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Only a faulty detonator prevented terrorist Abdul Mutallub from blowing up an Airbus A330 with the bomb he had successfully smuggled onboard.

A flurry of activity and analysis subsequent to the failed 25 December bombing attempt risks drawing the wrong conclusions and making the wrong changes to our security policies and procedures.

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Lessons from the Multiple Security Failures on NW253

Current knee-jerk responses risk making matters worse not better

Terrorist and failed crotch-bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab.



An explosive device hidden in terrorist Abdul Mutallab's underpants almost caused the 25 December destruction of an A330 and the nearly 300 people on board.

Such a device, being non-metallic, does not register when going through a metal detector.  Will we now need to feel up everyone's personal areas as part of security screening so as to protect us against future similar events?

While such a move seems unavoidable, and there is now a rush to add whole body scanners to airport screening stations, such actions overlook better approaches to security.

Executive Summary

Clearly the system designed to protect passengers and planes failed on 25 December.  It is was only the matching failure of the explosive device itself (it 'fizzed and caught fire rather than explosively detonated) that saved the 300 passengers on flight NW253 traveling between Amsterdam and Detroit from near certain death.

In sad reality, airport security worked as expected.  This was not an incredibly clever cunning innovative exploitation of a subtle flaw in airport security, nor was it a 'one in a million' lucky chance.  It was instead making use of known and longstanding vulnerabilities.

Airport security is not currently able to detect explosives that are hidden beneath one's clothes, and traditional cursory pat-downs are careful to discreetly leave a passenger's personal private areas untouched, so the 'crotch bomb' worn by Abdul Mutallab was completely undetectable.

More serious is how the many different threads of alert and alarm that disparate elements of our security services already possessed about the terrorist did not seem to have been integrated into a broader picture, and/or, those parts which were clearly established were not acted upon.

For the future, new airport body scanner machines promise some improvement in terms of being able to see under people's clothes, but even these will not detect all explosives (and/or any other objects) artfully secreted on (and in!) one's person.

The most important improvements however need to be in the intelligence gathering, collating, and implementing procedures prior to a potential terrorist arriving at the airport.  Frustratingly, many of the same problems that surfaced with the 9/11 events have been repeated and the new 'National Counterterrorism Center' created subsequently and tasked with ensuring that information from the 16 different US intelligence sources is matched together and integrated does not seem to have functioned as it should.

We should improve our airport security functionality, but the best protection against future terrorist attacks (which may or may not involve airports and airplanes) is, was, and always will be enhancing the capabilities of our security services.

Lastly, improved/stricter airport security protocols need to be matched with more focused application of such controls so as to minimize their impact on ordinary safe passengers, and allow for concentrated attention being given to 'at risk' passengers.

Two Ways to Secure Flights

There are essentially two very different approaches to protecting flights.

The first approach is the one we see at the airport - the largely ineffective but definitely inconvenient 'security' measures designed to prevent terrorists from taking bombs or weapons onto planes.  Unfortunately, these measures succeed mainly (and even then only partially) at preventing normal people from carrying water and pocket knives onto planes while not deterring determined terrorists.

Because these measures are very visible to the traveling public, they tend to be the main focus of most people's security thinking.

The second approach is to find would-be terrorists before they get to the airport and prevent them from reaching the airport in the first place.  Such actions are more shadowy and murky, and are harder to understand and appreciate, and so perhaps don't get as much attention as they should.

Clearly, in this case, neither part of the overall security process worked.  Mutallab should never have been allowed to fly in the first place, and - ideally - his explosive device should have been detected during security screening.

The Red Flags That Should Have Warned Us About Mutallab

There were a number of red flag issues that should have prevented Abdul Mutallab's ability to fly to the US, or at the very least, singled him out for extra scrutiny.  That none of these, individually or in combination, failed to create any positive action is clearly the greatest failure of the incident :

  • His father reported his developing Muslim extremism and indoctrination in Yemen to both the Nigerian and US authorities.  His father was not just an ordinary Nigerian.  He was a member of the ruling elite of the country.

  • The NSA and CIA received reports of a Nigerian national being trained in Yemen to blow up a plane

  • He attended a Yemen/Al Qaeda terrorist training camp (this may or may not have been known to all authorities)

  • He was on one of the several US terrorist watch lists (but not the most serious 'must not fly' list)

  • The UK government put him on a 'Banned from entering Britain' list and advised the US government of their actions

  • He paid cash for his ticket only a short time prior to traveling

  • He had no checked baggage (although, to be fair, with the high cost of checking bags, this is becoming increasingly common)

  • He is a single young Muslim male traveling alone.  Excuse the lack of political correctness, but all the terrorists who have attacked planes this decade, and most of the terrorists who have attacked other things have been single young Muslim males.

