San Francisco Chronicle
January 6, 2002
Shoe-Bomb Flight -- A Trial Run?
By Simon Reeve
London -- As investigators gather evidence about possible links between alleged airline shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the al Qaeda terrorist organization, intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic are floating a disturbing theory: that Reid's bombing attempt may have been a "trial run" for future, simultaneous attacks against passenger jets to be carried out by supporters of Osama bin Laden.
U.S. and British intelligence officials believe that the British citizen on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22 was a "foot soldier" sent to check the destructive power of shoe bombs against civilian targets.
One senior British intelligence official said there are indications that "more than a few, but less than a dozen" individuals may be preparing similar attacks in the near future.
These officials cite similarities with a weapon developed by Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who plotted a series of simultaneous attacks on U.S. airliners in the mid-1990s.
"There is a definite pattern here with Yousef's past attacks that we would be foolish to ignore," said one highly placed intelligence official. "They have tried this before, and they are trying it again."
During the flight, Reid allegedly tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes with a lighted match. Crew and passengers averted a disaster by jumping on the 28-year-old London-born suspect.
Preliminary studies by the FBI indicate Reid's black suede basketball shoes contained between 8 and 10 ounces of the explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP -- called "The Mother of Satan" by Palestinian militants, because its inherent instability makes it dangerous to both the victims and bomb maker.
The TATP in Reid's shoes was "blended" with an explosive called PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which can be ignited with a normal cigarette lighter. PETN is a key ingredient of Semtex, the Czech-made military explosive used to down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
"These bombs are sophisticated devices," said the British intelligence official. "They would have been difficult and dangerous to produce. Reid could not have done this himself -- he would have trouble tying his own shoelaces. It seems we may have an expert bomb maker on the loose in Europe."
Among the links being pursued by investigators are telephone conversations, known to British intelligence, between Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so- called "20th hijacker" who was indicted on conspiracy charges in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, and reports that the two worshiped at the same mosque in London. Moussaoui's attorney entered a plea of not guilty for his client in Virginia last week.
Investigators are also probing the origins of the money used by Reid, who has no visible means of support, as he traveled to seven different countries last year.
Among the cities Reid visited was Amsterdam. The Binnenlandse Veiligheids Dienst (BVD), the Dutch security service, is trying to reconstruct Reid's movements and to establish whether an al Qaeda cell there may be plotting attacks on passenger jets.
Reid has told FBI agents that he contacted Dutch arms dealers via the Internet and paid $1,800 for the explosives. But intelligence sources speculate that Reid obtained them from an al Qaeda explosives expert in Amsterdam, who adapted the shoes in preparation for Reid's attack.
FBI agents and British anti-terrorist officials, meanwhile, have concluded that the shoe-bomb plot originated with the ideas of Yousef, an early al Qaeda operative who suggested flying passenger jets into buildings.
After instigating the 1993 WTC bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, the British-educated extremist was on the run from the FBI for nearly two years before being captured. He is currently serving a life sentence plus 240 years.
While on the lam in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Far East, Yousef trained other bin Laden terrorists in the use of explosives and told them of a plan he code-named "Project Bojinka" -- "bojinka" means "explosion" in Serbo-Croat -- which used a form of shoe bomb.
Designed as a terrorist "spectacular" that would instantly kill thousands of people and eclipse every other terrorist atrocity in history, Yousef planned to blow up 11 U.S. passenger jets scheduled to fly simultaneously over the Far East in January 1995 by using tiny, undetectable bombs.
Yousef produced a stable, liquid form of nitroglycerine from an array of chemicals, including sulfuric acid and nitrobenzene, and fashioned them into devices undetectable by airport security devices, including X-ray machines. He converted a Casio digital watch into a timing switch, hid the liquid nitroglycerine in a contact lens case, with cotton wool as a stabilizer, and then used two 9-volt batteries to power light-bulb filaments to spark an explosion.
Yousef hid the bomb components in the heels of his shoes, knowing most airport security systems do not scan the soles of feet.
"The parallels are really chilling," said a senior FBI official, referring to the Reid case. The official added that security devices to detect explosives on passengers are still in the development stage.
Another similarity noted by investigators was the placement of the shoe bomb components. Having obtained Boeing blueprints, Yousef calculated the most devastating place to detonate his bombs was in a seat above the center fuel tank, adjacent to the wing. The bomb alone would not destroy the plane, but it would detonate the fuel, ripping the jet apart. Reid, perhaps following Yousef's example, chose a window seat close to the Boeing 767-300's fuel tank.
The "Bojinka" plot was aborted after chemicals Yousef was mixing in a Manila kitchen caught fire and he had to flee to Pakistan, leaving behind details of the plan for police to discover. But Yousef did stage his own trial run. In December 1994, he assembled a bomb on a Philippines Airline flight, then left it under a seat before deplaning the Boeing 747.
The resulting explosion on the next leg of the flight killed a Japanese passenger, injured five others and forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in Okinawa. Yousef would have needed only to increase slightly the size of the bomb to ensure the plane's destruction.
Some investigators are so concerned about how far the parallels between Reid and Yousef go that they have suggested "a more rigorous" interrogation of Reid, designed to elicit any information he has about a possible second "Bojinka" plot.
"There is significant concern about this guy," said the FBI official. "Does the failure of his mission mean his cell will now go on the run? Possibly. But in the past these groups have been very focused and do not easily turn from their target."
Simon Reeve, a London-based investigative journalist and contributor to The Chronicle, is the author of "The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism."
Copyright © 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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