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What could have stopped the Christmas bomber?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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backscatter-xray-deviceThe would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently ignited a plastic explosive with a syringe sewn into his underwear on Christmas as Northwest flight 253 prepared to land in Detroit. According to press accounts and the complaint filed against him by the U.S. Department of Justice, Abdulmutallab had secured on his body the explosive device, which contained PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate—the same explosive chosen by the shoe bomber Richard Reid as well as various other terrorists since the early 20th century. The question is: could the device have been detected?

The technology answer is simple: Yes. So-called backscatter X-ray technology (devices that pick up the radiation bounced back by objects) generate a detailed image of any object on a person—as well as the person himself or herself—and reflect back a different image for, say, skin versus a concealed explosive. And other technologies—millimeter wave sensors, neutron bombardment, quadrupole resonance—can do everything from securely screening passengers without a pat-down to determining the precise chemical makeup of an object.

While Schipohl Airport in Amsterdam does have backscatter and millimeter wave devices, the airport does not routinely employ them on passengers as they are just for testing at this point. And Lagos Airport in Nigeria, where Abdulmutallab began his journey and grew up, does not have any of this technology, though it did meet U.S. Transportation Security Administration standards. It remains unclear what screening technology was specifically used on Abdulmutallab, though he likely passed through at least one metal detector while any luggage would have passed through a standard X-ray machine—neither of which necessarily would have picked up an explosive packet or syringe.

More advanced backscatter X-ray devices are routinely employed at the White House, among other high security areas, while millimeter wave sensors have debuted everywhere from London’s Heathrow Airport to Baghdad’s Green Zone.

But no amount of technology is foolproof. Devices must be precisely programmed to detect specific threats, and human ingenuity, whether in the service of drug smuggling or for less nefarious efforts, continues to evolve new ways to evade security measures. In fact, Abdulmutallab passed a routine security screening that involves an in-person interview and his fellow passengers have described him as "normal."

Ultimately, the best defense may be fighting unpredictable terrorist attempts with unpredictable, layered security screening. By evolving one set of procedures and employing a set array of technologies, security officials offer would-be terrorists something they absolutely require: the opportunity to plan. Adding the element of the unexpected to airport screening might be tough on travelers, but it also would keep malefactors guessing.

Image: Courtesy of TSA





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  1. 1. RDH 5:09 pm 12/28/2009

    Keep your enemy guessing. That’s something many don’t seem to understand.

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  2. 2. Soccerdad 6:36 pm 12/28/2009

    This guy practically had "terrorist" written on his forehead. How could they not have stopped him. He purchased a one-way ticket using cash. He had no baggage. He was on a terrorist watch list for God’s sake.

    We need intelligent targeted measures in addition to the blanket measures which have grandma getting a pat down.

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  3. 3. Kelfeind 7:15 pm 12/28/2009

    10,000 people die each year in the US from auto accidents. No one is suggesting that we need federal marshals in our cars. The hysteria surrounding this is deafening. No system is perfect and ours works pretty well. We should learn from this episode and refine an air traffic safety system that seems good enough for me

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  4. 4. LthrwolfTx 7:36 pm 12/28/2009

    What could have stopped him??? Have him on a southwest flight. He would have been dead before the plane landed and nobody would have seen a thing.

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  5. 5. Linus66 7:39 pm 12/28/2009

    I’m with Kelfeind here on this one. While it’s expected that Republicans will make political hay from any incident there is absolutely no way to stop individuals hellbent on death and destruction (that includes state actors like the US, Iran, N. Korea btw) so let’s just all be vigilant yet stop being such frightened little wimps and get on with it. Conservatives are just so scared of everything that goes bump that they are making us all look bad!

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  6. 6. laurenra7 9:10 pm 12/28/2009

    Allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry them (loaded) on planes and vigorously advertise the new policy. No terrorist would succeed in hijacking or attempting to bomb a plane again and the knowledge that people on the plane may be carrying concealed weapons would be a powerful deterrent. It worked in Israel when the government encouraged citizens to carry weapons to prevent cafe shootings by terrorists. The cafe shootings stopped (and the suicide bombing began, which required different methods to deter). Any of you squeamish about weapons on planes, remember that concealed weapons permit holders go through a background check and are responsible gun owners.

