ISIS Airmail: The Bomb Shipped From Turkey to Australia

In the end, the plot failed. But it leaves plenty of questions—and shows where to tighten security.

 
 

At Sydney Airport, July 31.
At Sydney Airport, July 31. PHOTO: PETER PARKS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
 

Islamic State’s plan to blow up a commercial jet out of Sydney last month was “one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil,” police said last week. For reasons that aren’t yet clear, the terrorists aborted the attack, and police are confident the bomb would not have made it through airport security. Still, terrorists managed to acquire plastic explosives and the components needed to set it off—all shipped by airmail from Turkey. The Australian authorities discovered the plan only when, nearly two weeks later, they received a tip from a foreign intelligence service.

Make no mistake: Islamic State jihadists will continue trying to carry out spectacular terrorist attacks in the West. ISIS has lost control of Mosul, Iraq, where an estimated 30,000 of its fighters were killed. Now it is being pushed out of its putative capital, Raqqa, Syria. As it begins to look less like a traditional state and more like an insurgency, ISIS fighters will try to mobilize sympathizers around the world.

Last month, for instance, ISIS affiliates in Turkey released the “Lone Wolf’s Handbook,” a manual of 60-some pages, with dozens of illustrations, that explains the most efficient way to make a bomb or drive a truck into pedestrians. Such attacks are meant to prove that ISIS still exists and reinforce its bragging rights as the meanest, most fearsome warriors for Islamism. They’re also meant to dominate the news, particularly in the West, to help recruit future jihadists. 

At the same time, ISIS is getting smarter about circumventing Western security, as the failed attack in Australia shows. An ISIS commander, probably in Raqqa, coordinated the plot and guided the terrorists for more than three months. He had the bomb assembled with high-end, military-grade explosives.

The device was shipped from Turkey to Australia by air cargo, probably in a passenger jet, evading security along the way. The plotters in Sydney received the package without any problems and set up the bomb. They put it in their luggage and went to the airport but then abandoned the plan before going through security. Instead they began working on a chemical-dispersion device to release hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic gas.

A sophisticated supply chain like this raises obvious questions: Where else may the ISIS cell in Turkey have sent bomb components? How did it obtain the plastic explosives found in Sydney, and how much more does it have?

Western governments considering the Australia plot ought to respond in three ways: First, they should review the shipping and handling of air cargo and fortify security procedures. The successful delivery of plastic explosives constitutes a major world-wide threat. Plastic explosives are hard to detect, but newer X-ray machines usually have the capacity to find them.

Second, the other countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should lean on Turkish authorities to crack down on jihadist networks. Almost all of the materials to produce the bomb in Australia were sent from Turkey. Last month Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, said that al Qaeda fighters had established a “save haven” in Syria just across the Turkish border. “How are they getting there? They’re not paratroopers,” Mr. McGurk said. “The approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons, and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria, may not have been the best approach.”

Third, counterterrorism agencies should be more vigilant than ever about monitoring connections between their citizens and Islamic State fighters. Terrorists always try to recruit the people they trust. A foreign fighter’s close circle in his homeland is perhaps the easiest recruitment target when ISIS goes looking for future jihadists to carry out attacks.

The Australian suspects are instructive. The men arrested and charged, Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, are brothers. They were reportedly recruited by another brother, Tarek Khayat, who is an ISIS commander in Syria. Looking for these kinds of needles in the haystack is tiring work, but that is the essential job of intelligence agencies.

Mr. Yayla, an adjunct professor at George Mason University, formerly led the counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa (2010-13).

Appeared in the August 10, 2017, print edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *