Sunday, December 27, 2009

Northwest Flight 253: Near Miss on Christmas Weekend

Northwest Flight 253, the airliner with Delta markings on the outside and a wannabe martyr on the inside, had a very close call this Christmas weekend.

News reports are filled with "allegedly" and statements from 'unnamed sources,' but the general outline of what happened is fairly clear.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, got seat 19A and, when the airliner was in American airspace, ignited a device that was sewn into his underwear.

These days, when airline passengers hear a series of pops and see smoke and flames coming from a fellow-passenger, there'll be more than a casual interest taken. Happily, Jasper Schuringa and others dealt with the fire, and made sure that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab didn't have any more unpleasant surprises for them.

It looks like this was a near miss. Mr. Abdulmutallab had either done his homework quite well, or had good advice.
"...A former Homeland Security official told Fox News that Abdulmutallab's seat selection does not appear to be accidental, and that he was sitting in one of the two most vulnerable parts of the plane. The suspect was sitting in seat 19A, which is over the fuel tanks, atop the wing and next to the skin of the aircraft.

"There is a high likelihood an explosion could be accelerated by the fuel tank, the official said — and that it could damage the plane's structure and puncture the skin, bringing down the aircraft...."
An affidavit says that the device Mr. Abdulmutallab was carrying, and tried with limited success to set off, contained PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which The New York Times says is a substance used by Richard "shoe bomb" Reid, back in 2001. According to Reuters and, for what it's worth, a comment to a New York Times article, Reid used TATP, or triacetone triperoxide. Well, I supposed Reid could have tried using both substances.

Northwest Flight 253: Uneventful, With One Exception

"...Passenger accounts and law enforcement officials describe the events around the Christmas Day attack this way:

"On December 24, Abdulmutallab traveled from Nigeria to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit with an explosive device attached to his body.

"Part of the device contained PETN, or pentaerythritol, and was hidden in a condom or condom-like bag just below Abdulmutallab's torso. ... Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid.

"As the plane approached Detroit, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for 20 minutes. When he returned to his seat, he complained of an upset stomach and covered himself with a blanket.

"Passengers heard a popping noise, similar to a firecracker. They smelled an odor, and some passengers saw Abdulmutallab's pant leg and the wall of the airplane on fire. Passengers and the flight crew used blankets and fire extinguishers to quell the flames. They restrained Abdulmutallab, who later told a flight attendant he had an 'explosive device' in his pocket. He was seen holding a partially melted syringe...."

"They're all Muslims"? Hardly

There's a certain intellectual convenience to sorting humanity out into a few simple categories, and deciding that one or two of the groups are to blame for just about everything. When I was growing up, it was 'the commies' for quite a few Americans. Since then, it's been the military-industrial complex, big oil, and - more recently - Islam. (January 14, 2009)

I don't buy it.

In this case, since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently told investigators that he's connected with Al Qaeda, it looks like the airline-disaster-that-wasn't is connected with Islamic terrorism.

But that doesn't mean that all Muslims are terrorists. Any more than the KKK burning crosses a few decades back proves that all Christians are racists. It's simpler to see the world that way - but I don't think it's more accurate.

Wannabe Terrorist Outed by His Father

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, deserves a great deal of credit, I think. I've got four surviving children, and may have some idea as to what an emotional wrench it would be, to tell authorities that I believed one of them was likely to commit a crime. Or, in the case of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab's son, an act of terror.

Hats off to Alhaji Umaru Mutallab: that sort of thing takes guts.
"...Mr. Abdulmutallab's name was not unknown to American authorities. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker, recently told officials at the United States Embassy in Nigeria that he was concerned about his son's increasingly extremist religious views.

"As a result of his father's warning, federal authorities in Washington opened an investigative file and Mr. Abdulmutallab's name ended up in the American intelligence community's central repository of information on known or suspected international terrorists...."
(The New York Times)

Somebody Oughta Done Something!

Monday morning quarterbacking, 20-20 hindsight, whatever you want to call it, seems to be part of human nature. After something's happened, there's seldom a shortage of people who know what should have been done - and would have, presumably, if only they'd have been in charge.

People who actually hold responsible positions have the same limitations that everyone else has: they don't know what's happened, until it happens. In this case, nobody can go back to the loading gate for Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam and stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding.

That's already happened.

It's possible that someone dropped the ball - seriously - on the warning that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father gave. President Obama's doing what an executive should do under the circumstances:
"...[White House press secretary Robert] Gibbs said the President, who is vacationing in Hawaii, aims 'to ensure that there is no clog in the bureaucratic plumbing of information that might be gathered.'..."
(New York Daily News)
From the sounds of it, quite a few members of Congress want to get their names involved with probes of what happened, too. When Capitol Hill gets done with them, the people getting investigated may feel like they've been targeted by mad plumbers with Roto-Rooters.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's background is emerging, too: although coverage seems to be fairly matter-of-fact, with headlines like "Sources: Terror suspect is son of bank executive, attended college" (CNN)

Two and a half years ago, the scion of a well-to-do family turning to terrorism would have been, I think, more puzzling. As I wrote, back in 2007:
"...When someone wearing explosive underwear was somehow related to poor people, the mass-murder-suicide perpetrator looked a lot like a revolutionary in the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

"When a doctor pops out of a flaming jeep in an air terminal, things get complicated...."
(July 3, 2007)

Bottom Line: Nobody Killed, and A Whole Lot of Review to Do

I'm no fan, as a rule, of hot-shot Congressional investigations. (March 22, 2009) There's a strong whiff of politics and grandstanding in too many of them. And, too often, an appalling degree of cluelessness.

Still, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - under ideal conditions - would not have been allowed on Northwest Flight 253 with that bomb. And it looks like, somewhere between an American embassy and a boarding gate, his father's warning got misplaced. Or misinterpreted. Or something.

I applaud people involved with intelligence and security when they head off incidents like this. When it looks like someone dropped the ball: I hope the problem is found - and corrected.

Next time, the wannabe martyr's bomb may work the way it was supposed to.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.