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On the ‘cargo bombs’ 1, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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The constant battle between terrorists and security measures continues. The recent discovery of PETN explosives in two packages in Dubai and East Midlands airports and the more worrying revelation from Qatar Airways that one of these bombs traveled on two passenger planes, marks the latest stage in the evolution of airplane terrorism.

After 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, powerful explosion of choice by ‘Al Qaeda’ these days – is secreted within a terrorist on a plane, just as Saudi Prince Nayef’s would-be killer attempted to do. Alas I did not factor in the notion that PETN could instead be secreted in packages. Just as well that I’m not in charge of airline security.

Reading and listening to commentaries on this latest near-outrage, one fact above all else jarred with me. There seems to be a universal acceptance that these bombs would have certainly caused these planes to crash, just as there was with the initial reporting of the ‘pants bomber’. Indeed, the often quoted statistic is that 100g of PETN could “destroy a car”. Leaving aside the imprecise nature of ‘destroying’ a car, as I wrote in reaction to this before, it is by no means certain that the ‘pants bomber’s’ bomb would have ripped a hole in the side of an aircraft; moreover, a BBC documentary team recreated the would-be explosion and concluded that it would clearly not have punched a hole in the side of the aircraft. Instead, the aircraft’s skin would have absorbed the explosion and ‘rippled’; diverting the thrust of the explosion in all directions.

As yet I have not come across any reports of how much explosive was in these bombs, though it does look like more than 100g. So while I am certainly not saying that it is not an important and potentially deadly event, all I ask is that a bit of moderation and accuracy is used in forming base ‘facts’ and opinions.

It has been pointed out that cargo planes are not subject to the same kinds of rigorous security measures as passenger planes, at times, as if this is some kind of industry-wide oversight. I disagree. Not only does the sheer number of packages make such a system difficult to implement, but packages are packages and people are people. One can’t expect the same security standards for both; it’s just a brutal fact (for the crew of a cargo plane, that it).

As for the notion that the cargo planes could be involved in a Lockerbie-type tragedy, this is far from a certain proposition, indeed, it may even be unlikely to happen. Packages are routinely re-routed. There is practically no way to know that a package from Sanaa will travel to Doha, Dubai, London and to New York; it could go by any number of different routes over a varying amount of time within set limits. Accurately judging that the cargo plane is ‘over London’, as many newspapers seem to be inferring when it can be used as a bomb, is surely practically impossible. At the speeds that planes travel with large distances covered in seconds and given that a pilot – barring a spectacular whole-system collapse – would divert a plane away from a populated center at the worst-case scenario, it seems highly unlikely to me that such a long-shot would be undertaken. Of course, as Lockerbie grimly proved, sometimes the most unlikely and unlucky of scenarios does indeed come to fruition. Again, I am not trying to discount the possibility or the danger of such an event, but simply want to put it into some perspective.



Pants bomber ‘would not have brought down the plane’ 4, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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A BBC2 documentary has concluded that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who tried to explode a bomb on a US bound transatlantic flight over Christmas, did not have enough explosives to bring the plane down.

After meticulously recreating the crash using the exact amount of pentaerythritol (PETN – the explosive used) and detonating it in the same place in the place as Abdulmutallab, an air accident investigator concluded that the amount of explosives used

was nowhere near enough needed to rupture the skin of a passenger plane.

The key seems to be the relative flexibility of the plane’s skin. A harder more ridged outer shell might well have cracked, but modern design means that the strength of the explosion rippled out across the hull, as clearly shown on the video, dissipating its strength.

This conclusion will reassure passengers and plane operators alike. It is also something of a surprise. Many (including me) expected that even a small amount of PETN, enough to destroy vehicles, would rip through a plane’s thin fuselage with ease. It is nice to be proven wrong, though I’ll be on the lookout for analysis of these findings from more knowledgeable people on plane safety than I.

They did conclude, however, that at least the passenger sitting next to the would-be bomber would have certainly been killed and that the panic and trauma of eviscerated, flying body-parts inside the cabin would have been a horrifying experience. Yet, ceteris paribus, this appears to be a good-news story.