Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fear Not The Pants Bomber

The standard response to terrorist attacks is to freak out and get paranoid about the terrifying terrorist menace.  But in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas pants bomber, that's the opposite of the right response.  I mean, just read what happened, lifted here from Wikipedia:
Passengers and crew aboard the plane said Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom as it approached Detroit and then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat, the Justice Department said. They then heard popping noises and smelled a foul odour and some saw Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire, it said. When asked by a flight attendant what he had in his pocket, he replied “explosive device.” The device consisted of a six-inch (15-cm) packet of powder and a syringe containing a liquid, which were sewn into the suspect’s underwear, according to media reports.

Passengers reported smelling smoke and saw that something in his lap was on fire. Fellow passenger Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director, jumped on Abdulmutallab, and he and other passengers subdued him as flight attendants used fire extinguishers to douse the flames. At this point, Abdulmutallab was taken toward the front of the airplane cabin, and was seen to have lost his pants due to the fire, and had burns on his legs. 
So here's the story as we presently have it.  The terrorist goes to the bathroom for twenty minutes to rig up his syringe and explosive powder packet.  He comes back to his seat, pushes the button... and sets his pants on fire.  Passengers see what's happening and jump all over him.  Nobody is hurt except the terrorist, who suffers a burned ass and other lower-body injuries.  

One thing this tells me is that our security procedures are actually having a pretty impressive effect.  Sure, the terrorist managed to smuggle some potentially dangerous things past security, but he basically accepted defeat on the question of bringing a proper bomb.  So he smuggles this syringe-and-powder system, which could bring down a plane if everything worked right, but which has a much greater chance of failure, and ends up just blowing up his own pants.  And then the terrorism-wary passengers grab him.  

I don't want to be all Rumsfeld here with talk of how the enemy is desperate and in their last throes.  But looking at this, you have to say that it wasn't a particularly impressive attempt.  And it failed in a semi-comical way, because our security measures forced the terrorist to use unreliable methods.  I'm getting on a plane in about a week, and the events of Christmas don't make me nervous.
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