Why Airplanes?

August 10, 2006

Police in Britain uncovered a major plot to blow up several airplanes in midair with chemicals which combine to be powerful explosives. The terrorists planned to take flights to the U.S. from Heathrow and blow up 6 or 7 planes. It’s hard to understand why the terrorists try so hard to target planes. 9/11 made sense there was no way to kill so many people without using planes as missiles. Also the airports were relatively safe targets, and the passengers were trained to obey the hijackers. But blowing up planes seems peculiarly inefficient. An attack on a movie theatre or Broadway would be relatively easy to commit and would require only a few terrorists with sub-machine guns. Here are the possibilities that I can think of for targeting planes.

  • The terrorists wanted to send a message to America and Britain, namely that no matter how much you try to stop us we’ll get through your security screening. The major problem with that reason is that if you’re going to wait 5 years for your next major terror attack you want to have a large chance of a major success.
  • The terrorists felt that once they got on the planes they’d be certain of success while shooting people up has risks to the very end.
  • Most jihadists have a strong suicidal streak running through them. Therefore, a key component of their plan may be to kill themselves at the same time as their victims.
  • The terrorists are rather desperate to get the U.S. out of Iraq quickly and therefore they wanted to make an attack specifically on those two countries.
  • The terrorists who planned this attack were not the highest level terrorists. These people wanted to do an attack which felt like them as terrorism rather than the common murder of shooting up a mall.

As an aside this story demonstrates the importance of wiretaps and intelligence surveillance. The fact is that no security check would have got them if they had made it undetected up until then. How many security guards could be trained to recognize certain chemicals in their liquid form.