As federal officials scrambled to find out more about yesterdays failed terrorist attack on an airplane, and to tighten airport security — and as one Republican reacted immediately by trying to politicize it before he reportedly even was briefed on the facts — experts are now pondering a serious new question:
Did the failed attack on a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight arriving from Amsterdam signal terrorists testing a new technique designed to circumvent airport security and blow airplaines up? CBS News reports:
U.S. counterterrorism officials are scrambling to assess a potential new threat from an explosive mixture that evaded detection aboard a Detroit-bound airliner but failed to bring down the plane.
The suspect, identified by multiple law enforcement officials as a Nigerian man named Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, claimed to have ties to al Qaeda. But while investigators try to determine the veracity of his claims, they also want to figure out exactly how the explosive device was made – and how much of a broader threat it may pose to air security.
A high-ranking law enforcement official told CBS News that the suspect apparently used a syringe to inject a chemical into powder located near his groin, a technique not seen in previous attempted attacks. It’s possible, the source said, that this incident was a test of whether the materials could pass screening and how effective they might be at causing damage.
In 2006, investigators in London uncovered a plot to use liquid-based explosives disguised in drink bottles to blow up airliners. The case prompted new restrictions on passengers carrying beverages or other liquids.
Now investigators are trying to determine whether the rules need to be tightened again, concerned that the components of the explosive device were smuggled onto the plane despite technological advances in screening and detection.
These are serious questions that need to discussed but breaking news events often stir up reactions that seem either like Saturday Live satires or seem to be real-life embodiments of how some people think partisans looking for an opening to attack the other side will react.
“It’s not surprising,” U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Holland Republican, said of the alleged terrorist attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit. … “People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration,” Hoekstra said. […]
Hoekstra hadn’t yet been briefed on the incident but said he is already calling or the Obama administration to meet with Intelligence Committee members to fully inform them about the alleged terrorism attempt at the Detroit airport.
Administration says attempted terrorist attack. No. It was a terrorist attack! Just not as successful as they (AQ) planned. about 14 hours ago from TwitterBerry
So there you have it: before anyone has established the dots that were not correctly connected, the Obama administration, FBI, CIA, TSA were all ignoring the clear signs that this was going to happen. Why if they only have the smarts that Hoekstra has, it never could have happened.
It could well turn out that officials at various levels — from elected to non elected — didn’t property put the dots together.
But Hoekstra’s sound-byte-before-you’re-even-briefed reaction was before these facts have emerged and was is indicative of the rank partisanship into which a serious issue has descended.
Meanwhile, those who are not running for election and who are trying to actually figure out what actually did happen and how to enhance security if this is indeed a new threat are taking measures:
Transportation authorities began imposing tighter security measures at airports on Saturday and ordered new restrictions governing the activities of passengers during flights as investigators conducted searches to learn more about the Nigerian engineering student accused of igniting an incendiary device aboard a Northwest Airlines jet as it landed in Detroit.
The White House declared the incident “an attempted act of terrorism.” The plane, an Airbus A330 wide-body jet with 278 passengers coming from Amsterdam, landed safely around noon on Christmas Day after passengers helped subdue the suspect.
According to a statement posted Saturday morning on Air Canada’s Web site, the Transportation Security Administration will severely limit the behavior of both passengers and crew during flights in United States airspace — restricting movement in the final hour of flight. Late Saturday morning, the T.S.A. had not yet included this new information on its own Web site.
“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”
Some others seriously looking this issue include authorities in the United Kingdom. According to the AP via Fox News, police in the UK are now looking at a variety of locations for possible clues.
In related news items:
UPDATE: Marc Ambinder has a must-read about the Obama administration and terrorism on this event. It needs to be read in entirety but here are some chunks of it:
White House officials are wary of being accused of not wanting to calling a terrorist attack a terrorist attack, but Obama wants more subtlety. He has not abandoned the means used to attack terrorists: targeted terrorist killings, aggressive foreign intelligence collection, military drone strikes in countries ranging from Somalia to Yemen. However, Obama believes that the way in which the country responds to the phenomenon of terrorism — the way we try find the joints of an amorphous subject and cut at them — is integral to the efficacious of counterterrorism policies.
Today, within a few hours of the Delta/Northwest Airlines flight touching down in Detroit, a senior administration official telephoned and e-mailed members of the White House press pool. This incident was, this official said, an “attempted act of terrorism.” No caution there: either the suspect admitted as much (though his admissions are and must be taken with a few grains of pepper) or his identity turned up in what has to have been an urgent search of every major intel database in the world. Obama has so far held two secure conference calls with his top officials.
He notes how the Obama adminstration has a difference perception of terrorism, then writes:
The apparatus of government is in high gear now; the airline terrorist threat alert level has been raised remains at “orange” unspecified (but obvious) security enhancements are going into effect; there will be more random “Secondary Security Screening Selection” selectees; presumably, the FBI’s legate in Holland is coordinating the investigation in Amsterdam, trying to figure out whether that country’s notoriously rigorous airport security screening process broke down. (The New York Times reports that the suspect’s name is Abdul Mudallad, and his name is on a no-fly list, and he was somehow allowed to fly. If true, the good news is that we knew about him; the bad news is that the flight manifest somehow never managed to get to the TSA intel shop or the National Counterterrorism Center, which runs international flight manifests against terrorist databases.)
I am sure that, in the minds of Obama’s top counterterrorism officials, they are trying to figure out whether it is worth putting a name to what might be three loosely connected events. Is it sufficient to say that Zazi [the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver from Denver, arrested by the FBI in September], Hasan[ the Army psychiatrist who murdered 13 soldiers and wounded 30 others at Ft. Hood in early November] and this Nigerian are all part of the same circle, the same fundamental structure? Do they represent a phase change (a human heuristic, to be sure, and always arbitrarily defined) in the nature of terrorism? These are harder questions to answer and pose harder questions to solve than the questions of who, what, when, where and how. We’ll fix the security flaw, or patch it up as best we can. What the Obama administration lacks now is a theory of terrorism. Maybe one doesn’t exist in the real world; maybe the Bush administration’s theory of terrorism exacerbated the problem. It is this administration’s challenge to explain how their approach keeps us safer, and then to demonstrate that their approach keeps us safer.
UPDATE II: The father of the terrorism suspect warned the U.S. about his son’s views, the New York Daily News reports:
The terror suspect who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane is the son of a Nigerian banker who alerted U.S. authorities to his “extreme religious views” months ago, it was reported Saturday.
The father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a former minister and chairman of First Bank in Nigeria, is shocked that his son was even was allowed to fly to the U.S., family members told the Nigerian newspaper This Day.
The dad was meeting with security officials to discuss his son, identified as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, 23.
The younger Mutallab was not on any no-fly list when he flew from Nigeria to Detroit through Amsterdam, Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.) told the Daily News.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.