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Fbi netanyahu warns { November 29 2002 }

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November 29, 2002

FBI had warning of attack on a civilian aircraft
by ben webster

AIRLINES were urged last night to consider installing anti-missile defence systems after the terrorist attempt to bring down an Israeli plane in Kenya.

The FBI gave a warning six months ago that civilian aircraft could be targeted by al-Qaeda terrorists firing missiles from the ground. Airlines noted the warning but few took any action because installing a basic anti-missile system would cost £2 million per aircraft.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Foreign Minister, said: “Today, they’re firing the missiles at Israeli planes, tomorrow they’ll fire missiles at American planes, British planes, every country’s aircraft. Therefore, there can be no compromise with terror.”

The attack was launched from a vehicle parked about a mile from Mombasa airport.

Rafi Marek, the captain of the Arkia Boeing 757, said that he felt a slight bump shortly after take-off and saw two “white stripes” approaching the rear of the aircraft. They passed close by before disappearing.

Aircraft are most vulnerable to attack from shoulder-held missiles when they have just taken off or are coming in to land. The Sam-7, the missile fired yesterday, has a maximum range of three miles.

The Arkia jet was well within range and the passengers had a lucky escape. Of 42 shoulder-held missile attacks recorded around the world on civilian aircraft, 29 have hit the target.

In Sri Lanka, 100 soldiers travelling on civilian charter aircraft were killed in two attacks in 1995, and 52 people died when Afghan guerrillas shot down a Bakhtar Afghan Airlines aircraft in 1985.

Only El Al, Israel’s national airline, is believed to have installed missile defence systems. These systems sense an approaching missile and deploy a false signal, usually a flare, to divert it. Heat-seeking missiles, such as the Sam-7, are drawn to the flare and explode harmlessly beyond the plane.

Civilian airliners are harder to hit than military jets, despite being much larger, because they emit far less heat.

It was an attack on a US military jet at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia this year that prompted the FBI to issue its bulletin on the threat to civilian aircraft. It stated: “Given al-Qaeda’s demonstrated objective to target the US airline industry, its access to US and Russian-made Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (Manpads), and recent apparent targeting of US-led forces in Saudi Arabia, law enforcement agencies in the US should remain alert to the potential use of Manpads against US aircraft.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has also considered the feasibilty of equipping the US civilian fleet with missile protection, but it concluded in 1999 that: “Since there have been no confirmed incidents in the US it is difficult to convince aircraft manufacturers and airlines of the potential cost benefits of making their aircraft less susceptible and less vulnerable to Manpads through the implementation of warning systems.”

Philip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security International magazine, said that a £2 million defence system would add only 1.5 per cent to the £130 million cost of a new Boeing 747. “With every terrorist incident we tend to assume further attacks will be of a similar nature,” he said. “After September 11, all the focus went on suicide hijackers getting into the cockpits. The response was to fit reinforced cockpit doors.

“But the new threat could be coming from a different direction. We need to look not only at the intent of a terrorist organisation but what it is capable of doing in the future.”

David Learmount, safety editor of Flight International magazine, said that the aviation industry had been aware for decades that airliners were vulnerable to this kind of attack. “The question is why people haven’t done it more often.”

But he cautioned against calls for airlines to be forced to pay for expensive military protection systems. “There are many other safety systems queueing up to be installed on planes which would save many more lives,” he said.

A British Airways source said: “We would never say never to this type of equipment but our view at the moment is that it belongs in the realm of highly sophisticated military fighter planes.”

BA would have to spend half its £1.4 billion cash reserves to install the device on each of its 350 aircraft.

A Department for Transport source said: “Technically it is feasible to fit these devices, but it would be extremely expensive and would not protect against all types of missile. We believe the best protection is good intelligence and security around airport perimeters.”

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