Unfortunately, none of these red flags even caused him to be singled out for heightened security inspection at the airport, let alone preventing him from traveling.

And then, at the airport, with nothing more than the normal default level of security screening, his hidden bomb was unsurprisingly undetected.

Airport Security Screening - An Impossible Task

The unavoidable imperfections in intelligence gathering and attack prevention prior to terrorists getting to an airport cause us to need a second layer of defense - security screening at airports.

This gives us the appearance of security, and to those who know nothing about the limitations of the screening technology and the types of materials that terrorists may seek to smuggle through screening, the whole process seems to be impressive and worthwhile.

But the reality is very different.  For example, internal audits consistently show that while 80% of banned items such as knives and guns are detected during X-ray screening, that leaves 20% that get through, primarily due to the inattentiveness of the scanner operator and/or the objects being randomly obscured by other items in the bag.

The percentage of items that are 'artfully concealed' which escape detection may be considerably greater.

80% success is not a passing grade

You'd probably be delighted to score 80% in a college exam.  But detecting only 80% of weapons that are inadvertently carried through airport security is not a good result - it is an appalling result.  That means, on average, five terrorists could go to an airport and one of them would get their weapon safely through security.

For that matter, a 90% detection rate is also unacceptably low - it simply requires ten terrorists to band together to ensure one gets through.

If airport security is to be valid, it must have a 99% or higher detection rate, and not even the greatest supporters of the TSA can claim it will ever consistently achieve those rates of detection - at least not with present technologies.

Completely undetectable explosives

More seriously than metallic guns and knives that will be detected both by the walk through metal detector and/or the X-ray machine; explosives - be they liquid or solid or powder - can be carried through the metal detector, hidden beneath one's clothing, and the metal detector will not register their presence (due to them not being metal).

There are two ways that may detect explosives, but one approach failed to work reliably and has been withdrawn and the other is too time consuming to be used with every person.

'Puffer' machines had promised to be a useful new way of detecting explosives.  They would blow air onto a person or object and then scan the air that had passed over the person/object to see if it contained microscopic amounts of the chemicals that are characteristically used in explosives.

Unfortunately, these puffer machines failed to work reliably in field trial tests (they tended to report just about any type of chemical that they detected as being an explosive), and the few that were deployed are now being withdrawn from service.  New software in the future may return this technology into a more useful role.

Explosive Trace Detection machines involve using a special test strip of material to wipe down a surface and collect a sample of the materials on that surface; the test strip is then analyzed in a machine to see if there were any chemicals collected in the sample that would indicate the presence of explosives.

But they are slow in operation and of course only give a definitive test of the area swabbed, so are far from a practical and robust method of detecting the presence of explosives.

Other methods of finding hidden explosives

Pat down searches of a person are unlikely to reveal the presence of small but deadly amounts of explosives concealed around a woman's bust (or in her bra padding) or around a man's genitals unless they become extremely personal.  A new twist on Mae West's famous line might become 'Are you pleased to see me, or is that a bomb in your pocket?'.

The latest generation of new scanners which 'see' through clothing to show the operator the outline of the person's body beneath their clothing, and to also show any other objects that may be concealed between body and clothing, have been slow to be deployed due to ridiculous concerns about the screening operators getting to see shadowy images of people's naked bodies.

Indeed, and to be sensitive to these concerns, the person viewing the screen images is in a different location so that he (she) can't see the actual people as well as their images.

Additionally, at least some types of current machines that use this type of screening may be a bit slower than a walk through metal detector (you have to enter the booth and wait 30 seconds while the machine takes your picture), but that is not a reason to deploy the machines, it simply means more detectors need to be purchased to allow for the same throughput of passengers.

But even these new machines are not the universal panacea that some people believe them to be.  It is believed that Al Qaeda have managed to purchase such devices themselves and are practicing where and how to conceal explosives so they don't register on these new scanners.

Impossible to find hiding places too

And there remains the ultimate hiding place - inside one's body.  This approach has been used, with complete success, for decades by drug smugglers and people bringing contraband into prisons.

The amount of explosive needed to blow a hole in the side of a plane is not great, and so a terrorist doesn't need to secret a lot of material internally.  Two to three ounces of PETN (this seems to be the preferred explosive of most terrorists) is probably sufficient, depending on where the explosive is located compared to the plane fuselage.  The shoe bomber had about two ounces of PETN in his shoe bomb, and the crotch bomber had about three ounces of PETN in his crotch bomb.  If either terrorist had successfully detonated his device, he could have destroyed the plane he was in.

