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Trouser-bomb clown attacks - how much should we laugh?

Reg investigates case of the undertotally-pants bomber

By Lewis Page, 8 Jan 2010

Comment As the smoke clears following the case of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the failed Christmas Day "underpants bomber" of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 fame, there are just three simple points for us Westerners to take away.

First: It is completely impossible to prevent terrorists from attacking airliners.

Second: This does not matter. There is no need for greater efforts on security.

Third: A terrorist set fire to his own trousers, suffering eyewateringly painful burns to what Australian cricket commentators sometimes refer to as the "groinal area", and nobody seems to be laughing. What's wrong with us?

We'll look at the first part to begin with.

In order to destroy an airliner and kill everyone on board, one needs to do a certain amount of damage to it: a lot if it is on the ground without much fuel in it, not so much if it is fuelled up, less yet if it is flying at low altitude, and least of all if it is flying high up.

Formerly there was the option of gaining access to the flight deck - perhaps using the aircraft as a weapon, as on 9/11, perhaps to carry out a hostage strategy - but those days are gone. The 9/11 hijackers have seen to it that the best and most effective ways for terrorists to employ airliners are no longer open to them. Pilots will never open flight deck doors again, no matter the threat to hostages in the cabin; passengers will not permit themselves to be dominated; armed sky marshals are back. If all these fail, following the bloodbath at Ground Zero fighter pilots will not hesitate to shoot.

So the damage must nowadays be done by other means than crashing, most practically by detonating a charge of high explosives on the plane while in flight. This doesn't need to be too big, especially if the jet is at cruising height so that the explosive effects will be enhanced by depressurisation. This is why airliners are a favourite target: because a fairly small amount of explosive can potentially kill a large number of people in one go, which is not the case under most circumstances.

It is an unfortunate and pretty much unavoidable fact that the necessary amount of explosives can easily be carried through any current or likely-future airport security regime, short of universal strip + cavity searches and a total ban on carry-on luggage.

Let's consider, for instance, a future security check involving backscatter X-ray-through-clothes perv scans - much more effective than millimetre wave - and X-raying of carry-on bags as is already normal. There are several ways to beat this.

Firstly, detonators and firing devices can be disguised within permitted electronic equipment such that they will pass through X-raying without trouble. An AA battery casing full of hexamethylenetriperoxidediamine (HMTD) - or some similar sensitive primary - with a flashbulb filament in it is almost impossible for an X-ray operator to pick out from among others, and can be triggered by the flash circuits of any camera.

The difficult bit is the main charge, which needs to be a decent weight and volume of acceptably stable high explosive. But it's not that difficult. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Several terrorists - only one of whom would need to go aboard the target flight - could carry permissible amounts of liquid explosives through security, combining them later in the air-side lavatories.
  • Readily available plastic explosives can be rolled out into flat, uniform sheets - they can actually be bought in this form, for instance under the name "Sheetex" - and cut to shape with ease. Such sheets can easily be inserted into luggage, where they won't look noticeably different from normal cardboard or plastic structure, partitions etc under X-ray if they aren't too thick. There are many other ploys along these lines; a sensible and well-resourced terror group could probably buy an X-ray machine and develop a bag containing a charge, detonator and firing circuit which looked entirely legit under scan.
  • Reasonable amounts of main charge can be carried stuffed into body cavities, undetectable by any body-scan. They would need to be removed before use in order to escape the pronounced dampening effect of the human body, and probably combined with other such payloads to get a bang sure to do the job, but again teamwork and lavatories will see to this.
  • There's more scope still for the use of checked baggage. US and many other airports nowadays X-ray this, but there are airports which don't. You can easily find out, as a terrorist organisation, routes on which a checked bag won't be X-rayed by packing some unexposed film and making some flights. Once you have identified an airport that doesn't X-ray checked bags, simply put a large time- or barometrically-triggered bomb into a suitcase and have your suicide operative check it before boarding.

The list goes on - and on. Any reasonably competent terrorist organisation, with access to funds, capable technical experts and a small number of operatives able to move about the world freely can blow up airliners in flight. You wouldn't even necessarily need suicide volunteers to carry the bombs, if you were cunning: dupes might be convinced that they were smuggling drugs, money or other contraband, or IRA-style "proxy bombers" could be forced to do your bidding by seizing and threatening their families.

OMG - why aren't we all already dead?

Even if a security miracle occurs and the option of sneaking a bomb onto planes is somehow removed, there still exists the option of shooting planes down. Shoulder-launched homing missiles can be had in some parts of the world. From those same parts of the world, huge tides of illegal immigrants and drugs routinely move into Western nations despite all our governments' efforts to stop them. It would not be hard to move small packages like "double-digit" (SA-14, -16, maybe even -18 if available) anti-aircraft missiles along the same routes.

So, assuming a well-funded, numerous, committed, competent terrorist enemy without scruples and with a broad base of support from which to draw numerous recruits, airliner attacks can't practically be prevented. Planes should be exploding every day, really: if not planes then trains, another situation where blast effects can be magnified. If neither should suit, a few men with automatic weapons can bring a city grinding to a halt fairly easily, as the residents of Mumbai will tell you.

But the truth of the matter is that there is no such enemy out there. Funds are occasionally available, true; the 9/11 plotters were quite well-backed, and even if a terrorist group has no access to oil or gas revenues there may be the option of dealing in heroin as the Taliban do. (Note that all of these sources of money ultimately come from us.)

But people who are willing to kill innocents en masse as a primary goal are fairly rare birds. In Afghanistan you can easily hire large numbers of men for quite small sums of money to do fantastically dangerous things like taking on the British and American armed forces in open combat; some will even cover their own expenses, and a fair few will happily mount a suicide strike against Western troops. In general, just like the Western troops themselves in many instances, these fighting men are quite willing to accept a lot of collateral damage to local people as a cost of doing their main business.

