There’s a sequence in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, based on fact, in which an Arab rebel force led by Lawrence takes the strategically vital Turkish-held port of Aqaba by attacking it from the land. All the Turkish big guns were facing out to sea—the direction from which they expected an attack. It was the first round in a campaign that eventually brought down the mighty Ottoman Empire—and a diagram of how mighty powers can be humbled by tiny, intelligent forces.
The second attempt in less than three years to get a terrorist aboard a U.S.-bound airliner while wearing exploding underpants suggests a similar scenario, and raises the question: where is the true front line in the defense of U.S. airspace? Is it the old lady boarding in Atlanta, or the widely dispersed boarding points abroad for flights bound for the United States? If you consider only the TSA’s approach, you’d think the threats were identical. They’re not.
Now that the latest attack has been foiled, of course, there is a lot of attention being directed at Ibrahim al-Asiri, the 28-year-old Saudi whose signature is all over the newest crotch-clinging bomb. Asiri is rapidly being accorded the status of the Leonardo of modern bombmaking.
Certainly, he is extremely smart and extremely dangerous. But the architecture of the bomb reveals only a part of his understanding of how international aviation operates. Anyone who, like me, studies aviation recognizes in Asiri an aviation expert who has done his homework, studied the architecture of every airplane flying into the United States, knows their vulnerabilities and has the evil genius to convert that knowledge into a ball of fire falling on a major U.S. city. With relatively modest resources, Asiri easily could have ignited another 9/11-level spectacle.
Don’t underestimate how difficult this is: getting a bomb on a plane undetected and then having it detonate at exactly the right point are equally important—and not sufficiently appreciated.
To this end it is instructive to study what is known and not known about the first guy to try this, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253, from Amsterdam to Chicago, on Christmas Day 2009. To me, the single most startling detail of that attempt was that Abdulmutallab booked seat 19A on the Airbus A330.
Bear in mind that he’d already booked his flight by paying cash, that he’d flown the first leg from Nigeria to Amsterdam, and that his father had previously warned U.S. diplomats that his son was bent on making an attack. Any of those facts should have raised a red flag. But seat 19A was next to a window, a soft spot in the airframe, and directly over the center of the wings—in other words, over an 11,000-gallon fuel tank. Detonating a bomb from that seat was a three-way bet: It would blow a hole in the airplane’s skin, and if it penetrated the gas tank the airplane would explode in a ball of fire.
Thankfully, Abdulmutallab’s bomb’s detonator had been damaged by moisture, and when he attempted to set it off, it fizzled.
But just how Abdulmutallab landed seat 19A despite all the previous warning signs has never been revealed. It might well have been disclosed in his trial in Detroit last October. But he unexpectedly entered a guilty plea on the second day, and his lawyer was unable to offer an explanation.
The question is all the more urgent because the new bomb, now being analyzed by the FBI, appears to have improved since Abdulmutallab’s failure and reportedly had a new detonator. (These bombs, which contain no metal, are impossible to detect with the latest generation of airport body scanners.)
This reinforces the point about where our first line of defense should properly be: It’s not the product of the billions of dollars thrown at Homeland Security and the TSA, in a crazily profligate catch-all program—the equivalent of the big guns pointing out to sea. Rather it remains where it nearly always has been, with Humint—human intelligence on the ground that is good enough to do what it did so well in this case, intercepting the bomber before he was sitting in an airplane seat.