You are hereTerrorists attempt fresh wave of US hijackings
Terrorists attempt fresh wave of US hijackings
Devastating new evidence has emerged that terrorists are preparing another attack on the United States, with air marshals and flight crews reporting a series of dry runs for attacks on aircraft in mid-air. At least two flights are thought to have been targeted so far by groups of Middle Eastern men who appear to be forming a plan of attack.
On one flight an air marshal reportedly broke into an onboard toilet to find that a mirror had been removed and that a Middle Eastern man was trying to break through a wall to the cockpit.
One air marshal told the Washington Times newspaper yesterday: "No doubt these are dry runs for a terrorist attack."
The revelation came on the day a major US report into the 11 September attacks warned that another attack was likely.
The commission recommended an overhaul of the country’s intelligence services to prevent al-Qaeda launching more deadly plots against America.
Warning that an attack "of even greater magnitude" than the one that killed almost 3,000 people in 2001 was "probable", the commission accused the Clinton and Bush administrations of failing to have sufficient imagination to have envisaged al-Qaeda’s lethal plot.
Tom Kean, the chairman of the commission, said: "Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible and even probable. We do not have the luxury of time.
"We must prepare and we must act. The al-Qaeda network and its affiliates are sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal."
Airline staff and passengers have catalogued repeated incidents that suggest new attacks are in preparation.
"It’s happening and it’s a sad state of affairs," one pilot said.
On one flight last month, 14 Syrian men on a flight between Detroit and Los Angeles boarded the flight, sitting apart. They pretended to be strangers, according to those on board, but once airborne they started filing in and out of the plane’s toilets. When the plane was about to land, the men shot up to different toilets, arousing the suspicions of air crew, passengers and air marshals.
However, air marshals who monitored the incident said there was no "legal basis on which to take enforcement action".
In another incident, the Washington Times revealed, a flight attendant reported a passenger using a long lens to take photographs of the cockpit door.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Islamic militants had found a new way to circumvent security systems at airports. Instead of trying to take bombs onto aircraft, they would place the components on board, which they can then assemble in mid-flight.
Security sources told newspapers that the tactic had already been tried out, again in dry-run form, on flights between the Middle East, North Africa and western Europe.
As early as November, the FBI was warning that "terrorists are considering the use of improvised explosive devices assembled on board to hijack an aircraft".
Security agencies around the globe are now trying to track down the militants that have been trained to carry out such attacks.
The activities are a terrifying echo of the meticulous planning of the hijackers involved in the 11 September plot, which was comprehensively detailed in yesterday’s report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
The 567-page final report issued by the ten-member commission pointed to "deep institutional failings" and missed opportunities to thwart the hijackings carried out by al-Qaeda operatives.
"Terrorism was not the overriding national-security concern for the US government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11 Bush administrations," the report said.
It said that on at least nine occasions, chances were missed that might have led to the uncovering of the plot.
Overnight, US television networks broadcast a newly released surveillance video from Washington’s Dulles International Airport on the morning of the attacks that investigators view as one of the missed opportunities.
The video shows five hijackers passing through security checkpoints. Four of them repeatedly set off alarms but were quickly cleared to board the flight that later crashed into the Pentagon. It was not clear what set the alarms off.
The commission was sweeping in its recommendations for change.
It proposed the appointment of a national intelligence director and the creation of a national counter-terrorism centre to better co-ordinate and share information about future terrorist threats.
"The national intelligence director should oversee national intelligence centres to provide all-source analysis and plan intelligence operations for the whole government on major problems," the report said.
The commission also said the US government must do more domestically to guard against future terrorist attacks, including measures such as setting national standards for issuing drivers’ licences and other identification, improving "no-fly" and other terrorist-watch lists and using more biometric identifiers to screen travellers at ports and borders.
Other recommendations included declassifying intelligence spending, upgrading the computer technology used by US intelligence and reorganising congressional oversight.
Given new warnings about al-Qaeda’s desire to strike again on a mass scale, James Thompson, commission member, said all US leaders would be wise to take the commission’s findings to heart.
"If it happens and we haven’t moved, then the American people are entitled to make very fundamental judgments about that," he said.
The commission’s vice-chairman, Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, appealed for political unity at the heights of America’s power. A "shift in mindset and organisation" within the US intelligence apparatus and a smoother transition between presidencies were also necessary, he said, to ensure "that this nation does not lower its guard every four or eight years".
"The US government has access to vast amounts of information but it has a weak process, a weak system of processing and using that information," Mr Hamilton said. "Need to share must replace need to know."
However, it will be months if not years before such recommendations can be implemented. Yet many terrorism experts fear that al-Qaeda is planning a terrorist attack in the next four months, in the run-up to the November presidential elections.
"They [the 11 September hijackers] penetrated the defences of the most powerful nation in the world," Mr Kean said. "They inflicted unbearable trauma on our people, and at the same time they turned international order upsidedown."
Mr Kean said the US was "faced with one of the greatest security challenges in our long history"