As a proponent of the multiverse theory I have to say that there are quite a few universes nearby where hundreds of people in Detroit and around the world are having pretty lousy Christmases. In our universe the Briefs Bomber can very close to taking down a Detroit bound flight over the Motor City, killing hundreds on board and perhaps scores more on the ground. But for a poorly chosen plastic syringe and a heroic Dutchman that reality could easily have been our own.
We are scrambling to figure out what we can learn from this failure to prevent such attacks in the future. As Deitrich Dorner points out in his classic work the Logic of Failure, failure or disaster does not occur from a single instance; instead it is the result of a series of adverse events each of which could prevent the disastrous outcome had they gone the other way.
I believe that what we as a society find particularly disturbing about the Briefs Bomber plot is how easy it was for him to reach a point where the only outcome preventing the success of the attack was the chemistry of the plastic used in the syringe containing the plastic explosive’s detonator. Eight years of taking off our shoes, infiltrating terror groups, waging war, apologizing to Muslim countries, standing in lines and missing flights apparently did nothing to keep us safe. Our fate was in the hands of a bunch of sullen Muslim guys who knew how to take a plane down but not how to talk to girls.
The Briefs Bomber carried 80g of PETN - an explosive first developed in World War I and the one chosen by al-Qaeda in the Shoe Bombing plot 8 years ago. The US government conducted tests after the Shoe Bomber failed and found that 50g was enough to take down a full-size airliner. I measured out 80g of sugar and found that’s less than half a cup. That amount of powder fits in the palm of your hand. There is simply no way that we can screen millions of people and their carry on bags – trillions of grams – in order to find 80g. To find those 80 grams would require our screening system to achieve an accuracy of 99.999999999%. For you Six Sigma freaks out there, that’s 3 more ‘9’s – or a 1000 times more accurate. Achieving that level of accuracy against an attack using technology alone is simply impossible.
Americans love technology fixes. As a technology geek myself I love them too. But the full body scanners proposed as a solution to this problem won’t work. They subject everyone to an intrusive scan that raises a whole raft of legal, religious and privacy issues. As the former head of El Al said today on Fox News, the scan itself would offend Muslims by showing their wives and daughters naked. It could also be easily defeated. In an August 2008 attack on a leading anti-al Qaeda figure in the kingdom, a Saudi minister was injured by a suicide bomber who had explosives concealed in his rectum (WARNING: link contains photos that are not for the squeamish). The full body scanners proposed to prevent attacks like the Briefs Bomber and Shoe Bomber would be easily circumvented by al Qaeda just as the metal detectors are today. Just like the metal detectors, they are an expensive fix that makes the government appear that it is doing something when in fact it is accomplishing little.
So what is the solution? As with any complex system, there isn’t a single point of failure so there cannot be a single solution. Each opportunity that leads to possible failure – in this case a successful bombing on a US bound airliner – must be examined to determine what we could do to prevent that outcome from leading to the next event in a chain ending with pieces of aircraft and bodies falling from the sky.
First an engineering fix must be found to prevent 80 grams of anything causing a catastrophic failure of an airplane. Judging by his seat selection, the bomber chose to detonate his bomb over the wings. This would place him nearest the fuel as well as structural parts of the wing whose failure would lead to a crash. Such a fix could include armoring the fuel tanks, baggage compartment and passenger cabin over the wings. This would be an expensive retrofit, without a doubt, but we cannot continue to rely upon al Qaeda to screw up.
Second in place of new screening technology, we need to use existing screening techniques. These include ethnic and behavioral profiling used by other nations especially Israel’s El Al airline. In the 1980’s the Wife was dropped off at the airport by her Japanese-American boyfriend for a flight to Jerusalem on El Al. While standing in line she was met by El Al security and taken to a room in the airport where she was subjected to 2 hours of intense questioning by several El Al security guards. They asked her personal questions about her relationship with her Japanese-American boyfriend, her political and her religious beliefs. They also searched her and her luggage intensively. Because of the interrogation she missed her flight. At the end of the interrogation she was exhausted and asked why she was singled out. It turns out there had been cases where Japanese Red Army members had used their boyfriends and girlfriends to unwittingly carry explosives onto El Al airplanes. She was angry about missing her flight, but when she was placed on the next El Al flight to Jerusalem, she said that she knew she was on the safest flight in the sky. Ethnic and behavioral profiling techniques work and are much more effective than handsearching little old black ladies.
