Underwear Bombs

hello-kitty-men-s-underwearIt now appears that the thwarted failed Detroit terror plot was more sophisticated than initially thought.  The first reports — that the device was “incendiary rather than explosive” — appear to be mistaken. And we now think we know how the explosives got aboard the plane:  They were sewn into the terrorist’s underwear.

Richard Esposito and Brian Ross for ABC:

The plot to blow up an American passenger jet over Detroit was organized and launched by al Qaeda leaders in Yemen who apparently sewed bomb materials into the suspect’s underwear before sending him on his mission, federal authorities tell ABC News.

Investigators say the suspect had more than 80 grams of PETN, a compound related to nitro-glycerin used by the military. The so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had only about 50 grams kin his failed attempt in 2001 to blow up a U.S.-bound jet. Yesterday’s bomb failed because the detonator may have been too small or was not in “proper contact” with the explosive material, investigators told ABC News.

Investigators say the suspect, Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian student whose birthday was last Tuesday, has provided detailed information about his recruitment and training for what was supposed to be a Christmas Day suicide attack. According to the authorities, Abdulmutallab says he made contact via the internet with a radical imam in Yemen who then connected him with al Qaeda leaders in a village north of the country’s capital, Sanaa. Authorities say they do not yet know if the imam was the same one who was in contact with Maj. Nidal Hasan prior to his alleged attack on soldiers at Fort Hood last month. American-born Anwar Awlaki has lived in Yemen since 2002 and is considered a major recruiter for al Qaeda by U.S. authorities. He survived a U.S.-backed air strike earlier this week.

The suspect in the Northwest Airlines attack told FBI agents he lived with the al Qaeda leader in Yemen for about a month and was not allowed to leave as he was trained in what to do and how to do it, authorities said. At some point, according to the account, Abdulmutallab said he was joined by a Saudi citizen whom he described as an al Qaeda bomb maker. The device intended to blow up the Northwest flight was made at the location in Yemen, according to Abdulmutallab, and consisted of a six-inch packet of powder and a syringe with a liquid. Both were sewn into the student’s underwear so they would be near his testicles and unlikely to be detected, he told agents.


The al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has increasingly taken on a lead role in coordinating major terror attacks as the U.S. has disrupted al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, according to American authorities.

That last point is key from a grand strategy standpoint: Al Qaeda is a brand name, not a top-down organization in a fixed location. But, apparently, their bomb makers are not very competent. This is, of course, a good thing since neither is our security screening system.

Bomb experts say there was more than enough explosive to bring down the Northwest jet, which had nearly 300 people aboard, had the detonator not failed, and the nation’s outdated airport screening machines may need to be upgraded.

“We’ve known for a long time that this is possible,” said Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar and ABC News consultant, “and that we really have to replace our scanning devices with more modern systems.” Clarke said full body scans were needed, “but they’re expensive and they’re intrusive. They invade people’s privacy.”

Al Qaeda, said Clarke, is aware of this vulnerability in the U.S. airport security system. “They know that this is a weakness and an Achilles’ heel in our airport security system and this is the second time they’ve tried it.”

The second time, it should be noted, in eight years. Both were incompetently carried out. That doesn’t, of course, mean that a third attempt wouldn’t be successful. But I’m dubious of our ability to prevent people willing to use their testicles as a detonator from doing so.

As to Abdulmutallab’s claims, “a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said on Saturday that the suspect’s account was ‘plausible,’ and that he saw ‘no reason to discount it.'” As to the widely-circulated reports that his name was on a terror watchlist:

The suspect’s name was inserted last month into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or Tide. About 550,000 individuals are registered in the database. A subset of that is the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or T.S.D.B., which has about 400,000. By contrast, fewer than 4,000 names from the T.S.D.B. are on the “no-fly” list, and an additional 14,000 on a “selectee” list that calls for mandatory secondary screening, an Obama administration official said. At the time Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was recorded in the Tide database in November, the official said, “there was insufficient derogatory information available” to warrant putting him in the T.S.D.B., no-fly or selectee lists, and so he was not on any watch list when he boarded the plane bound for Detroit.

One wonders what criteria are used for the three lists; Santa Claus gets by with just two. But, of course, the 9/11 bombers likely wouldn’t have qualified for the naughty list, either. Oddly, the Brits seem to have a more efficient system, as they barred him from returning there earlier in the year.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that one of the things that needs to be considered in the failures is whether they were probing attacks.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Underwear bombs, probing attacks….I’m not going there.

  3. Drew says:

    Great, now we have to take off our shorts, not just our shoes.

    But seriously, I think Dave is spot on. I’ve long wondered how they would probe for the next big thing. And al-Qaeda is not beyond sacrificing a few dopes to learn about mission viability.

    Before you scoff, imagine the day when 1,000 diaper dandies with competant explosives board 1,000 planes……………

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    The last three times I have traveled internationally, I got the secondary screening. I have no idea why and each time after a short discussion with customs (usually after a long wait for the short discussion) I was free to enter the US. The only clue is I was once asked if I had ever lived in Charleston, S. Carolina. So I suspect that there are more than three lists and not all are associated with terrorism.

  5. hln says:

    There are also all of the Denied Persons/Denied Parties lists used in shipping that are maintained and distributed by different governments and US government agencies. I wonder what criteria lands a person on one of these lists but not the others.