U.S., Yemen: Lessons From a Failed Airliner Bombing

6 MINS READDec 28, 2009 | 20:34 GMT
U.S., Yemen: Lessons From a Failed Airliner Bombing
A Northwest/Delta Airlines jet at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Dec. 27

The Dec. 25 attempted attack on a U.S. passenger plane over Detroit has shown the ability of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to design innovative improvised explosive devices. The incident was most likely a proof-of-concept attempt, and had it worked, more attacks with similar devices probably would have followed. The attack's failure means the bombmaker will have to think up a new design and will continue trying to attack U.S. targets — assuming he is still alive after recent attacks on AQAP in Yemen. This means security efforts must focus on looking for the bomber, not just on looking for bombs.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, attempted to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) he had smuggled on board a Northwest/Delta Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25. The device did not function as intended, catching fire instead of detonating. Explosives contain a great deal of potential energy, and thus burn very hot — meaning the resulting fire left Abdulmutallab with severe burns. Passengers and crew members extinguished the flames and restrained Abdulmutallab, who was arrested after the aircraft landed safely in Detroit.

Since his arrest, Abdulmutallab reportedly has been talking with the authorities, allegedly stating that he was armed and dispatched on his mission by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to statements by Abdulmutallab's family, the young man reportedly went to Yemen after becoming radicalized, and his militant ideology and disappearance a few months ago had caused the family to report him to the Nigerian security service and foreign security services — including the United States'. Abdulmutallab had studied mechanical engineering in the United Kingdom, and was supposed to be attending graduate school in Dubai when he reportedly moved to Yemen to study Shariah and cut off contact with his family. In spite of his family's warning to the authorities, Abdulmutallab's name was not added to the U.S. government's no-fly list.

An Innovative IED

Though we are still attempting to gather all the technical details of the device to better understand it, counterterrorism sources and media reports suggest it was comprised of a main charge of 2.8 ounces of PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate). The PETN reportedly was wrapped in something like a condom and then apparently sewn into a pair of underwear. A liquid glycol-based explosive was stored in a syringe and then injected into the PETN. We are unsure at this point whether the device was intended to detonate due to a chemical reaction of the two compounds or if there was another type of detonator involved, like the nonmetallic triacetone triperoxide (TATP) detonator used in Richard Reid's shoe bomb device. This attack bears several similarities with Reid's attempt. Reid's device reportedly contained a main charge of approximately 4 ounces of PETN to be detonated (though it also failed) on a U.S.-bound aircraft over the Christmas holidays. An FBI laboratory test of a replica of Reid's shoe bomb device showed it could have caused catastrophic damage to a wide-bodied aircraft had it detonated.

That AQAP should be involved in such a plot to attack an aircraft using an IED design should come as no surprise. STRATFOR first noted in September that the group had demonstrated it was using innovative bombmaking methods that threaten aviation security, and the group claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas attack in a statement posted to a Jihadist website on Dec. 28. Since Abdulmutallab was the only operative dispatched with such a device on Christmas, the operation probably was a proof-of-concept mission, similar to the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434 by Abdul Basit on Dec. 11, 1994, or the shoe bombing attempt by Reid on Dec. 23, 2001. Had Abdulmutallab's attempt destroyed the aircraft, it could have taken months or even years for the authorities to determine the type of device used, as was the case with Pan Am Flight 103 — and the authorities might never have figured it out.

As seen with the mysterious crash of Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009, determining what caused an aircraft to break up in flight is difficult. If Abdulmutallab's attack was a trial run, it is likely that other attacks with that type of device would have been conducted had it succeeded. Like Reid's failed shoe bomb attack, however, the failure of Abdulmutallab's device has alerted the authorities to this specific method of hiding the IED — and has likely sent the bombmaker back to the drawing board to find a more reliable design and another method of concealment.

The existing vulnerabilities in airport screening systems demonstrate that an emphasis needs to be placed on finding the bomber and not merely on finding the bomb.

Increasing Concerns Over AQAP

Washington has become increasingly concerned about AQAP in recent months, and has dramatically stepped up its efforts to cooperate with Yemen and Saudi Arabia to attack the group. In the past two weeks, joint air attacks and ground assaults against AQAP compounds in Yemen reportedly have resulted in the deaths of some 60-70 members of the group and the arrests of 46 others. These attacks have reportedly killed several senior members of the group (though we are still waiting for confirmation of exactly who was killed). Abdulmutallab left Yemen before the Dec. 24 attack and even probably before the Dec. 17 strike. Therefore, it is quite possible that the people who trained and dispatched him — and perhaps even the person who manufactured the IED he carried — were killed or captured in those two operations. If the bombmaker is still alive and at liberty, however, he will most likely be forced to come up with a new design. This particular bombmaker is likely the same innovative and imaginative individual responsible for the IED used in the Aug. 28 attack against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister, and we can expect him to continue to design creative IEDs. The device used in the attack against the prince was made in Yemen, used a main charge of PETN, and was hidden in the attacker's crotch or rectum.

As STRATFOR has previously noted when discussing AQAP and their innovative IED designs, there are many ways to smuggle IED components on board an aircraft if a person has a little imagination and access to explosives. In light of this — as we noted in September — efforts to improve technical methods to locate IED components must not be abandoned, but the existing vulnerabilities in airport screening systems demonstrate that an emphasis also needs to be placed on finding the bomber and not merely on finding the bomb. Finding the bomber will require placing a greater reliance on other methods such as checking names, conducting interviews and assigning trained security officers to watch for abnormal behavior and suspicious demeanor. It also means that the often-overlooked human elements of airport security, including situational awareness, observation and intuition, need to be emphasized now more than ever.

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