Terrorism Expert Paul Wilkinson on the U.K. Plot

Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, tells Renee Montagne that the U.K. aircraft bombing plot is a sign that security measures are forcing terrorists to look for new types of explosives to carry out attacks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And for more on the security situation, we turn now to Paul Wilkinson. He's a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Hello.

Mr. PAUL WILKINSON (Terrorism Expert, University of St. Andrews, Scotland): Hello, there.

MONTAGNE: Reports say an investigation into this plot has been going on for a month. Can you tell us anything more about how the plot was uncovered?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, clearly it was a combined operation between the police anti-terrorism squad and the intelligence services. And clearly, they've been investigating these people that they suspect of involvement in this conspiracy for several months. And they must have reached a point where they had enough information to believe that an attack was imminent. And that is why they have intervened at this stage. And I think the measures that have been adopted - though they will cause some inconvenience to travelers - are absolutely justified in view of the nature of the threat.

MONTAGNE: Now, as Rob just told us, the plot might have involved liquid chemical devices both the U.K. and the U.S. have - both of them have now banned liquids on airplanes, that includes hair gels, lotions, beverages. What can you tell us about the suspected devices?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, of course, until the full investigation is revealed and we know more about the allegations, we can only speculate. What we do know is that terrorists in the sophisticated cells that are now operating in so many parts of the world, have been looking for different kinds of explosives, not the traditional military explosives, which are more easily detected in the X-ray machine process. But, for example, liquid explosives that could be used and devices that could be assembled onboard the plane.

And I think the measures that have been adopted are designed to prevent that from happening. For example, peroxides can be used as stand-alone explosives or as oxidizers in composite explosives. And TATP, which is triacetone triperoxide, can be synthesized from acetone. So, I mean those are the kind of materials that the terrorists might have been using.

Whatever the actual plot, it's clear that the authorities are quite sure that hand luggage would have been the way in which they tried to get these things on the aircraft. So it's very important to stop the use of hand luggage going on to the aircraft. Only a very restricted range of articles is now allowed.

MONTAGNE: Now, the United States has raised its aviation threat level, as we said, to the highest for flights from Britain to the U.S. And sort of domino-like, airlines around the world are canceling flights to Britain, limiting carryon items. What are the wider security implications of this plot?

Mr. WILKINSON: I think the implications are that the terrorists are still very interested in attacking civil aviation. They know that that is a possible way of causing massive casualties. And we must remember that the al-Qaida network of networks - the most likely suspect in this case - has clearly a record of attacking civil aviation; most notably in the 9/11 attacks. And we know from all kinds of sources - intelligence sources and the statements of the terrorists themselves - that they wish to carryout another spectacular attack, particular against U.K. or U.S., or both.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WILKINSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Paul Wilkinson is a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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