi aka Abu Basir Al Yamani, who back in the early 1990's was an Al Qaeda operative serving as the personal secretary of Osama Bin Laden. Wahishi issued a recent (29 October 2009) statement in which he called the Muslim people to attack western targets, including airports and airplanes. “Make it (explosive devices) in the shape of a … and bombed with it any tyrant, or intelligence forces den, or a prince, or a minister, or a crusader wherever you find them, and also in airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways."

At Any rate, whether it was AQAP, Al Qaeda's external operations unit, or some sort of a cooperation between the two, the main interim perception of the flight 253 plot is the growing centrality and importance of the Yemenite arena for Jihadi operations in the international arena as well.


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