But an awful lot of them would no more intentionally blow up an airliner, nightclub or train full of peaceful folk, would no more open fire into a crowd of unarmed civilians, than a Western soldier would. The likelihood of such squeamishness goes up markedly when you're recruiting outside the unruly and often aggrieved warrior tribesmen of central Asia, as you'll probably have to do for operations against the West.

Assembling a team of committed, loyal mass-murderers is actually very difficult, then, as such people are rare and hard to find. In fact, as we've pointed out in these pages before, the average size of potential terror cells operating in the UK and known to MI5 is ten members. This strongly suggests that five people or so is the upper safe limit before there's a strong chance of a cell having an informer in its midst or among its acquaintance.

It's just about possible then that one might assemble a loyal team of five or a few more and manage to remain, if not off the security services' radar altogether - it normally turns out that successful terrorists were on file somewhere - then far enough down their list to give you some time before you get put under surveillance.

"The system worked" - or more accurately, it is working. Just fine

It's even remotely possible that this small, dedicated and thus unmonitored organisation may contain a few people with the technical skills or contacts to make or obtain bombs or other weapons which actually work. This is rare: more usually you'll get an embarrassing and often inadvertently-funny failure as in the cases of Richard Reid, the comically inept UK "car bombers" of 2007, Mr Mutallab this Christmas, etc etc.

Sometimes it will be 9/11, and there will be cash in good supply; sometimes it will be 7/7, and competent bomb-making will substitute for money. In neither of those cases, however, was the organisation capable enough to make an effective strike without the use of suicide tactics. Thus those two teams - two of the most serious ever seen in the West under the jihadi banner - wiped themselves out in just one operation. The Madrid bombers, another rare effective group, managed to avoid killing themselves during the operation but were subsequently caught and thus eliminated as a threat just as permanently.

So, even in the rare case where an operational jihadi terror unit is small and committed enough to avoid detection and yet has resources enough to make an effective strike, it is almost always out of play after just one operation. This wasn't true with the more effective terror groups of yesteryear, like the Provisional IRA; but their recruiting/commitment issues were easier, as they had a stated policy against mass murder of civilians (and they were riddled with informers anyway).

That's why planes and trains aren't blowing up every day; why people aren't opening fire into crowds every week (not even in Israel, quite a lot of the time). Because most people, even people who in all other respects you would describe as fanatical extremists, just aren't mass-murderer material - and those that are tend not to be the brightest or most competent buttons in the box*.

That's why the threat of terrorism in general, and airborne terrorism in particular, has been reduced to negligible levels by the measures already in place, and no more are necessary.

No, really. Don't worry about terrorism next time you take a flight. There is a very small risk, as an airline passenger, that you will die violently before you land, but it has nothing to do with terrorists. It is entirely down to the chance of an accident.

Consider this, if you don't believe it. The year 2001, which saw four entire airliners destroyed with total loss of life on 9/11, was not in fact a particularly dangerous year to go flying. More airline passengers died in the year 2000; nearly as many died in 2002. Twice as many were killed flying in 1972, despite the fact that many fewer people flew back then, because airliners were far less safe.

Terrorism simply isn't a visible factor in your chances of dying while flying, or indeed while doing anything else: it is insignificant, a problem that has been almost totally eliminated for Western citizens since its not-very-serious heyday in the 1970s and 80s, and you shouldn't worry about it. It would make absolutely no noticeable difference to your or my chances of violent death/injury if terrorism was eradicated overnight.

"The system worked," said US Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano shortly after the attack, and in the largest sense she was right. Terrorism, like polio, has been effectively stamped out in the developed world - had mostly been so before the Department of Homeland Security was even created, in fact, but that's by the by.

Napolitano was subsequently forced into an abrupt volte-face by sectarian US politics and cretinous media-pumped fear, but she was basically right first time. The free world's counterterrorism system as it stands is working as well as anyone could reasonably ask for.

In the end, the correct response to efforts like those of Mr Mutallab and his incendiary undergarments is not panic and more security, but laughter - much as one might also laugh at the idiotic bum-kamikaze whose efforts, erm, backfired so messily in Saudi Arabia last summer.

Mr Mutallab should go down in history not as the underpants bomber, but simply as the completely pants bomber. ®

*Mutallab, quite apart from having a rubbish bomb which he should have known probably wouldn't work (he didn't study proper engineering as widely reported, but "Engineering with Business Finance") committed several other blunders. He should have tried to blow the plane up at height, not at low level; doubtless the idea was to bring the plane down into an urban area, but if Mutallab had been a real engineer he'd have known his pant-bomb needed all the help it could get from decompression. Then, he shouldn't have triggered his device such that everyone could see what he was doing and that he was responsible for it. He shouldn't have told his family he was off to become an extremist and cut off contact in the first place, which is what led to him being on various security-services lists - much good though that did.

All in all, a piss-poor performance even among today's generally rubbish terrorists.

Lewis Page went through a lot of quite stressful training and preparation to battle the terrorist threat before being assigned as a military bomb-disposal operator in support of the UK police from 2001-04. He has still never got over the disappointment of finding out just how incredibly rare it is, as a bomb-disposal man in mainland Britain, to encounter a terrorist/criminal bomb of any significance at all, let alone one which has not already either gone off or failed to do so.

You get a special tie if you ever do encounter such a device.

NB: Any terrorists reading this should be aware that an essential precaution has been left out of all the bombing plans above, without which any attack is 90 per cent or more likely to fail due to a classified security tactic in use by the UK (and presumably the US).

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