Less than eight weeks ago I gave the keynote speech at the annual global aviation security summit sponsored by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Capetown, South Africa. It was a blistering speech that repeatedly pointed out the failures of the aviation security community to adopt a more informed and focused view of the al-Qaeda terrorist threat in the air and on the ground. It was pointed out that in 2001 the passengers of United airlines flight 93 and American Airlines flight 63 later that year did the global aviation security community's job of preventing aviation disaster. It appears that it has happened a third time.
The failed attempt by the former Nigerian student Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas day over Detroit was summarized to the world's aviation security experts in one PowerPoint slide. "Terrorist Anti-Aviation Strategy - KILL IN THE AIR: Suicide In-flight Bombing Remains the Preferred Method." It was also discussed during the conference that Sub-Saharan Africa is an excellent gateway for anti-aviation bombing operations against Europe and the United States. It had happened before when Libya blew up both a French and American airliner within nine months of each other by introducing explosive baggage on flights originating in Chad and Malta. Over 500 passengers were killed.
Poor security controls, the susceptibility of security officials to perform in a lackadaisical manner and extreme low pay given to screeners and guards made an infiltration attempt onto a western carrier by a relatively "clean-skin" terrorist inevitable. However, this should not have been the terrorist or the event. All of the warning signs were present. This suicide bomber should have been stopped by Nigerian authorities in his home.
In December 2001 Richard Reid, the first attempted in-flight suicide bomber, was cleared to board American Airlines Flight 63 in Paris after suspicions were raised. No effort to do more than a cursory check of his behavior and baggage and person was performed. Needless to say, no matter what the inconvenience, suspect passengers who require a second look need to be scrutinized with a fine tooth comb. When flying to Israel, El Al, an airline that suspects everyone is a terrorist, demands names, addresses, telephone numbers of family, friends and contacts of all passengers before they are issued a ticket. If a passenger is not Israeli or seems out of the ordinary these numbers are called and a series of questions are asked and cross checked. Just in case the passenger is an infiltrating terrorist with a false history they check the data against the intelligence community databases. This is generally done within 5-10 minutes. If the Israelis have a doubt, the slightest doubt, the passenger does not fly. Can such extreme measures be necessary on the whole? No. However, when a passenger travels from Lagos to Detroit with no baggage, save a small hand case; pays for a ticket in cash in a third country and is a young man who exhibits clear nervousness to the point where he is the last to get on the plane, the gate security manager should have been observant enough to call for a secondary screening.
Aviation security is far better at detecting drugs than terrorists. Political calls from the right wing to racially or religiously profile passengers are well off the mark. Current intelligence-based profiles work very well -when they are remembered. A component of intelligence based profiling is knowledge by the security staff of the globally common smuggling pathways, personalities and behaviors. Abdulalmutallab fit a clear profile when he checked in at the airport in Lagos. He had all of the hallmarks of a Nigerian drug mule. Unfortunately, Nigeria is one of the most notorious aviation hotspots for drugs, moving cocaine to south Asia, and heroin to Africa and Europe generally via Dubai. Nigeria's wink and nod to drug smuggling may have been a contributing factor to his passing through uncontested. Yet, to most aviation security professionals the profile of virtually any nervous, hesitant, luggage-less young man from Nigeria whose destination was the USA via Europe would have triggered suspicion of being a drug mule even if he was not on the TSA No-Fly list. The only difference between a suicide bomber and a drug mule Is the volatility of the substance being transported and the end result of the courier job. Otherwise they are behaviorally identical.
It is my understanding that Amsterdam Schiphol airport, the intermediate stop before embarking to the USA, has through-clothes imagining systems, explosive residual swab kits and bomb sniffing dogs and hand searches. These are often present for TSA mandated security screenings of every passenger headed to the USA. However, in the aviation security community the discussions revolve around finding gases, non-metallic explosive or volatile chemicals, internally smuggled explosives. Most airports and airlines are still struggling to educate security staff about the 2001 shoe bomb and box cutters. They are not looking for the next generation bomb.
Although definitive evidence has yet to be released, it should be no surprise that Abdulmutallab was using a modification of a known al-Qaeda weapons system. AQ members have been deploying and exploding hundreds of suicide body kits since 2001. In Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Morocco and Algeria, to name a few, the Suicide Pedestrian Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SPBIED) as this device is known has become a staple of terrorist attack.
That the Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cells operating in Yemen should have been tasked to develop and deploy a small, generally undetectable chemical detonated device should also surprise no one. The IED carried in the Detroit attack was a hybridization of the weapons system and tactics used by AQ in two recent plots, one failed, one successful. The successful attack was a cell phone filled with plastic explosive and carried near the rectum of a suicide bomber that injured the Saudi counterterrorism chief earlier this year. The other was the intercepted plan to blow up seven airliners over the Atlantic Ocean last year. Three men were convicted in London in October of planning to introduce liquid plastic explosives in sports drinks bottles and detonate them using a modified battery on a disposable camera.
The Detroit plot seems to have married the concealment method of the Saudi attack with a modified explosive package that was similar to the planned transatlantic attacks. That this bomber was apparently told to ensure that the device detonated over the American city is significant as well. Had he blown up in the toilet while over the Atlantic we could have had a different matter on our hands.
In the end, while we discuss and debate the efficacy of the methodology, the Yemen connections, the greatness of our luck and the courage of the passengers, al-Qaeda and its global network of like-minded bomb masters will be engineering and modifying the next highly concealable weapon system to ensure the next attack is a success.