Terrorism - Analysis of Pan Am 103 and the Tokyo Subway

Terrorism - Analysis of Pan Am 103 and the Tokyo Subway

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Lessons from Pan Am 103 and the Tokyo Subway

   ABSTRACT: Terrorists were very active long before September 11. This essay reviews the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland and the March 1995 gas attack in the Tokyo subway. The results of these terrorist acts, who carried them out, how they were carried out, and what can be done in the future to prevent such incidents from happening again are all investigated.


On December 21, 1988 the world was shocked as a Boeing 747 Pan American Airlines flight from London's Heathrow Airport to New York City crashed in a fiery ball due to a terrorist-placed bomb in the forward luggage compartment. After the explosion the plane proceeded to break up into three different parts. The wings broke off separately, as did the main fuselage, and the first-class/cockpit area. All 259 people on-board, from twenty-one different countries, died, as well as eleven people of the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, where the plane was downed.


In a remarkably short amount of time after the crash hundreds of people were on the scene doing the initial investigative work that would eventually lead to finding the crash's cause as well as the perpetrators of the offense. Over one thousand police officers were dispensed on to the scene, over six hundred military personnel, morticians from the Royal Air Force, and teams of investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. State Department, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Boeing Company, and Pratt and Whitney. These people started surveying a land area that was seemingly too large to negotiate, 845 square miles. The United States also moved some of their extremely sophisticated spy satellites over southern Scotland to give the investigating teams high-resolution reconnaissance photographs of the area being searched.


The investigators were able to figure out fairly quickly that what brought down Flight 103 was a bomb, as it had all of the tell-tale signs, including no emergency or distress calls prior to the crash. The bomb had been concealed inside a Toshiba radio, which was placed inside a hard-sided Samsonite suitcase that had been designated as an unaccompanied bag. The suitcase had been transferred from an Air Malta feeder flight out of Valletta.


By June of 1990, six months after the

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explosion, the experts in the field had determined, through the piecing together of all the little bits of evidence they were able to recover, that the bomb had been activated by a sophisticated electronic timing device that had been manufactured by a Swiss firm. It was also discovered that the timer had been delivered to Libyan terrorist officials in 1985. Earlier in 1988, in fact, two Libyan terrorists had been arrested in Senegal with a timer identical to the one with the bomb on Flight 103. The Swiss firm that manufactured the timer, designated the MST-13, sold its entire production lot to the Libyan External Security Organization. The bomb itself consisted of less than 500 grams of PETN and RDX, the two explosive elements in the plastic explosive Semtex-H. Semtex is the classic plastic explosive. It is putty-like in nature in that it can be molded and formed however one pleases. It is also very stable and requires a charge to set it off. This makes is perfect for an operation like the downing of an airliner because it will not explode by accident before the terrorist wants it to.


Another important point that should be noted is that the timer was set to go off approximately one hour after departure. The plane, though, took off 25-30 minutes late. If the plane had in fact taken off on time it would have, in all likelihood, crashed into the sea. This made a significant difference. First, it caused the death of eleven people in the town of Lockerbie who were killed by debris from the falling aircraft. Second, it made retrieval and investigation much easier. If the plane crashed into the water finding the pieces and bringing them up to land would have been a great ordeal in and of itself. This problem of investigating a crash into the sea has been well illustrated by the problems in the investigation of the TWA 800 crash this past summer.


All of the facts that were collected pointed clearly and directly to the Libyan government to have been the ones who carried out the terrorist bombing. This was made official by the United States Department of Justice in November of 1991 when the first indictments for the Pan Am bombing were handed down. In the indictments three points about the episode were specifically stressed, "The bombers were Libyan operatives. This was a Libyan Government operation from start to finish. We hold the Libyan Government responsible for the murder of 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988." In addition to the above, the Justice Department also stressed in its indictments that, "the bombing of Pan Am 103 was not a rogue operation." Two specific men were sited as being the ones that carried out the actual bombing. These were Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi, a high-ranking Libyan intelligence official, and Lamin Fhimah, who formerly managed the Libyan Arab Airlines office in Malta. Al-Maqrahi was directly linked to the Swiss firm that manufactured the timing devices. The United States also officially condemned Libya for its continued use of terrorism as a part of its governmental policy.


