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Plotting the trajectory of airline terrorism 30, December 2009

Posted by in American ME Relations.
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This article appeared in The Daily News Egypt on the 29/12/2009.

The terrorist who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day did so with 80g of explosives. Considering that 100g of this explosive — pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN — is capable of destroying a car, as one expert put it, 80g would easily have ripped a gaping hole in the fuselage. Whether the pilot could have subsequently landed the plane is a moot point. What is of infinitely more concern is the next attack and what methods it will employ. One way of pondering such questions is to place this latest attempted outrage in its historical context and to try to extrapolate some kind of evolutionary trajectory.

Christmas Eve 1994 saw the first hijacking of a plane where the intention was to use it as a weapon. Thankfully, the Air France plane hijacked in Algiers landed in Marseilles on Christmas Day where it was stormed by French GIGN Special Forces ending the siege and killing the terrorists, thwarting their plans to blow up the plane over the Eiffel Tower. In 1995, thanks to an accidental explosion at an apartment in the Philippines, Operation Bonjika was discovered and stopped. This was an audacious attempt to hijack and destroy up to 12 intercontinental airplanes with American affiliation over the ocean. The terrorists planned to use liquid explosives stored in contact-lens solution bottles. Had they succeeded, up to 4,000 people could have been killed.

These examples of terrorism are all but forgotten in the face of the 9/11 attacks where all it took were some box cutters. These attacks ushered in a new era of terrorism and a new era of countermeasures. Yet, come 22nd December 2001 and Richard Reid attempted to circumvent these by concealing explosives in his shoes. He too was — thankfully — thwarted and this led to all shoes being x-rayed in American airports and many out with the US too. 2006 saw the arrest of several British citizens when their plan to blow up several transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives was discovered. This resulted in liquids being banned from being taken on planes.

There is an obvious pattern of after the fact catch up in these examples by the security transport authorities. Nevertheless, the failure of these three post-9/11 attacks appears to have relied more on luck than any particular countermeasure.

In the past week, hand baggage has been restricted, GPS positioning entertainment features are being switched off, passengers are not being allowed to get up in the last half hour of the flight and blankets are not allowed to be kept on laps. These measures may well contribute to thwarting someone trying to do exactly the same things as previous failed attempts, but authorities need to seek to plan for the next, modified attack.

At the end of August 2009 a terrorist came to Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef to give himself up, as is often the custom. After going through security and sitting across from Prince Nayef for several minutes the man then exploded, his arm getting embedded in the ceiling. Nayef emerged with only a scratch on his cheek and his hand. It soon transpired that the man had fashioned presumably the world’s first ‘bum bomb’ and had anywhere up to 500g of explosives secreted inside himself. Therefore, when the explosives were detonated, the overstuffed couch and his body absorbed practically all of the energy.

It would be wrong to think that terrorists are intrinsically either irrational or stupid because of what they do. The cliché that they are all poor, uneducated men is also not true:  the recent would-be bomber had a degree from one of the UK’s best institutions. It would be prudent to assume, therefore, that it is but a matter of time before PETA explosives and the idea of secreting them inside one’s body are married together.

In recent days many people have been highlighting the efficacy of full-body scanners. They are quicker and arguably more effective than methods currently employed but the machines are quite expensive (around $170,000) and civil liberties groups are vocally against their introduction. In the most recent example, it is likely (though not certain) that such a scanner would have seen the small package near hidden in the terrorist’s clothing but would be highly unlikely to see anything inside a body cavity.

The only way to avoid this persistent game of attack, response, change, attack, is to stop thinking purely technologically. Of course, scanners and the like will be a key way of mitigating such threats, but whatever technological impediment is placed in front of a terrorist will — eventually — be circumvented, necessity being the mother of all invention. In short, the human part of the equation must not be forgotten and ugly arguments about profiling need to be rehashed. I am not referring to blanket ‘stop him, he’s got a beard’ profiling, but nuanced profiling linked up with already existing intelligence information.

