Friday, December 25, 2009

Attempted Terrorist Attack on Northwest Flight 253

Early this afternoon, I saw something online about how someone tried to set off a firecracker on an airliner. Thinking this was a prank, I went upstairs to read and then fell asleep. Now it turns out the story is a major Christmas day terrorist threat, and is likely to cause a new round of leftist denialism and handwringing. Thers, at Whiskey Fire, dismissing the episode as mere "tiny bombs," suggests this is great news for conservatives, who'll "wet their pants in an ecstasy of hysterical screeching." But late news reports indicate a threat of potentially catastrophic proportions. From the New York Times, "Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device on Jet."

A Nigerian man tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was “an attempted act of terrorism,” according to a White House official who declined to be identified.

The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.

Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down.“This was the real deal,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who was briefed on the incident and said something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. “This could have been devastating,” Mr. King said.
It turns out that the suspect is alleged to have ties to al Qaeda, and was previously listed on U.S. government databases. See, The Hill, "King: Airline bombing suspect had 'significant terrorist connections'." Also, at USA Today, "Al-Qaeda Linked to Failed Detroit Plane Attack."

The Los Angeles Times
reports how the suspect attempted to detonate the device:
The suspect smuggled a powder aboard the plane in a container taped to his leg, the official said. Covering himself with a blanket to hide his actions, he used a syringe to inject a liquid into the powder, and a fire resulted from the combustible mix, according to the official, who did not identify the materials.
One key takeaway from the event is that the "threat of attack on an aircraft remains viable" (although I had discounted threats to airliners in my previous analysis of "Global Challenges in 2010"). And Larry Johnson looks at the vulnerability of current airport security screening procedures:
Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air commented on the incident noting, “He may just be a nut who smuggled fireworks on the plane, but still, that leaves the question of how he managed to do that.”

Well Ed, here’s how:

Let’s start with the fact that there is no screening system or requirement in place at international airports that will detect explosives. If the preliminary reports that the Nigerian brought firecrackers on the plane that’s not surprising at all. Fireworks normally do not contain any metal and will pass undetected through any of the walk thru metal detectors used throughout the world. Here we are 8 years after the 9-11 attacks and we still employ security detection systems incapable of detecting explosives.

Then there is the laughable TSA restrictions on liquids you can bring on board a plane. Here’s the TSA policy:

Make Your Trip Better Using 3-1-1

3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume) ; 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin. One-quart bag per person limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring. 3.4 ounce (100ml) container size is a security measure.

Consolidate bottles into one bag and X-ray separately to speed screening.

Be prepared. Each time TSA searches a carry-on it slows down the line. Practicing 3-1-1 will ensure a faster and easier checkpoint experience.

3-1-1 is for short trips. If in doubt, put your liquids in checked luggage.

Declare larger liquids ....

Truth is you can get at least one pound and two ounces worth of liquids into a quart bag. So try this scenario on for size. Two terrorists traveling together pack their clear plastic quart bags with six 3 ounce bottles. That is 18 ounces each. Let’s also assume they put a binary liquid explosive in the bottles, such as PLX. And they have a small amount of TATP to use as a booster charge.

Under this scenario two terrorists working together can bring more than 1 kilo worth of high explosives onto a plane undetected. There is no required system in place that will detect the explosives in their TSA approved “clear plastic quart bags.” So Ed, you should not be surprised with the firecrackers. We still do not have a security technology in place at all airports that can prevent such a threat.

Eight years ago Richard Reid, an Al Qaeda operative, boarded a plane in London wearing shoes packed with TATP. He’s lucky he did not blow himself up just walking to the plane because the explosive is so volatile. He tried to light his shoes but, because he had pissed on his laces, they were too damp to light. His fellow passengers beat the crap out of him and prevented a terrorist incident.

So here we are 8 years later and we still have done nothing to prevent the threat from an explosive. I fully acknowledge that it is a threat we rarely see. But that excuse will not fly if a terrorist group decides to run the risk of blowing airplanes out of the air. Let’s face it, we never learn.

On that cheery note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

More at Memeorandum.


SR said...

got that one also:

Rick Derris said...

Here's what I don't understand: why don't these criminal geniuses light their shoes or mix their chemicals in the bathroom? Not that I want them to succeed of course but what am I missing here?