On Christmas Day 2009, a 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim man, by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, failed to execute a terrorist bomb on a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight. Just one month after his father warned US officials of his apprehension about Abdulmutallab’s religious beliefs, the terror suspect was charged with attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253.
A previous college student in Britain and the son of a top Nigerian banker, Abdulmutallab claims to be tied to al Qaeda and to have received training and instructions from al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Abdulmutallab had sewn a part of the explosive device to his underwear, where airport security would surely not check. As the flight began to descend toward Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Abdulmutallab set off the device, which initiated a spark instead of an explosion. Abdulmutallab was treated for burns at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
President Obama was on his Christmas holiday in Hawaii when he was briefed about the attack. In his first public comment after the incident, he said that he directed his national security team to “keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country.” Three days after the terror attempt, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility, saying the assault was in retaliation for alleged US attacks on Yemeni soil. In a message written in Arabic, which was published on radical Islamist Web sites three days after the scare, the group claimed that it tested a “new kind of explosives” and hailed the fact that the explosives “passed through security.” Still yet to be determined valid, the message additionally clarified that the bomb failed to explode due to a technical problem.
An analysis of the bombing device showed that it contained PETN, a high explosive also known as pentaerythritol. PETN is frequently used in military explosives and is popular among terrorists because it is small and powerful. The analysis found that the amount of explosive was sufficient to blow a hole in the aircraft.
Abdulmutallab’s father’s warning to US officials about his concerns of his son’s religious beliefs provided no grounds to place Abdulmutallab on the “no-fly list” or to revoke his visa to visit the US. Abdulmutallab was placed on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, which includes people with known or suspected ties to a terrorist organization. This list, however, does not prohibit a person from boarding a US-bound airplane.
The last time someone tried to blow up an airplane at Christmas time, the bomb was planted in the suspect’s sneakers. From that day on, all passengers have been required to remove their shoes every time they fly. This solution, however, did not work in the case of Abdulmutallab, as he managed to pass through security with the bomb in his underwear. Airport security focuses very little on people individually, as most of their attention is directed towards what they carry. Focusing attention on individuals, however, leads to a question of racial profiling.
A tense debate about racial profiling, which terrorism experts claim will stop terrorist attacks, developed shortly after the Christmas Day debacle. Many people were left wondering if profiling would have stopped Abdulmutallab from boarding the Northwest flight. Executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and former journalist, Steven Emerson, supports using racial or religious profiling as an aspect of the screening process, calling it “smart screening.” On the other hand, former FBI agent and American Civil Liberties adviser Michael German calls this kind of screening “ineffective and unconstitutional.” Saying that “terrorists come in all shapes and sizes, all nationalities,” German claims that racial profiling could in fact encourage terrorism, as racism is one of the aspects that trigger terrorists. Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, supports German’s take on the issue and states racial and religious profiling to be counterproductive and to “lead to a climate of insecurity and fear.”
We have yet to see what kinds of measures airport security is willing to take to work towards a competent method of safety. Until then, we can only hope that our current approach and improved knowledge of terror mechanisms will prevent such an occurrence from happening again.