On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a son of one of Nigeria's richest families was preparing to board a flight to Detroit from Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam one of the world's busiest. He probably slipped into a restroom, where he taped a large quantity of PEDT to the inside front of his underwear.
PEDT is a chemical explosive, and this was a new strain of it, designed to get past airport security. It worked, and simultaneously airport security failed. Umar was on an international terror watch list and he was holding a one-way ticket to the US.
As Northwest Air Flight 258 began it's descent into Detroit, Umar took out a syringe containing clear liquid. Lots of people carry syringes containing clear liquid onto planes. We are diabetics. Umar's however, contained a chemical accelerant that was supposed to make the PEDT blow a huge hole into the planes said and thus kill 278 people.
Instead, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded only in incinerating his own penis. If he had died and been rewarded his 100 virgins, as his Al Qaeda mentors may have promised, that would have been a very big loss for him.
Security learned that the bad guys had a new form of explosive and they would have to adjust yet again. It's a tough job, in my view. On one hand we just hate the scrutiny as they queue into airport lines. On the other hand we demand that this system of screening millions of people per hour all over the world be absolutely foolproof.
The fact of the matter is that it is very difficult to catch a criminal who is willing and often motivated to die to reach his or her goal. It is difficult and painful to stave off a culture who raises children to be suicide bombers. It is very hard to tell the difference between a student and a terrorist posing as a student.
So do we want security to do really? Do we now think airport security agents should pat everyone's crotches before they are allowed to fly? How about diabetics with insulin and syringes? No, we cannot put it in checked luggage for a few reasons. We can get doctor notes, but so can the terrorists.
President Obama is right that we just had a "systemic failure." A known bad guy got onto a plane. But those who pay attention to system failures will tell you that nearly all large scale complex systems fail, sooner or later, particularly when something new and unanticipated gets inserted into the system.
Yet, right now, everyone is freaking out. TSA, the US airline security people tried to subpoena bloggers; Obama is taking his eye off of healthcare to address public concerns over security. Taiwan Air has unilaterally tightened security on flights into the US.
And so it goes.
I see what just happened from a different perspective than from most of those who I've heard or read. I look back to Sept. 11, 2001, and remember a spectacular horror. One that required coordination and collaboration between more than 100 people at least. One that required financial resources and talent.
On 9/11 the whole world was terrorized. In the following months we shuddered when people dear to us flew, or drive over bridges or go to an event attended by many people. We feared for our children and our landmarks.
Al Qaeda had made its signature large and spectacular acts of terrorism. Multiple coordinated assaults killing large numbers of people. Coordinated bombs in US embassies; hitting the USS Cole bombing a disco in Bali.
This is the way to foment terror. Hit anywhere at anytime. Kill people randomly and in big numbers. Make huge craters where building used to stand.
Compare that with a disturbed young man burning his penis off over Detroit.
It isn't that I don't take this event seriously, because I do. But I wonder if the world has not already seen Al Qaeda's best shot and we have survived and retaliated.
Look at a couple of other facts:
- After 9/11, Osama bin Laden, taunted the Western World on a video tape. He appeared healthy and happy. Now, if he's alive at all, he is living a miserable life in dank mountain caves. Even the Taliban who embraced them have stepped back. Being friends with Al Qaeda is just too much trouble.
- The Islamic Republic of Iran in 2001 was the inspiration for the future of fundamentalism. They financed and inspired young Muslim schools where suicides for Allah were seeded into young trusting minds. Now young Muslims are seeing what we see in Islam, a gaggle of old men willing to kill their nations students so that they can hold power in the name f Allah over a nation that wishes them to be gone.
I think it will be a long, long time before there is no need for a war on terrorism. I also think it is important to realize that it seems to be on the wane right now and its strength is waning from inside its ranks as well as from Western efforts to contain and destroy it.
But the purpose of terrorist acts is to provoke terror in those who survive the actual act. Let us not be more terrified than the fcts merit we should be.