Third we need to remove the barriers between domestic and foreign sourced intel. Terrorists don’t recognize boundaries and neither should we. The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to accomplish this. Obviously it hasn’t, so it should be abolished and the existing intelligence services be allowed to pool their information and analyze it together and in secret.
We must accept that the terrorism we face today is not criminally based. It is not a law enforcement issue or solely a military one. It is much broader than that. Terrorism has a religious and ideological basis that we cannot combat with prison sentences and drone attacks alone. We must fight it in the same way we fought slavery, Nazism, Communism and other ideologies: by actively countering their propaganda with our own and attacking it on every front. That means supporting Islamic groups and institutions that disagree with Wahabi teachings and investigating Saudi funded mosques in the US and the UK. For every Youtube video extolling the virtues of 72 virgins, we should put out a video by an Imam explaining why the jihadi was going to hell instead. The Federal Government has done a good job containing the spread of white supremacist hate groups, so we need to apply the same techniques we used with those groups to Wahabi mosques.
Saudi Arabia needs to be treated for what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism. The Saudis have been allowed to spread their hatred around the world unhindered for decades because of our addiction to oil; we are now paying the true price of the cheap oil that nation supplied to us and our allies. What this would ultimately mean is a reverse oil embargo: The US and its allies should refuse to buy oil sourced from Saudi Arabia or sold by companies owned by the kingdom. Such an action would be unprecedented and would no doubt throw western economies into recession. But the truth is that 9-11 did the same thing and was completely beyond our control. We could use the action as a diplomatic threat to the Saudis, but we should be prepared to institute the embargo should the Saudis call our bluff. I would expect all Gulf nations to support the Saudis, so we would have to do without their oil as well. We would subject Saudi finances to the same international sanctions we apply to Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Can we do it? Oil is nowhere near as critical to our economies as it has been in the past, and will continue to decline in importance as we move to electric cars and hybrids. I currently cannot imagine an American administration with the guts to do this, but another 9-11 could change that.
Lastly the Obama Administration must ultimately be removed from office. It is clear by its conduct in the Global War on Terror that the administration does not take the threat posed by terrorism seriously. It has begun rebuilding the Chinese Walls separating the sharing of intel between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering operations, miring the sharing of operable intelligence with bureaucratic red tape. It is closing down detention facilities around the world including Guantanamo Bay, releasing experienced terrorists into society. Two alumni from that prison are leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the Briefs Bomber plot. It is pursuing a legal approach to terrorism which by its very nature is reactive: in most cases you cannot charge a person with a crime until he actually commits it. Like the Bush administration before it, it refuses to recognize the role Saudi Arabia plays in sponsoring al Qaeda directly with cash and indirectly by funding Wahabist mosques around the world.
These are some hard choices needed to stop al Qaeda on top of hunting them down with predator drones and special forces, and building successful states in Afghanistan and Iraq. No wonder the Obama administration acts like its 1999 when it comes to terrorism. Things like health care and global warming are only important when someone isn’t trying to kill you.
Our choice is simple: our way of life or their way of death. One would hope that such a choice would be easy, but given the way our leaders have failed us so far, I have my doubts.
Toby Harnden writing for the Daily Telegraph gives Obama a failing grade for protecting Americans.
In his studied desire to be the unBush by responding coolly to events like this, Obama is dangerously close to failing as a leader. Yes, it is good not to shoot from the hip and make broad assertions without the facts. But Obama took three days before speaking to the American people, emerging on Monday in between golf and tennis games in Hawaii to deliver a rather tepid address that significantly underplayed what happened. He described Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist” who “allegedly tried to ignite an explosive device on his body” – phrases that indicate a legalistic, downplaying approach that alarms rather than reassures.
Charles Krauthammer points out why America seems unsettled by Obama’s responses to the “man-caused disaster” attempt:
The reason the country is uneasy about the Obama administration’s response to this attack is a distinct sense of not just incompetence but incomprehension. From the very beginning, President Obama has relentlessly tried to play down and deny the nature of the terrorist threat we continue to face. Napolitano renames terrorism “man-caused disasters.” Obama goes abroad and pledges to cleanse America of its post-9/11 counterterrorist sins. Hence, Guantanamo will close, CIA interrogators will face a special prosecutor, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed will bask in a civilian trial in New York—a trifecta of political correctness and image management.
And just to make sure even the dimmest understand, Obama banishes the term “war on terror.” It’s over—that is, if it ever existed. Obama may have declared the war over. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has not. Which gives new meaning to the term “asymmetric warfare.”
More on the failure of the proposed body scanners to detect the powdered explosives of the type used in Detroit.