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  7. 7. Rogeregon 9:16 pm 12/28/2009

    Linus66, after this incident, the Obama administration claimed "the system" worked perfectly! A man on the terrorist watch list is allowed on a plane with explosives and was only stopped by a private citizen. Where in all of that did "the system" work in any way. I’d say it’s you dishonest liberals who are the problem- you’re all about lies and propaganda and political correctness!

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  8. 8. ceresian 10:49 pm 12/28/2009

    We must systemically approach the problem. Better tech, randomize security – yes. Getting people on the ground to stop them from wanting to kill us – yes!

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  9. 9. thedragonturtle 12:01 am 12/29/2009

    Because the conservatives totally had the problem licked while they were in government…

    unwillingness to annoy voters/corporations is not a problem with the liberals, it’s a problem with the fact that politicians need to get elected (and I like it much better than the alternative)

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  10. 10. thedragonturtle 12:03 am 12/29/2009

    because the conservatives totally had the problem licked when they were in government…

    The fact that the government isn’t willing to annoy voters/corporations is a result of the fact that they have to get elected (and I’m pretty sure I prefer that problem to the alternative one).

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  11. 11. Iahmad 1:21 am 12/29/2009

    SA’s tabloid cheerleading. Why dont you put everyday what would have stopped American bombers from death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or what would have stopped zionist criminal bombers from death and destruction in Palestine. But of course you are a blind patriot who is a cheerleader for your country’s criminal and genocidal policies. As long as zionist and american bombs carry on death and destruction in the world, some people will use all their resources (yes including their life) to fight the criminal state actors like US and Israel.

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  12. 12. Michael Hanlon 1:49 am 12/29/2009

    And the backscatter machines at the White House FAILED to stop the entrance of people not on the invite list!
    It seems that instead of us tightening security on most of our transport systems to 100% safe and letting every one know which were iffy, we’ve spread our resources so that every system of transport has holes in it!

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  13. 13. oldtroll57 6:00 am 12/29/2009

    Japan thought about attacking the mainland, but decided against it because they KNEW that just about every American owned or carried a gun of some sort.
    I agree with the thought registered gun carriers should be able to carry them anywhere. They will not only protect themselves, they will also protect those around them.

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  14. 14. mastermindiklaga 6:44 am 12/29/2009

    As a 27 year old nigerian scientist who believes in the democratic tenets of freedom that USA both preaches, practices and defends, i am hurt and embarassed by this elite islamic son who by the way was living in a $14 million dollars apartment in London’s high class area as a ‘student’ while we the real nigerian youths suffer six months of our university going on strike. I like millions of other nigerian youth love the USA and would fight for her (infact thousands of us have been recruited into your armed forces over the years). For this act of stupidity i can promise the people of america a cultural revolution in nigeria in the not too distant future.then we also will become a land of the free and a home the brave.

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  15. 15. jdh46 8:42 am 12/29/2009

    …. and people still want flying cars

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  16. 16. riborp2 9:36 am 12/29/2009

    I think a high yield committee should be formed without any delay that only keeps discovering various potential techniques of terrorists. Of course, this would need participation of all peace loving nation, societies and individuals. We have seen WTO attack and we cannot let the terrorists devise any other lethal attack on humanity.

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  17. 17. PeterT 5:53 pm 12/29/2009

    Rogeregon – Liar!! Obama just said it was "A Systemic Failure." YOU LIE!

    PeterT

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  18. 18. BuckSkinMan 2:23 am 12/30/2009

    The White House MADE NO SUCH CLAIM about the Bush Security System "working" – it is you, right wingnut, who are the liar. The first statement about the incident from the President was to call for a thorough review of the BUSH Security System which Republicans have been calling "perfect" since it was created by Republican Cretins.

    If indeed Bush’s Security System had been working – you’d be screaming with joy. Instead, you’re here trying to "fool us" into thinking it’s the Obama security system which failed. You can’t get more dishonest and deceptive than you already are.

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  19. 19. BuckSkinMan 2:45 am 12/30/2009

    quote: "Conservatives are just so scared of everything that goes bump that they are making us all look bad!"

    That’s not quite what the Republicans are doing. They emphasize the dangers of "liberalism" and falsely include too casual attitude toward terrorism as one of their reasons. Without exaggerating the danger from terrorists, their claim lacks the necessary propagandist punch. It’s been part of the Republican strategy to scare the uninformed American public since the "opportunity" of 911 came along. Such great Americans are the Republicans (ha-ha!!).

