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Posted by on Dec 27, 2009 in Society, War | 7 comments

Airport Screening Machines’ “Achilles Heel”: If Detonator Worked Northwest Flight 253 Plane Would Have Come Down

Amid all of the inspiring stories about heroism on Northwest flight 253 when a terrorist tried to set off a detonator, officials now say there are two sobering facts:

FACT ONE: The fact that suspect Umar farouk Abdulmutallab got on board with the device indicates a serious — potential grave — achilles heel in existing scanning machines, precisely the kind of achilles heel Al Qaeda likes to find and test. Which this failed terrorist attack was.

FACT TWO: The device had enough in it to have brought down the plane, if the device had worked. That doesn’t take away from the heroism stories, but there would have been no heroism stories if the device had gone off.

ABC NEWS (which has excellent coverage on this story) reports:

Officials now say tragedy was only averted on Northwest flight 253 because a makeshift detonator failed to work properly.

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to bring down the Northwest jet, which had nearly 300 people aboard, had the detonator not failed, and the nation’s outdated airport screening machines may need to be upgraded.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 third time is the “charm”?

In related developments:

  • Travel restrictions have been tightened.
  • In the wake of the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials on Saturday imposed new restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

    ….The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

    But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps.

    Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines. That was already the case in some airports Saturday, in the United States and overseas.

  • Travelers can expect that security checks of the past could seem like no security checks compared to what may come in the short term until equipment is fine tuned.
  • The Christmas Day attempt to bring down a wide-body jet also raises questions of whether full-body scanners will ultimately be needed for effective airport security, despite privacy concerns about security officials getting a revealing look at our bodies. In several instances around the world, terrorists have used their bodies, not their bags, to transport explosives. Drug smugglers figured that out a long time ago. While it may be there were simply blatant security failures along Mr. Mudallad’s trip from Nigeria through Amsterdam, it’s more likely he simply walked through undetected.

    And so something more than metal detectors may be needed to check passengers. More pat-downs are likely, too. In the past, passengers on U.S.-bound flights have been subjected to more random screening at gates and during the boarding process. You can expect to see that return after the Northwest Flight 253 incident.

    But is there any comfort to be found in this terrorism attempt? Sure–it didn’t work. That may have just been luck, but more likely the security regime that is in place forced the device’s maker into tradeoffs and compromises that made the explosive less effective and harder to detonate. As with the 100-milliliter liquid restriction, the goal of security is not to apprehend every ounce of dangerous liquids, but to make it too difficult to build a bomb that will work on a jet. That may well have been the case this time. The terrorist, or terrorists, had to compromise the effectiveness of the device in order to sneak it through security.

  • Some such as UK’s Daily Telegraph see this incident as warning wake up call to the West:
  • Serious questions need to be asked about the inadequacies in security that allowed a would-be suicide bomber to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit. The incident has not only embarrassed intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic, but has also provided an insight into how formidable and sophisticated the terrorist threat has become. Even the “liquid bomb” plotters, whose failed conspiracy provoked the present restrictions on fluids carried by air travellers, did not succeed in boarding an aircraft. The Detroit suspect did so, leaving several countries and institutions with a lot of explaining to do….

    …..The obvious parallel here is with Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”, who similarly reached the final stage before catastrophe – the attempted detonation of a device aboard an aircraft. Any such terrorist success would take a terrible toll in human life. Unrelenting vigilance is needed if further atrocities are to be averted. Last Friday’s close call was a warning that we in the West have to raise our game.

  • Sen. Joe Lieberman is calling for pre-ememptive military action against Yemen — and notes that administration officials are eyeing this threat.
  • Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) Sunday said that Yemen could be the ground of America’s next overseas war if Washington does not take preemptive action to root out al-Qaeda interests there.

    Lieberman, who helms the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the U.S. will have to take an active approach in Yemen after multiple recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. were linked back to the Middle Eastern nation.

    The Connecticut senator said that an administration official told him that “Iraq was yesterday’s war, Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

    And, once again, special note needs to be made of The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder who (again) offers a thoughtful and polemics-free take on why some things are unfolding as they are. Why hasn’t Obama issued a statement himself? Ambinder notes:

    There is a reason why Obama hasn’t given a public statement. It’s strategy.

    Here’s the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

    He recounts how after the incident there were comments frome some federal and White House officials, plus details on how Obama was monitoring the situation:

    But an in-person Obama statement isn’t needed; Indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic (because Obama usually DOESN’T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation.

    Obama of course will say something at some point. Had the terrorist blown up the plane, it;s safe to assume that Obama would no longer be in Hawaii. In either case, the public will need presidential fortification at some point. But Obama is willing to risk the accusation that he is “soft” on terrorism or is hovering above it all, or is just not to be bothered (his “head’s in the sand, “golfing comes first,” )in order to advance what he believes is the proper collective response to a failed act of terrorism.

    Let the authorities do their work. Don’t presume; don’t panic the country; don’t chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don’t give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

    In a sense, he is projecting his calm on the American people, just as his advisers are convinced that the Bush Administration projected their panic and anger on the self-same public eight years ago.

    It’s a tough and novel approach — and not at all (as they say in Britain) party political — because the standard political script would have the President and his Attorney General appearing everywhere as soon as possible.