As for the important matter of how to counter such attacks, a number of technological devices have been created. The first one is the 101 Z Machine, developed by American Science and Engineering Inc. This device would be installed in airports and would work both by using conventional X-rays and the backscatter from those X-rays. What X-ray backscatter reveals are items with a low atomic number and a high density, such as plastic explosives. Another device is the IDS 4000 image processing machine. The IDS 4000 assists the human operators of the X-ray machines in their interpretation of the 256 different shades of gray that are shown on their monitor. Plastic explosives appear as nearly transparent on X-ray machines and the purpose of the IDS 4000 is to help in the identification of such explosives. The price for an IDS 4000 is relatively cheap, as they run about $11,000.


In March of 1995 terror struck Tokyo, Japan, but in a different form than the terror of Lockerbie. Just after eight in the morning toxic gas was leaked in three subway lines by members of a cult. In the frantic scene of people trying to save themselves, ten people lost their lives and another 5,500 were injured.


The gas that was used in the attack, sarin, is one of the most toxic known to man. It is five hundred times more toxic than cyanide, which is the gas used in carrying out capital punishment. Sarin was invented by the Nazis in the late-1930's and used extensively by them in their death camps. Sarin can be absorbed two different ways, either through the skin as a liquid, or it can be inhaled when it is in a gaseous state. Effects range from minor ones, such as headaches or dizziness, to more serious ones such as organ and nerve damage and paralysis. Sarin is quite lethal, as only 0.01 milligrams of sarin per one kilogram of body weight classifies as a fatal dose. Death is brought about by asphyxiation. Sarin is also a relatively easy to produce chemical weapon. The ingredients are available from any chemical supply company and include such things as organic phosphorus, sodium fluoride, and alcohol.


The three lines that it was leaked onto all converge on the central Kasumigaseki train station, which is opposite most of Japan's government ministries and adjacent to the imperial palace. It is also across from the police station. What this shows is that the attack was very much a symbolic one, showing the Japanese people that they are not safe and can be injured no matter how close the authorities may be.


The religious cult that carried out the attack, Aum Shinri Kyo, is led by Shoko Asahara. Asahara is a forty year-old man that believes that Armageddon is coming in 1997 and claims that he can levitate at will. Aum Shinri Kyo has 10,000 members in Japan as well as groups in the United States, Russia, Germany, and Sri Lanka. Most new members are young and all new members are required to donate all assets to the group and to sever all ties with their family.


Since gas attacks have become the newest way to carry out terrorism, counter-terrorist devices have been developed to combat such attacks. One such device has the appearance of a smoke detector. Such an item would detect even trace amounts of toxic chemicals in the air and notify the proper people. These detectors could be installed in any areas that were deemed "high risk," such as airports, subways, and government buildings. Another item is a bio-detector that consists of a mouse's nerve cell that is placed on an electronic chip. Nerve cells go about a change when there is a gas attack, so if there was a change in properties of the mouse cell it would set off a trigger in the chip and a signal would be sent, alerting people to the presence of a gas attack. Many other devices have also been developed, such as a hand-held detector that not only detects the gas but also identifies the agent and the quantity. Such items are very expensive, though, running in the neighborhood of $50,000.


Terrorism seems to be here to stay and whether it is carried out by governments, political terrorist groups, or religious cults, it must be dealt with. Future tragedies are sure to occur, but hopefully their destructiveness can be lessened, and sometimes even averted, thanks to new technological developments by counter-terrorists to fight against the technological developments of the terrorists.



Emerson, Steve and Brian Duffy. "Pan Am 103 The German Connection." New York Times Magazine March 18, 1990: 28-33, 72-74, 84-87.

Emerson, Steve and Brian Duffy. "The High-Tech Terrorist." New York Times Magazine 18 March 1990: 84.

Hughes, David. "Hand-Sized Unit Finds Nerve Gas." Aviation Week & Space Technology 12 June 1995: 163.

Kato, Hidenaka. "Nerve Gas: A New Terrorism." World Press Review May 1995: 6.

"Pan Am Flight 103 Indictments." US Department of State Dispatch 14 November 1991.

"Relatives of Pan Am 103 Victims Call For Improved Bomb Detection Techniques." Aviation Week & Space Technology 23 July 1990: 85.

Tharp, Mike. "Death in the Subway." U.S. News & World Report 3 April 1995: 34-40.

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