    Joseph Geobbels would be proud of his Republican disciples, we can be sure of that. Are you listening, Karl Rove?

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  20. 20. BuckSkinMan 3:22 am 12/30/2009

    How could "they" not have stopped him??
    It’s paramount to keep in mind that "they" were (1) air port terminal staff in Yemen and (2) air port staff in Amsterdam.

    In both places – there is a MARKEDLY DIFFERENT viewpoint at work – not the least of which might be WARINESS AND RESENTMENT toward the (Bush Era) American demands for "more security."

    Yemen is a very poor ("nearly failed") state. Holland is, well, it’s always been pretty friendly to everyone and they DO depend on tourism for a good part of their economy.

    So "they" doesn’t include but one group of Americans and one part of the American system of air travel security: that is how "they" (Yemen and Holland) allowed this OBVIOUS RED FLAG to fly freely about unhindered.

    But we must add to that – the American State Department being (to say the least) "lax" about the warning they received from the father of the Nigerian youth, Sets His Pants On Fire.

    It was the DUTY of the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to revoke the entry visa of Sets His Pants On Fire.

    So: I want to see Obama order significant discipline for the person or persons responsible for that. THIS would surely act to "heighten security awareness" among all the rest of the vaunted Bush Security System. It is STILL Bush’s baby, lets not forget that. If people inside have gotten careless – then lets see some accountability practiced.

    Oh, and it’s now come to light (according to the NY Times) that Sets His Pants On Fire posted many a lament about his depression, his loneliness and his need for "worldwide jihad" so that he could make his name as a hero. Loser City, eh? In fact, the revelations coming about about Sets His Pants On Fire form a profile which could well be dubbed: the Lee Harvey Oswald Profile.

    We continue to dismiss such losers in society – to our great expense and sorrow. They are "really important" after all.

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  21. 21. BuckSkinMan 3:43 am 12/30/2009

    Iahmad,
    Like most of your kind, you are either lacking in knowledge of actual historical fact or simply denying it exists.

    Your conveniently ignoring that the so-called Palestinians openly endorsed terrorist acts against Israelis and Americans for decades – throughout the 1970s to the day of 9/11/2001.

    That you say Israel and America "carry death and destruction in the world" is a complete screw-up because that death and destruction is always directed at those who INITIATE death and destruction against their citizens, often those are completely innocent of any crime in any country.

    So if you want to lie and you want to pretend you’re not supporting criminals and socio-paths who use religion as an excuse for brutal murder, you can do it somewhere besides here because – we KNOW THE TRUTH about you.

    And by the way – you seem to be advocating as well as justifying terrorist acts against Americans. I certainly hope that Israeli and U.S. intelligence has picked up your trail and will soon be taking you into custody.

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  22. 22. pcurguy 3:53 pm 12/30/2009

    You have to be fully alert at this time of year, not suffering from a hangover after an xmas party. Peoples lives are at stake. Its no good having the technology if you are not awake.

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  23. 23. Sez Me 6:02 pm 12/30/2009

    The most effective way of stopping such things from happening wouldn’t cost a dime. Just get the hell out of other people’s countries, deal honestly with them, and stop thinking we (Canada & US & "Allies") have all the answers and a mandate to force others to adopt our ways at the point of a gun. Sheeesh! Did you think they wouldn’t fight back? Why ? We would, wouldn’t we? Gawd, but we westerners can be stupid sometimes.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Quinn the Eskimo 9:39 pm 12/30/2009

    Not all muslims are terrorists.

    But, all terrorist seem to be muslims.

    Is that any clearer for you now?

    Link to this
  25. 25. Sez Me 9:46 pm 12/30/2009

    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter!

    Link to this
  26. 26. wlwesq 9:55 am 12/31/2009

    As Bruce Schneier has said, we can’t keep weapons out of prisons, so it’s not likely we will be able to keep destructive devices off of airplanes. He also observed only two things have kept airliners safe from terrorists since 9/11: hardened cockpit doors, and passengers willing to fight back.

    The idea of allowing concealed weapons on a plane is not helpful–if this bomber had succeeded on 12/25, there would not have been time to draw a weapon and fire a shot.

