Detroit Terror Plot
The botched attempt by one Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly somehow connected to al Qaeda, attempting to blow up a passenger jet as it made its descent into Detroit quite naturally has the blogosphere buzzing.
Richard Fernandez and Josh Marshall have good roundups of the news as it was developing throughout the evening, along with the rampant speculation that was going on. Even 18 hours or so in, the known facts are few at this point.
A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a transatlantic airplane Friday as it descended toward Detroit’s airport in what the White House called an attempted act of terrorism.
The man was quickly subdued after another passenger leapt on top of him, others on the plane said, and Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam landed safely around 1 p.m. Friday. The suspect was being treated at a hospital for burns he suffered while igniting the device, the Transportation Security Administration said.
The FBI is investigating the incident. President Obama, celebrating Christmas in Hawaii, was informed about it, a spokesman said, and he asked aides to ensure that all measures are in place to provide secure air travel.
What, he hadn’t previously asked that?! Or, more to the point, he had to ask?!
Officials said they are not prepared to raise the terrorism alert level, currently at orange — or the second-highest of five levels — for domestic and international air travel. However, the Homeland Security Department said late Friday that passengers “may notice additional screening measures, put into place to ensure the safety of the traveling public on domestic and international flights.”
Although not on the TSA’s “no-fly” list, Abdulmutallab’s name appears to be included in the government’s records of terrorism suspects, according to a preliminary review, authorities said.
You’d think there would then be a list of “screen this guy extra careful” for people like this. Especially when they’re 23-year-olds named Abdul.
Abdulmutallab has told federal investigators that he had ties to al-Qaeda and traveled to Yemen to collect the incendiary device and instructions on how to use it, according to a federal counterterrorism official briefed on the case. Authorities have yet to verify the claim, and they expect to conduct several more interviews before they determine whether he is credible, the official said.
Federal authorities have been told that Abdulmutallab allegedly had taped some material to his leg, then used a syringe to mix chemicals with the powder while on the airplane, one official said.
So, apparently, middle-aged Americans flying from, say, Washington to Detroit are screened much more thoroughly than terrorist suspects named Abdul connecting from Yemen. Lovely.
But doing so “caused him to catch on fire,” Richelle Keepman, who sat a few rows in front of Abdulmutallab, told WDIV-TV.
Another passenger on Flight 253, Syed Jafry of Holland, Mich., told the Detroit Free Press that he noticed a glow three rows ahead in the Airbus 330, then smelled smoke. The next moment, Jafri recounted, “a young man behind me jumped on” Abdulmutallab.
Jafry said there was a lengthy commotion, after which the passenger was restrained in a first-class seat as the plane continued its landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.
Officials described the device as incendiary rather than explosive, pending tests by forensics experts at the FBI. Incendiary devices generally deliver less of an impact than explosive devices. The remains of the device used are being sent to an FBI explosives lab in Quantico for analysis, federal law enforcement and airline security sources told CNN.
For many national security analysts, the Christmas Day incident called to mind the bizarre case of Richard C. Reid, a British citizen who trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Reid attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001.
And we’re still going through a ridiculous screening of our shoes thanks to this.
More from NYT:
“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.
The incident is likely to lead to heightened security during the busy holiday season.
It was unclear how the man, identified by federal officials as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, managed to get the explosive on the plane, an Airbus A330 wide-body jet carrying 278 passengers that departed from Amsterdam with passengers who had originated in Nigeria. A senior administration official said that the government did not yet know whether the man had had the capacity to take down the plane.
“We’re trying to ascertain exactly what he had and what he thought he was doing, but our sense is he wanted to wreak some havoc here and was attempting to do just that,” the official said. “Whether at the end of the day he had the ability to do that is what I think we’ll be able to pull together over the next several days as we investigate this.”
“It’s too early to say what his association is,” the counterterrorism official said. “At this point, it seems like he was acting alone, but we don’t know for sure.” Although Mr. Abdulmutallab is said to have told officials that he was directed by Al Qaeda, the counterterrorism official expressed caution about that claim, saying “it may have been aspirational.”
The incident unfolded just before noon. “There was a pop that sounded like a firecracker,” said Syed Jafry, a passenger who said he had been sitting three rows ahead of the suspect. A few seconds later, he said, there was smoke and “some glow” from the suspect’s seat and on the left side of the plane.
“There was a panic,” said Mr. Jafry, 57, of Holland, Ohio. “Next thing you know everybody was on him.” He said the passengers and the crew subdued the man.
Steven Taylor identifies a “paradigm shift in action.”
