Lessons of shoe-bomb incident
Groups like Al Qaeda may now be using operatives who don't fit the police profiles.
WASHINGTON — Airport-security personnel on duty Saturday must not have thought Richard Reid fit the profile of a well-drilled terrorist. Perhaps he looked too scruffy. He didn't carry a passport from any countries terrorists frequent.
But if the suspected "shoe bomber" aboard a transatlantic flight were not acting alone - a possibility authorities are now taking seriously - it means that terrorists are already finding ways to circumvent the profile that law enforcement has developed to trap them. It also means that preventing similar acts in the future will be even more difficult.
"People should be worried not so much about ... the upper echelons of Al Qaeda, but about the foot soldiers, like Reid," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "Al Qaeda is not just governed from the top down; it's also from the bottom up. And detecting people like Mohammed Atta or Reid will be an even tougher law enforcement challenge."
Experts say that the tall, lanky
passenger on Flight 63 with plastic explosives in his hightops likely did not act alone. The explosives were too sophisticated for a drifter to obtain; more likely, he was a tester for a larger terrorist organization, they say.
"It's a classic evolution of criminal organizations: When you clamp down on one kind of drug carrier or operative, they reach out to others," says Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general at the US Department of Transportation.
Whatever the conclusion on this point, Mr. Reid is now Exhibit A for the need for law enforcement to expand its profiles.
Born in southeast London, the son of a Jamaican father and British mother, Reid scraped by in his early years selling drugs, breaking into cars, and mugging people, according to recent news reports. These activities led to time in juvenile detention, then jail. In prison, he became interested in Islam, and on his release in 1995, he took up study at a mosque in the Brixton section of south London, according to the mosque's leader, Abdul Haqq Baker. There, he may have met Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks.
By 1998, Reid was moving with more radical Islamic groups, according to Mr. Baker. He grew a beard and changed his name to Abdel Rahim. Often, he would return to the Brixton mosque wearing flak jackets and disputing whether the teachings in the mosque were "pure Islam."
The changes worried Baker, who had already complained to police that radical elements were gaining control over many of the young men. "He was not stupid, but he was gullible, and he would not have been capable of having done this by himself," Baker told reporters.
But whether Reid has ties to Al Qaeda - or any other terrorist organization - is not yet clear. He traveled a lot for a young man with no visible means of support - a characteristic of many Al Qaeda operatives. His mother told Baker that he went to Pakistan. Old passports show he was in Egypt and Turkey in 2000, then Israel in 2001. He may have spent time in terrorist training camps Afghanistan, according to members of Al Qaeda now in custody there.
Reid picked up a new passport in Belgium on Dec. 7, then came to Paris. On Dec. 21 - the anniversary of the terrorist bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland - he showed up at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris with only a light knapsack to board an overseas flight.
A security agent had doubts, and turned him over to French border police who grilled him at the airport, and later at a hotel, after he missed his flight. But they turned up nothing suspicious. (Critics note they never conducted a body search or used bomb-sniffing dogs.) The next day, he boarded another flight.
The passenger in the window seat in Row 29 made a lot of mistakes. He didn't understand how to set off the bomb in his shoes, and didn't seem to realize that lighting a match on an American airliner was taboo.
But experts note he also knew enough about airport security to exploit weaknesses in the system. He carried no luggage, so there was nothing on which officials could detect explosive residue. And there is a small zone at the bottom of metal detectors which doesn't adequately detect metal - a concern that prompted the FAA to issue a warning about shoe bombs earlier this month.
He made it past security at Charles de Gaulle airport, one of the most secure airports in Europe with a long history of dealing with terrorist threats.
"The French border police are a highly motivated and dedicated service," says Bruce Hoffmann, a terrorism expert at Rand Corp. "If they can make an error like this, it shows that there is no silver-bullet solution. You're only as good as the people who are there and how sharp they are at the moment."
This thwarted attack does signal that law enforcement and airline security will have to be much more vigilant in assessing possible threats. At the very least, profiles must be adapted, experts say.
"Profiling has not been invalidated by the Reid case; it simply needs to be updated to take into account British Muslims of this militant stripe," says Raymond Tanter, a terrorism expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
And counterterrorist measures must be more disciplined and consistent. After the shoe-bomb attempt, US flight attendants complained that airport screeners have been targeting flight crews, instead of passengers, for extra screening - including having to remove their shoes.
When representatives of flight attendants questioned screeners, they were told that the screeners "had a quota to meet and didn't want to inconvenience the passengers," says Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants.
Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Washington.