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.
David B Robertsis a doctoral student at the University of Durham, UK. He has written for Daily News Egypt, the Kuwait Times and Asia News Online. His blog can be found at www.thegulfblog.com