I would suggest that a well-trained official, versed in subtle interrogation and questioning techniques and cognisant of his past would have, at the very least, remanded the terrorist on flight 253 to stricter security measures. Needless to say, this is no panacea and it would be expensive and problematic to train sufficient security staff, but a more nuanced approach is needed as surely with three failed attempts in recent years our luck has nearly run out.



1. Abu 'Argala - 30, December 2009

An excellent post – generals are always fighting the last war.

One radical approach to “fighting” terrorism might be to consider it less a disease than a symptom of a disease. Then the cure is perhaps not so much enhanced security measures (though these clearly would be needed) but as well careful sober thought about foreign policy – political, military and economic.

The old saw about unconventional warfare is that the solution is largely dependent on political not military means – unless of course one’s preferred solution is a “final” solution.

Another hopefully relevant thoughtoid: There’s also an interesting concept called “security theater” – about measures which create the illusion of enhanced security. Which in some cases have actually been proven to improve security, e.g., false CTV cameras in stores reducing shoplifting.

davidbroberts - 30, December 2009

Wallahi…you took the words right out of my mouth. I couldn’t agree more. I think one of the worst things that W Bush did (quite a choice, I know) was to go on about how ‘they’ hate ‘us’ because of notions like freedom and democracy. Whilst some militant-type people may not like these notions this is patently not why they ‘hate us’; instead, it’s practical, concrete US policies towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine etc etc.

Bush’s obfuscation has woefully muddied this topic and abrogated his own/US foreign policy from any responsibility and it’s left an indelible mark. Ask most Americans, I would suggest, as to why they are being attacked and you’ll get a banal pastiche of Bush’s exculpatory and misleading explanations.

2. Abu 'Argala - 30, December 2009

If “they” hate us for our freedoms and/or because of some posited “clash of civilizations”, then we are entirely innocent – no action of ours is even an indirect or contributing cause. It is solely our righteousness which has provoked their enmity. In such a case, our only recourse is the just fight.

As to responsibility for this view, while the former Administration certainly articulated these ideas, it did not invent them.

We have a very developed national theology. It is one shared by all our mainstream politicians. Or enough of them so that the hand full of dissenters and non conformists does not matter.

The central postulate of this national “religion” is that the God has chosen the USA specially to do His work here on earth.

There are two logical consequences:
(1) We are always right and always act from the noblest of motives.
(2) Those who hold a different view and oppose our noble endeavors are clearly either tremendously stupid or evil. In some cases a combination of both.

Hence, our differences with Iran are not the case of competing national interests but a conflict between the forces of light and darkness (perhaps apt given the geographical setting).

Differences with Europe in 2003 are not differences of opinion, but reflections of the sad defects in the moral fiber of those countries and the exhaustion of their “old” European civilizations. Our just anger accompanied by ridicule for their weakness.

There’s more to the pathology — a key element of which is a sad failure to understand foreign societies. This is not just a case of a lack of appreciation for cultural differences, but more importantly the view that we can somehow get them to adopt policies against their national will or interest.

One manifestly silly example is the idea that if this or that “bad” foreign leader is removed and replaced with a “wise one” (meaning one who follows our line) then that new ruler can impose a policy that the majority in his country do not want. And that is the reason – among other factors – how we get involved with some rather “interesting” characters as allies.

3. davidbroberts - 30, December 2009

All excellent points. Again, I couldn’t agree with you more. I find notions of American exceptionalism particularly interesting and persuasive.

Thanks for your continuing insightful comments.

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[…] security, Ben Gurion, Israel, Israelification, profiling trackback I wrote an article earlier this week for the Daily News Egypt looking at the trajectory of would-be suicide aviation hijackings. I […]

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[…] the ‘pants bomber’ I wrote an article on this exact topic. I suggested that it is but a matter of time before PETN – the mostly undetectable, […]

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