    DHS Sec. Napolitano put her foot in her mouth when she said the system worked. It did work after the fact, but it failed in preventing this guy from getting his stuff on a plane. The reality, however, is that the US cannot operate airport screening at every airport in the world. We cannot control how well another nation operates its security, although nations with lax practices could find airlines unwilling to do business there.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Grasshopper1 11:03 am 12/31/2009

    The "Underpants Bomber’s"father did not approve of his son’s terrorist lifestyle, and told the the US to keep a close eye on him.

    The US didn’t keep a close enough eye on him.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Michael Hanlon 1:22 am 01/1/2010

    ……………S.I.M.P.L.E… S.O.L.U.T.I.O.N…………………………..
    Naked passengers, end of story.

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  29. 29. Sez Me 3:49 pm 01/1/2010

    S.I.M.P.L.E…S.O.L.U.T.I.O.N is sure simple. Have you ever heard of body cavities? If drug smugglers can swallow condoms full of drugs, do you think a suicide bomber can’t do the same? If he does it 24 hrs before boarding, he’ll be able to go to the bathroom on the plane to retrieve it easily.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Michael Hanlon 1:11 am 01/3/2010

    What’s he going to do? Threaten to overdose someone with cocaine? If He used Antrax, then the breathing/oxygen system is isolated from the cabin air. So, that won’t work. What else could he (or SHE remember, guys) elsewise cavity hide? A knife? Metal detector at airport ZZZZZZZZing. unh. unh. Maybe a bad batch of beans or humus would fart every one. "Stand back, fly this plane into the ground or I’ll let one rip, Glory to that god."?

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  31. 31. Sez Me 1:39 am 01/3/2010

    Gee Mike, I don’t suppose that a couple of condoms full of C4 and a blasting cap would do any harm, do you? Or that other stuff the "shoe bomber" used?

    Nah…..Mike didn’t think of it so a bomber wouldn’t either………BOOM!!

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  32. 32. Michael Hanlon 9:42 pm 01/3/2010

    Sorry for the delay in responding sez. He could swallow a hand grenade, too. Include laxatives with the tyvec jumpsuit and present your stool at boarding. I know that can be gotten around too.
    In this case though, a "birthday flight suit" would have prevented his boarding in the first place. And how do we stop flights from other nations who don’t follow our conventions?
    Imagine the Attendent asking a passenger to politely put it back into the fully reclined position.

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  33. 33. Sez Me 3:08 am 01/4/2010

    MIKE,
    ROTFLMFAO..!
    I kinda think the hand-grenade would set off the metal detectors. Actually with bio-war materials as advanced as they are, he could just dose himself up with something that is totally deadly, spreads through the air as well as by contact, and could not be detected by present day airport precautions. Actually blowing up a plane with a few hundred people on board does less harm than other methods would do.
    The major security problem for a large country is its own size. The bigger it is the more porous its borders.

    The best defence is to ensure that nobody has any really good reason to wish you harm – Again; stay the hell out of other people’s business & country, and treat folks decently, honestly, and honourably.

    Neither American guns nor its economic power can win the hearts of others. Cleaning up the problems of America, in America, and setting a fine example of how to "do it right" is ultimately the most effective way of showing the world the values that make a nation great. Attacking other countries for cultural, religious, political-economic reasons is sure impressive – NOT!

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  34. 34. Michael Hanlon 2:27 am 01/5/2010

    True

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  35. 35. ChemFred 10:33 am 01/9/2010

    I don’t know where to place this remark, but this looks like a possible spot.
    I’m interested in the chemistry of PETN. It appears to be a nitrated alcohol, much like nitroglycerine. So I assume that it is very contact sensitive and cannot be carried (already synthesized) very conveniently. I further assume that the accused had to synthesize the PETN on the plane and that his syringe contained either the alcohol or the mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids that is conventionally used to nitrate an alcohol.
    So, in a perverse way, the screening systems worked because anyone using this stuff has to bring it along in the form of two clear, colorless liquids (one being very acidic and dangerous) by itself). And any one of us can bring up to 3 oz of liquid in separate containers in a 1 qt. bg in our carry on bags. From many years of teaching college chemistry I can tell you that inexperienced folks cannot then successfully mix these two liquids and get much really good product (explosive). As an aside, binary nerve weapons would be deployed the same way but I assume the components are much more strictly regulated and therefore less likely to show up on our civilian aircraft.
    None of this is meant to minimize the seriousness of the incident, nor that of the earlier shoe bomber.

