Public Skeptical of Increased Airline Security

Mon, Dec 28, 2009 — David Evans


The failed Christmas terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines A330 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit has prompted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase the number of air marshals on airliners and invoke other security procedures, such as preventing passengers from standing or using the lavatory in the last hour of flight.

Air marshals were not aboard the flight. In fact, air marshals are not aboard more than 5-10% of flights, if that, and the announced increase did not indicate how many flights would be covered – 12%, 20%?

Abdulmutallab (insert) and Northwest Flight 253 parked at a remote location at Detroit. Northwest and Delta have merged, which explain's the Delta markings on the plane.

Abdulmutallab (insert) and Northwest Flight 253 parked at a remote location at Detroit. Northwest and Delta have merged, which explain's the Delta markings on the plane.

The lone suspect, 23-year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, was on a watch list but not on a “no fly” list.  He claimed to FBI agents tht he was trained by Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. In a video released online four days before the attempted bombing of Flight 253, an Al Qaeda member in Yemen boasted, “We are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of god.”

“You need information that is specific and credible if you’re going to bar people from air travel,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The suspect’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had previously contacted U.S. authorities, saying he had lost track of his son, who had expressed increasingly radical views and might be involved in a suicide attack.

That attack took place on the Detroit bound jet, when Abdulmutallab apparently tried to ignite an explosive device on his body. He had been in a lavatory for about 20 minutes before returning to his seat and attempting to ignite bomb material in his clothing. The device failed to detonate; Abdulmutallab managed only to set his crotch, legs and seat 19A on fire.  He was subdued, the fire put out and, after the airplane landed, taken into federal custody. He has since been dubbed the “underpants bomber,” an apparent reference to explosives sewn into his under garments.

A video of Abdulmutallab taken into custody after Flight 253 landed.

A video of Abdulmutallab taken into custody after Flight 253 landed.

The incident has spawned numerous comments in newspapers and on the Internet. A few are presented here as an indication of the flying public’s concern:

“It bugs me that the government considers it a violation of this person’s rights to not let them fly or perform more rigid security even though they are on a watch list.”

“ ‘The whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly,’ Napolitano said. So if he was successful in blowing up the plane and the recovery went smoothly afterwards, you would probably say the same thing, ‘We respond properly, correctly and effectively.’ ” [Note: Napolitano later recanted her earlier declaration that the security system functioned “like clockwork.”]

“Flying more air marshals isn’t going to stop any terrorist attack if you don’t have adequate screening procedures! If he was already on a ‘terrorist watch list’ then he should automatically have additional screening performed, including a pat down – not just wanding.”

“I want Janet to answer why the terrorist’s father’s claim could not be investigated. If this act didn’t fail, could she be talking today?”

“Another case of the government being reactive. After the fact is not helpful. It is always ‘security screening has been increased’ and yet TSA remains incompetent.”

“Wanna see airport/airline security really improved? Require all government and corporate ‘leaders’ plus their kin to fly commercial airliners like the rest of us .. People tend to do their job a bit better when their own flesh is at risk!”

“My question: How does a listed terrorist get an explosive device aboard a plane when others of us can’t pass through security with a bottle of shampoo?”

“I find it scary that these marshals weren’t out there doing their jobs prior to this attack (for whatever reason). Something about barn doors and horses comes to mind. I could have sworn that the whole reason for having these individuals fly around the country was to try and stop these attacks.”

“She [Napolitano] sounds incompetent to me. First she doesn’t know how air marshals are assigned to flights; second, the response system works because there wasn’t panic? She should probably be considered for replacement.”

“The American public should demand that the Department of Homeland Security ensure that all databases of potential terrorists are well coordinated and that any passenger in them be subjected to rigorous secondary screening.”

“What a surprise. Another terrorist gets through the Ttansportation Security Administration screening. How much longer do we have to put up with mindless and inadequate procedures before the TSA recognizes that profiling, as practiced by the Israelis, really works?”

“The new restrictions on airline passengers are yet another smokescreen designed to obscure the ineptitude of national governments in preventing terrorist attacks.”

“A system that allows a man identified to U.S. officials as a potential threat — by his own concerned father — to board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with powerful explosives sewn into his underwear? That lets this man detonate his bomb as the plane prepares to land, igniting a potentially catastrophic fire? That depends on a young, athletic passenger to be seated nearby? That counts on this accidental hero to react quickly enough to thwart the terrorist’s plans? If that’s how the system works, we need a new system.”

“If there really are 500,000 names on the ‘watch’ list, let’s, at least for now, put ALL of them on the ‘no-fly’ list.”

“I think the airlines do honestly bear some responsibility for this lapse as well. One way tickets paid for in cash, 13,000 mile trip and no luggage??? What alarm bells did not go off?”

Of these comments, the one about requiring senior government officials to fly commercial, suffering the indignities, inconvenience and security lapses of the overall flying public, seems the one idea that’s worth pursuing. A security complaint from a member of the general public is simply not going to get attention like the same complaint from, say, the chief of staff of the Labor Department.

Detailed questions about this attempted suicide bombing abound. They cry out for answers to the flying public:

— A security video in Amsterdam suggests an accomplice — a well-dressed man trying to convince a gate agent to let the terrorist board without a passport.

— When his father told U.S. officials that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been radicalized and gone to Yemen, why wasn’t his visa to the U.S. revoked or suspended?

— Did anyone notice that Abdulmutallab paid cash for his plane ticket, in an out-of-the-way location (Nigeria), and that he was travelling without checked baggage? If not, why not? And did he requested a seat near the plane’s center wing tank?

This most recent attempt by a terrorist to detonate an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) within the confines of an air cabin has several recent precursors:

1995: Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center attack, was less than a week away from planting IEDs on several U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flights from the Pacific. The IED was successfully tested in late 1994 on an Air Nippon Airways flight, killing a passenger.

2001: An Al Qaeda operative, Richard Reid, unsuccessfully attempted to detonate an IED concealed in his shoe while on a U.S.-bound American Airlines flight originating from Paris.

2004: Two Russian airliners were destroyed, nearly simultaneously, by female suicide bombers who detonated IEDs on board.

One final thought: temporarily increasing the number of air marshals represents an attempt to improve security at the last stage, aboard the aircraft. The real question is what is being done to make the no-fly list a really workable, effective document to prevent boarding in the first place? That question was raised in the case of Richard Reid, and was never satisfactorily answered.

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