One of the reasons (if not the main reason) that the 9/11 attacks worked as well as they did (well, three of the four attacks) was that the paradigm in effect regarding airline hijackers was that hijackers want to go somewhere, so passengers and flight crews should cooperate. That paradigm shifted quickly and violently between the two attacks on the WTC/the attack on the Pentagon and the passenger revolt on United 93. Once it became clear that hijackers and the like on flights were a danger that required direct intervention, the ability of attackers to operate under the old paradigm was gone forever.
Exactly right. Starting with Flight 93, passengers realized they would die if they didn’t act. So they act. Remember, Richard Reid was thwarted, too.
Many, correctly I think, are drawing the preliminary conclusion that Peter King and others should quit grandstanding over these incidents and giving these yahoos so much attention because, when it gets down to it, they’re not that big a threat.
Obviously, people shouldn’t be lighting anything on fire inside airplanes. That said, all the big Christmas airline incident really shows to me is how little punch our dread terrorist adversaries really pack. Once again, this seems like a pretty unserious plot. And even if you did manage to blow up an airplane in mid-air, that would be both a very serious crime and a great tragedy, but hardly a first-order national security threat.
Ultimately, it does no favors to anyone to blow this sort of thing out of proportion. The United States could not, of course, be “devastated” by anything resembling this scheme. We ought to be clear on that fact. We want to send the message around the world that this sort of vile attempt to slaughter innocent people is not, at the end of the day, anything resembling a serious challenge to American power. It’s attempted murder, it’s wrong, we should try to stop it, but it’s really not much more than that.
1) Whatever it is that he did or tried to do, he didn’t hurt anybody other than himself. Let’s not get TOO scared yet of the terrors posed by liquids. (Would it be wrong to wish that more terrorists set their own legs on fire?)
2) Although he flew through international airports, which (as I understand it) all screen for liquids, security apparatuses failed to stop him from trying to do what he tried to do.
3) Passengers, on the other hand, managed to subdue him. So, our score is 1-0 passengers-security.
Despite these facts, I’m quite confident that this Sunday when I fly again the TSA will do really stupid things that won’t actually accomplish any good.
Would it be too much to ask that the security apparatus use this thing called a “brain”? If we really are in danger, using our brain is probably better than not using it. And if we aren’t in danger, using our brain will keep us from doing pointless things.
Andrew Sullivan adds:
[W]hen I watch little old ladies have their lipstick removed in the security line and my own mother all but strip-searched coming to my wedding, you wonder why someone named Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab who’s on a no-fly list could have gotten through security with an explosive contraption strapped to his leg. Or are we only as safe as the Nigerian TSA equivalent allows us to be?
I’ve flown out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and recall the security being rather tight for international flights. Indeed, it was as big a hassle as I can recall in this regard. We were cordoned off into a separate room, screened, kept quarantined for what seemed like an eternity, and then (I believe) screened again before boarding. Then again, Schiphol was my point of departure; I don’t know whether they apply these or any screening measures for those coming through on connecting flights from the developing world.
Spook86 speculates that, “Based on what we know right now, it seems likely that Al Qaida has new explosive materials that can defeat existing security measures. There is also the possibility that Mudallad had assistance in getting the device or materials on the aircraft.” Well, maybe. But most airports aren’t screening our persons for hidden syringes. They’re scanning for metal — great for detecting belt buckles and keys; not so much plastic and chemicals. So, unless they’re going to do pat-down searches of every passenger — or at least those intrusive scans that show what’s beneath everyone’s clothes — I’m not sure how you stop somebody from smuggling a few ounces of liquid aboard.
Bernard Finel thinks this is likely:
If it turns out he’s actually a known extremist, we’re going to need to think seriously about a biometric-based traveler screening system. A watch list with names rather than other identifiers gives so many false positives that we’d probably let someone named Osama bin Laden walk onto an airplane assuming it was just a coincidence.
In my non-expert opinion, that’s ridiculous overkill. We’ve had a handful of incidents in the eight years since 9/11, all of them amateurish and easily thwarted by existing security measures or other passengers. Alas, the natural pressure is for politicians like King to go before the cameras and demand ever more security theater. At least this sort of thing might actually add to our security, although at a tremendously poor security to cost ratio.
John Cole nails it. Connecting this incident with the crazy woman who has now twice managed to get to Pope Benedict — who has as good a personal security apparatus of any man on the planet — he observes, “There are no zero risk situations in life for the Pope, and there are none for you, either. I hope our elected leaders keep that in mind.”
They, of course, won’t.