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  36. 36. BuckSkinMan 2:44 am 01/11/2010

    The "we’re not the world police" argument rears it’s silly head again, I see.

    Our presence in Afghanistan is a direct, legitimate response to the 911 attacks. Our presence never was based on the "we are the world police" argument – so the premise is false from the beginning.

    Our presence in Iraq was MISTAKENLY initiated under the same doctrine. This was a mistake in more than one way since it involved the direction of a wrong-headed, incompetent president (ours). But the result is that Iraq is now free of Saddam AND in control of its own government.

    The so-called Moslem imams who recruit terrorists from their followers are going to go after the U.S. regardless of whether we are "policing" or not. Most, if not all, know they have a path to power, wealth and influence in their own countries and will continue peddling their "jihad" nonsense because of that.

    The threats we’ve seen have all been the result of one thing: dereliction by government agencies and government employees. This applies to every "success" and near success of terrorist actions. Al Qaeda is basically incapable of penetrating our existing defenses but they KNOW these defenses are neutralized by derelict government employees who ALLOW feeble attempts to get through the system.

    The propaganda which says that "we were taken by surprise" on 9/11/2001 is a lie, plain and simple. The NSA and FBI were both tracking some of the 19 Al Qaeda suicide attackers but NSA refused to share vital information with the FBI – ALLOWING the 911 attacks to take place with devastating results.

    So the answer to the question posed in the article is that, yes, the 12/25/09 attacker could have and should have been stopped (prevented from paying cash for a ticket to the U.S. and getting on ANY plane bound for the U.S.). Our own embassy in Nigeria was simply negligent – and the people responsible should be fired and prosecuted.

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  37. 37. barkingbill 1:17 am 02/1/2010

    what would help is if the government would actually take actions to stop terrorists as opposed to helping them board flights without passports…google kurt haskell who witnessed what really happened.

    Link to this
  38. 38. barkingbill 1:19 am 02/1/2010

    what would have helped is if the government would take prohibitive action against suspected terrorists as opposed to helping them board planes without passports…google kurt haskell, he witnessed what really happened.

    "stop patting down grandma" as another comment said and do your job finding the real terrorists.

    Link to this
  39. 39. barkingbill 3:57 am 02/1/2010

    how is it legitimate that we are in afghanistan? on what premise? that bin laden was involved with 9/11? Ill give you a quote buddy…this is from dick cheney! "We never made the case or argued the case that somehow Osama Bin Laden was directly involved in 9/11." surprised? i was too, but the more you dig, the more you find out that they have been feeding us bull from the beginning about all of this terror.

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  40. 40. Steve Tracy 7:45 pm 07/15/2010

    Umar Farouk… Who are you really? Why did you do what you did? Why did you not do what you were tasked to do?
    You’re portrayed an Islamic terrorist; but I’m not so sure.
    You leave Nigeria on a multi-stage international flight that will carry you half way around the world on two planes that are packed with folks traveling for the holidays. But not you.
    You have no family in Detroit, indeed, your journey is to be your final one. No return reservation required.
    Your handlers are memebers of Al Qaeda, the most skilled and vicious of terrorists. They were trained by U.S. CIA during the Soviet’s intrusions of Iraq in the 1980s. Your were trained on the detonation techniques for chemical explosives; the best time for an assured kill. Then you board 253, a luxury aircraft of U.S. registry. It is an environment quite familiar to you. 277 people onboard on holiday; the 278th person was you.
    It’s early morning over the North Atlantic, 12/25/2009. The plane, a Boeing Airbus A330, is cruising at 540 mph, at 43,000 feet. You knew because you were trained that even a minor detonation at that altitude would ensure catastrophic failure of the cabin’s pressure system and a devastating loss of elevator/aileron control. the plane would slam into the ocean at 700 mph. Destruction and loss of life would be absolute. You knew all this, didn’t you? But instead you waited… hour after hour, until 253 was staging for final approach for Detroit, the plane having desended to an altitude that the pilot, if he was worth a crap, would very likely be able to recover the plane from even a serious onboard explosion and land it safely. Why, my young friend, why???
    I am U.S. born Caucasian, but I am not a moron or a hater. I only wonder why you waited. Not all Americans are paranoid asses.
    I think of you quite often. We will never meet. But I wish you well in the future, whatever it may hold for you.
    Steve Tracy, member of the human race

    Link to this

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