Details continue to emerge from the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Flight 253 but as important as the details, are some ongoing themes that emerge from the incident.
Al Qaeda continues to obsess about planes. Someone in Al Qaeda is bound and determined to bring down an aircraft in flight. Of all the potential targets in the world, this is the one that Al Qaeda terrorists return to again and again. It is almost as though the mastermind of these operations is more concerned with the achievement of taking down an aircraft in flight just to show that it can be done, or to accomplish it as a personal point of pride, than to reach a strategic or operational goal. One wonders if this mastermind is Osama Bin Laden himself. Bin Laden showed similar single-minded determination in bringing down the Twin Towers despite his failed attempt in 1993.
Body bombs are a growing trend. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused Northwest bomber, had explosives taped or strapped to his leg and triggered them using a syringe. It’s reminiscent of the attempt on Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef by a bomber who had explosives hidden in his rectum. Now that shoe bombs are no longer viable due to airport screening, body bombs are a possible alternative. This raises the possibility of women hiding bombs under veils or in pregnancy prostheses. We should look to techniques used in Iraq to see past use of these techniques. It might require more thorough body screening at airports, perhaps using Z-backscatter X-rays. It also might require that future screening be done separately by gender at airports to accommodate social sensitivities.
Screening works–to a point. While Abdulmutallab’s ability to smuggle PETN onto the plane is very disturbing, the fact is that this method was chosen because so many other avenues had been closed. Shoe bombs are vulnerable because of airport screening, knives and pointed objects can be found and confiscated and liquids cannot be carried in sufficient quantities to mix a lethal batch. A determined bomber must overcome numerous obstacles to carry out his mission. Abdulmutallab did this and the vulnerability he exposed will be closed with time but that in turn will force would-be aircraft bombers to find new and less-convenient techniques.
Families are emerging as one of the most important counterterror allies. No Westernized parent wants to see his child destroyed as a tool of militant extremists. It was concerned parents who warned authorities about the five young men who went to Pakistan to join the jihad and were picked up before they could do themselves and anyone else harm. It was Abdulmutallab’s father who warned the US embassy about his son’s radicalism. That warning was lost amidst the flood of data and the lack of corroborating information. But in the future, family warnings should be given greater weight when they’re turned in. After all, family members are more attuned to the warning signs of radicalism and extremism than anyone else. Without a doubt there are parents who encourage, aid and abet extremism in their children, for example, there are reports that Najibullah Zazi’s father, Mohammed, was part of his conspiracy. But an interesting trend is emerging in westernized, perhaps first generation immigrant families: They don’t want their children conducting jihad and they’re willing to take the enormous step of going to authorities to stop it. Also, they’re conscious of the disgrace and disaster that would befall the family if one member turns out to be a terrorist. That’s a powerful counterterror tool.
It’s often the best educated and most privileged children who are most susceptible to radicalization. This has been commented on in numerous radical movements: It’s frequently the children of privilege and wealth who most ferociously turn against their parents’ and society’s ways. Stretching back to antiquity, the children of the wealthy have often been the severest critics of the established order and at times have worked hardest to overthrow it. In our own time the archetype for this kind of behavior is Osama Bin Laden himself, who left a life of great wealth and privilege to become the world’s foremost terrorist. Another example was Mohammed Atta who had an extensive western education before becoming one of the suicide attackers on Sept. 11, 2001. Abdulmutallab is the son of the retired chairman of Nigeria’s largest bank, was raised in a wealthy household and was well educated in the West.
As time goes on and more facts emerge, no doubt more of the puzzle will come together in the Christmas attack on Northwest Flight 253. The threat is always changing and there will always be new challenges. But even the cleverest terrorist is not immune from developing a modus operandi and following past patterns of behavior. And where patterns can be discerned, they can be anticipated–and disrupted.