If a larger explosion was desired, all that would be needed is for two or more terrorists to travel together and pool their explosives once on board.

Intelligence Gathering and Analysis Is Also Imperfect

It is very easy to employ the clarity of 20:20 hindsight to the murky vision that security services have of the myriad of threats all around us, and it is also very easy to focus on one specific scenario and to seek a perfect response in that one specific case.

The reality is that intelligence gathering and analysis is imperfect at many levels.  The information that is first obtained is seldom exact, but may be a series of vague data points from sources of varying reliability.

This is not a black or white world, and intelligence analysis involves attempting to interpret subtle hues of gray before deciding on a black/white outcome - allowed to fly or not?  Where should the line be drawn?  If it is too permissive, we risk allowing terrorists to fly.  If it is too restrictive, then we again get besieged with unhappy grandmothers, infants, congressmen and senators who are mistakenly told they may be terrorists and can't fly.

Most of all, our intelligence services have too much information and too little resource to collate it, to analyze it, and to act upon it.  Even the newly established National Counterterrorism Center, designed to act as a central clearing house for all intelligence information, obtained from all sources, about all potential terrorists, has been shown to be imperfect in executing its tasking in this situation.  At the time of writing, intelligence officials are reduced to saying that they cannot explain how they failed to join all the dots and recognize/act upon the many red flags associated with Mutallab.

Plus, when terrorists are caught, we are constrained in our ability to interrogate them (and, to be blunt, to subsequently execute them), being shackled by rules of law that the terrorists themselves do not honor, but use to shelter behind, and rules of evidence that often prevent the security services from revealing the full extent of their knowledge about terrorists and their actions, for fear of compromising their sources.

Like eco-sensitive fisherman, we even practice a 'catch and release' program whereby terrorists are caught, detained, and then released, freeing them to try again, or at the very least allowing them to report back with valuable information about how we respond to their actions.

Intelligence Measures are the Best Security

Even though intelligence activities are currently far from perfect, that is not a reason to reduce our reliance on them.  Instead, it is a reason to enhance and improve our intelligence resources.

Airport security protects us against one type of threat only, and in one sort of form only, and in one place only.  We have to first define a threat, and then we have to create a defense against it.

But intelligence is not so rigidly defined.  Intelligence seeks out bad people with bad intentions, no matter whether their intentions are to bomb planes or to do any other type of nefarious deed, in any other location.  Intelligence is open ended whereas point security measures at airports and elsewhere are closed in their capabilities.

Intelligence gathering also rarely inconveniences most travelers.  While we have agents gathering intelligence in the Middle East and Africa, their actions in no way interfere with our ability to conveniently fly between any two places.

The Greater Limitations of Airport Security

The thing about airport security is that it is a mono-dimensional level of security that is imperfect at best, and in creating this imperfect level of protection, it massively inconveniences millions of ordinary innocent people every day.

Airport security is also visible to terrorists.  They can test it, they can 'game' it to uncover and exploit any weaknesses in the system, they can even acquire the exact same screening equipment and experiment with it to work out how best to prevent banned items from being detected.

For example, terrorists can disassemble firearms and then see what shapes and angles of the component parts look least suspicious when going through X-ray machines.  They can also hide items (guns or explosives) inside other items and see if they are detectable or not.  They can turn our reliance on hardware completely around and use it against us.

Airport Security is Unavoidably Porous, Unselective and Boring

By its nature, airport security is a 'last ditch' defense against terrorist attack.  By definition, all known terrorists should have already been detected/deterred from reaching an airport, and so therefore airport security necessarily must treat everyone as similarly suspicious.

But in doing so, airport security also must compromise between a 100% approach to security, which really truly would have us all naked and getting rubber glove type exams (and as for how we'd have the contents of our stomachs tested, who only knows) and a more permissive approach to security which recognizes that 99.99999% or more of all passengers are ordinary people who need no security screening at all.

To put it another way, and bluntly, a TSA screener could spend their entire working life offending people by groping their crotches and never find anything more than what should be there.  So after ten years of such a thankless task, how alert do you think he will really be when reaching between the legs of the umpteen millionth passenger he's had to grope?

It is really no wonder so much material slips through TSA screening, because much of a TSA screener's life is boring routine, which makes it hard to stay alert and to simultaneously treat each person passing through with respect and courtesy, but also as if they are a potential terrorist.

Furthermore, the TSA - as gargantuan as it is - simply does not have the personnel to give detailed searches to every person passing through security.

What is Needed

We need three new things to give us better security.

