An Aussie Terror Warning

Islamic State came close to taking down a passenger plane.


Police in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba conducting counterterrorism raids on Aug. 1.
Police in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba conducting counterterrorism raids on Aug. 1. PHOTO: WILLIAM WEST/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The international media paid little attention when Australian police rolled up a terrorist plot in the Sydney suburbs last month, the 13th time in three years the country has dodged a mass-casualty attack. But it has since become clear that Islamic State nearly brought down a large plane without authorities having a clue. That should ring alarm bells across the world.

On July 15, brothers Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat placed a bomb inside a meat grinder and gave it to a third, unwitting brother to carry in his luggage on an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi. At the last moment the bag wasn’t checked in, apparently because it was too heavy. An Australian antiterrorism task force began to watch the Khayat family only after a tipoff 11 days later from British intelligence. They arrested the brothers on July 29 and found evidence that the bomb could have brought down the plane.

Tests with a dummy version suggest that it would have been caught by the luggage-screening system at Sydney’s airport. But the fact that the plot progressed to such an advanced stage is proof of a major intelligence failure. Luck was on the side of the authorities this time, but it easily could have favored the terrorists. 

The would-be attackers gave little indication that they had been radicalized. Khaled Khayat, a 49-year-old butcher of Lebanese descent, briefly appeared on the intelligence radar because a fourth brother is an Islamic State commander in Syria. But he and Mahmoud appeared to be well-integrated members of the community.

Aussie authorities say that, unlike typical distant recruits, the brothers received direction from an Islamic State controller in the Middle East. Components for making the bomb, including a military-grade explosive, were shipped to them on a cargo flight from Turkey. Since 2001 no terrorist plot on Western soil has used such sophisticated material.

Western authorities will be hard pressed to stop attacks if Islamic State can put high-powered bombs in the hands of Islamic radicals not on a watchlist. Terrorism expert Paul Cruickshank has dubbed this the IKEA model of terror for its ability to replicate cheaply.

The terrorists will be encouraged by their near success to try again. The West must examine how the Khayats slipped through the net and the role that Turkey is playing as a global Grand Central station for terrorists.

Appeared in the August 11, 2017, print edition.

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