More than nine years after the world was stunned by the terrorist attack on the USA using airliners as flying missiles, terrorists still believe they can attack America by smuggling weapons of mass destruction aboard a U.S. airliner headed for the United States from abroad. They must be delusional to think that they can penetrate the western world’s impregnable aviation security shield, how ridiculous! Haven’t they heard the repeated assurances from members of both political parties about the stunning advances in security manpower, training and technology designed to keep terrorists and their weapons off of the worlds commercial airliners? Don’t they know that we have x-ray vision “back scatter” machines, designed to see through clothing to make sure no weapons or explosives are concealed in passenger’s underwear? Haven’t they seen the TSA’s budget dedicated to keeping airliners safe through zero tolerance security protocols? This can’t be happening after all that we have done! Well maybe it will be all right after all now that international passengers will be required to forego their final trip to the lavatory if nature calls with less than 60 minutes to go in the flight. That “no pee” requirement will certainly through a monkey wrench into any terrorist’s plans to detonate an in-flight explosive.
We should not under estimate the skill of our terrorist opponents or over estimate the ability of our aviation security protocols to deal with them. The known explosive chemical attempted to be employed by the current airline terrorist, PETN, has reportedly been in use since the end of WW1. It is apparently easy to compound from information readily available on the Internet. Despite the availability of materials, and information on the use of PETN, the two terrorists known to have used it in attempts to blow up U.S. airliners both failed: Richard Reid in 2001 on a flight from Paris to the U.S. almost succeeded in blowing up his sneakers and the current public enemy, Umanu Abdulmutallab, set fire to his pants. Reid, questioned by security officials at De Gaulle airport over a two-day period on the anniversary of the Pan Am 103 terrorist attack in 1988 was allowed to fly on the 2nd day with his explosives undetected. Abdulmutallab, was passed throw security twice, once in Nigeria and again in Amsterdam despite his name having been passed on to US officials by his father months earlier for his radicalization into Islam.
Our response to this latest assault on America by an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist has been once again to further restrict the movements of air passengers who are least likely to be a threat in the skies. Rather than prepare to respond logically to intelligence information from credible sources, we declare airline lavatories off limits for one hour prior to landing. How do we continue to expect the public to take seriously the “see something, say something” campaign if saying something results in a do nothing response? One would think that by now a chemical explosive that has been around for almost one hundred years would have a signature not beyond the ability of science to detect even when carried aboard an airliner. We show an interest in identifying explosives after an event in which they are used and not before.
In their attempt to protect their elected seats, government leaders from across the aisle have engaged once again in the usual finger pointing about how each has let down the commercial air travelers by not sealing our porous security system. A survey of what exactly members of Homeland Security and Aviation sub-committees in the Congress have done to provide needed scientific developments for creating explosive free airliner environments would likely show little more than an abundance of hot air. The Executive branch of government, regardless of who leads it, has been similarly ineffective in the effort to protect commercial aviation from attack; the White House continues to provide a flow of oratory containing promising change with no substantive help for the development of a coordinated program for aviation safety.
Every lesson that we have learned over the past decade regarding the profiling of passengers appears to have been ignored in this most recent incident. Putting aside the personal profile of the would-be terrorist with regard to national origin, age, gender and associates other alarms that rang loud and clear were ignored. He purchased an expensive international airline ticket for cash; his name was known to the national terrorism center; he had notified his family that he was severing ties with them so that he could study Islam in Yemen as reported by his father at the U.S. Embassy he boarded an airliner for an international trip carrying only a shoulder bag; he had applied for, and been denied, an extension of his travel Visa claiming his intention to study abroad at a non-existent school. Abdulmutallab, destined to become known as the “pants bomber” in the future, also hoped to deliver a “Christmas Present” to America, as had his Islamic terrorist predecessors on Pan Am 103, and Richard Reid eight years earlier, as a reminder to the infidel that we remain vulnerable to terrorism’s favorite target, commercial aviation.
So what have learned from this latest assault on America: First, that we have wasted too much of the national treasure on unworkable solutions for solving the bombing threat to commercial aviation, and too little on science and technology. Second, the government would do us all a favor by toning down the rhetoric and instead invite in institutions such as Cal Tech and MIT to professionally design and implement the use of workable technologies into the our screening processes. Third, that a non-political over-site of our anti-terrorism community would help it to work and play well with each other so that valuable intelligence is can be shared on a need to know basis with action plans implemented in an efficient and timely fashion. Finally, that if accountability for both failures and successes are imposed on those responsible for getting us into and out of the mess we are now in we would have a better chance at arriving at a workable aviation security program and a safer flying environment.