1.  Improved Intelligence Resources

Many people like to deride our intelligence services.  This is unfair.  They do a good job with insufficient resource and in a world that is overflowing with too much data and too many potential terrorists.

The solution to their current failings and weaknesses is to give more resource to the intelligence services, and to boost their role as the key element of our defense against terrorism, not to constrain them still further.

2.  Adapting Airport Security to Match Different Passengers and their Risk Profiles

We need to differentiate between high risk, moderate risk and low risk passengers, and we need to then devise different levels of security checking for each of these categories of passenger.

A 'one size fits all' approach will not catch the dedicated terrorist, but will massively inconvenience ordinary passengers and discourage many people from flying, adding further to the ills of the airline industry.  It will be too intrusive for normal people, but will never be sufficiently rigorous to catch the most determined terrorist with the most artfully concealed explosive.

We need both positive and negative vetting of passengers.  Positive vetting to move a passenger from normal risk to low risk, and negative vetting to move a passenger from normal risk to high risk.

We need to sacrifice all dysfunctional concessions that are currently made in the name of political correctness, and accept the reality that 99% of would be terrorists are, by some amazing coincidence, Muslim extremists, and are young, single and male.  Call it profiling, or call it common sense, but whichever way you slice it, you can't get away from the fact that very few 80 year old WASP grandmothers have attempted to blow up a plane.  The time and resource spent searching them is time and resource that should be selectively applied instead to passengers who fit a profile - be it racial or otherwise.

Note that this isn't to say that the only terrorists are Muslim extremists, and neither is it to say that a Muslim extremist couldn't disguise himself to look like a 'normal' person.  So while it might make sense to recognize that young single male Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than 80 yr old WASP grandmothers, unfortunately the security forces have to be alert to terrorism coming from just about any unexpected demographic group.

We should allow people to pay for the costs of receiving a security vetting clearance that will move them to a lower level of airport security attention for a certain period of time before expiring and needing to be repeated.

This not only provides a better travel experience for 'safe' travelers, but also frees the TSA to concentrate on other passengers of more dubious provenance.

3.  The Best Bomb Detection Equipment

The misplaced prudery that is demonstrated by people concerned at having shadowy images of their bodies projected privately onto computer monitors and seen only by impersonal TSA representatives is stunning in its short sighted stupidity.

Most of us would much rather that someone somewhere got to briefly see a computer image of our body outline somewhere in private than to be subjected to a several minute rigorous pat-down in public, complete with a need to remove one's bra and have it inspected, and with close attention also given to our groin area.

While the new whole body imaging scanners do not promise to be a complete solution to hidden explosives, they are a much better approach to airport security in general than current metal detectors and pat-downs.

What is Not Needed

More Air Marshals :  Unless there is a Federal Air Marshal (FAM) alongside every passenger, watching them the entire journey, there is no point in having more FAMs.  The amount of warning that anyone would get when a passenger decided to explode an obscured bomb is anywhere from zero seconds to very few seconds, and the amount of time to respond and prevent that bomb explosion is even less.

By the time any on board FAM was located and advised of the imminent threat, and by the time the FAM moved from where he was (probably up front in first class) to where the terrorist was (probably somewhere in the back in coach class, and if the terrorist has any smarts, in a window seat, both to be closer to the side of the plane so the explosive will have greater effect and also to be further from the aisle and interference) whatever the terrorist was planning to do would either already be done or have been prevented by alert responsive ordinary passengers.


We are very fortunate that the lesson inherent in the failed crotch-bombing attempt is so cheap, with no people being harmed in the process.

But we must not complacently equate a failed bombing attempt with an unimportant security threat.  The failings of our security processes are real, and the enemy - Al Qaeda and all the other various terrorist groups - are well aware of these failings.

We need to act positively and sensibly to correct the weaknesses exposed by this incident, and to improve the safety and security of all passengers in a way that does not ridiculously and ineffectively add to the present inconvenience of travel.

Specific security measures against a specific threat (such as are found at airports) imperfectly protect us against that specific threat only.  General counter-terrorism procedures (such as conducted by our intelligence services and military) protect us against terrorism in general.  We need to proceed forwards accordingly and focus more on general counter-terrorism operations.

Lastly, we need to appreciate that terrorists don't destroy our freedoms and our way of life - it is our response to terrorists that threatens to do this.

So if we are to introduce still stricter security measures, we need to - at the same time - become more selective in terms of who we impose these security measures on.  Not only does misdirected attention to ordinary safe travelers annoy and upset such people and discourage them from flying (and thereby harm the very aviation industry the entire process is ostensibly in place to protect), but it also drains precious resource and attention away from the people who truly deserve stricter attention.

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Originally published 1 January 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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