New details emerge on the 2017 ISIS Australia-Abu Dhabi plane bomb plot

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The French daily Le Monde recently revealed intricate details of the 2017 ISIS plot to bomb an Etihad Airways flight after hiding an explosive device in a meat grinder. Those behind the attempted bombing were later arrested.

The halted operation that sought to blow up a flight heading from Australia to the UAE should be studied by security forces planning to thwart similar attacks, according to terrorism experts who studied the details of the case.

“The operation was the most innovative of all those conducted by ISIS,” said Andew Zammit, a doctoral student in political science at Monash University in Australia, in a published a study on the plot in the Combating Terrorism Center, US Military Academy.

“The Controller:” Basil Hassan

The Le Monde reported that one of the most dangerous international attack operatives within ISIS, Basil Hassan, was the mastermind behind the Etihad airline plot.

Hassan is a Danish engineering graduate of Lebanese descent. He left Denmark after attempting to assassinate Lars Hedegaard, a well-known historian and Islam critic in 2013 and joined ISIS in Syria as the self-proclaimed caliphate gained prominence.

Also read: Coronavirus: ISIS criticizes Muslim leaders for closing mosques as preventive measure

With ISIS, he played a major role in building up the group’s drone-warfare program, which stretched from Europe through Turkey to Syra, and he was instrumental in furthering ISIS capabilities in the field.

Basil Hassan. (Courtesy: Combatting Terrorism Center)
Basil Hassan. (Courtesy: Combatting Terrorism Center)

The engineer is said to have died in the second half of 2017, but news of his death was never confirmed.

Plotting to blow up AUS-AUH

Making a hobby out of attaching explosives to model planes and drones, as mentioned in an in-depth profile of The Controller by the Combating Terrorism Center, Hassan finally thought it was time to put this experience to use.

To prepare for the attack, operatives designed tests to measure the security vulnerabilities of several countries and sent packages containing explosives to the US, UK, Germany and Qatar.

Also read: EU justice agency seeks to charge returning ISIS ‘foreign fighters’ with war crimes

This set the stage for the 2017 plot to blow up a passenger flight from Sydney International Airport to Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Hassan’s accomplices were the Khayat brothers, one of whom was an ISIS member in Raqqa as well, but the other three were Australian residents.

The Khayat brothers

Tarek Khayat is a Lebanese from Tripoli who joined ISIS in Syria in 2016. Three of his brothers, Khaled, Mahmoud and Amer, all of whom were involved in the 2017 plot, went into exile in Australia at different times.

While Khaled and Mahmoud both had extremist inclinations, Amer was often criticized by his brothers for not being a conservative Muslim, with the Le Monde report saying that he used to drink alcohol and do drugs.

The operation

From Raqqa, Hassan orchestrated sending spare parts for manufacturing the bomb to Australia through Turkey. Mahmoud and Khaled bought the additional parts, such as cables, batteries, and a timer. They were then taught how to assemble them.

The brothers didn’t plan to involve Amer, but he mentioned he was flying back to Lebanon through the UAE to visit family, making him the best candidate.

Lebanese-Australian man, Amer Khayat, holds his Australian passport as he is released from Lebanon's Roumieh prison in September 20, 2019. (Reuters)
Lebanese-Australian man, Amer Khayat, holds his Australian passport as he is released from Lebanon's Roumieh prison in September 20, 2019. (Reuters)

Driving him to the airport, the two brothers asked for a favor – delivering a package to family members in Lebanon. According to the investigation, they did not mind him dying in the operation, he was, after all, a source of shame to their family.

Tarek and Basil Hassan contacted the Australian brothers at each step, asked them to find something they could place the explosives in and taught them how to calculate the timing of the bomb.

The explosive meat mincer was placed in Amer’s hand luggage.

Excess luggage and “luck”

The only thing that stopped passengers on that flight from dying was a passenger service agent, who found that Amer had more weight in his hand luggage than he should. Fearing that the device be discovered, the plotters took the device out of their brother’s hand luggage.

According to the investigation, the Danish intelligence services believe the exceeding of the weight limit was a stroke of luck.

Nevertheless, the terrorist conspiracy was one of the most ambitious and innovative terrorist plots ever seen, according to the Combating Terrorism Center.

Also read: ISIS successor still at large, over two dozen defeat-ISIS operations: Pentagon

“The emphasis Hassan placed on operational security doubtlessly contributed to the plot not being detected until after the aborted attempt to get the bomb on the plane,” the article said.

Danish terrorism studies scholar Tore Hamming observed that “The Sydney aviation plot … illustrates the role of Basil Hassan. Hassan can to some extent be labelled the Khalid Sheikh Muhammad of the Islamic State due to his alleged role in ExOps and his ambition to innovate.”

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