Suicide bombers pose only a marginal threat to society


Is anybody working on scanners to identify deranged investment bankers before they trigger another global apocalypse? writes TONY KINSELLA

WE ARE now almost as familiar with the failure of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as we are with the failings of Tiger Woods. If tales of the latter’s peccadilloes play to our prurient curiosity, the former’s scorched underpants play on our fears.

In the deadly cat-and-mouse game of air piracy, is the threat really that menacing? Are we letting ourselves be hijacked by the hijackers by offering them such extensive global publicity?

The first phase of aircraft hijacking entered our consciousness in September 1970 when Palestinians spectacularly hijacked British, Swiss and US airliners to the remote Jordanian airfield of Al Azraq, which had begun its life as Dawson’s Field RAF base. Having transferred passengers and crews to Amman, the hijackers blew up the planes on September 12th.

Jordanian forces subsequently attacked Palestinian camps in what would become known as Black September. On September 28th, 1970, US president Nixon assured freed US hostages in Rome that action would be taken to prevent potential hijackers from getting “on planes with weapons or explosive material”.

This first hijacking phase lasted for seven years, as metal detectors were introduced and security tightened. Armed hijackers would take control of a plane and fly it to a sympathetic destination from where they would demand the release of prisoners and/or a ransom. Most governments, lacking credible alternatives and despite loud protestations to the contrary, opted to negotiate.

The second hijacking phase began in October 1977 when the GS9 elite German border police unit successfully stormed a hijacked Lufthansa 737 at Mogadishu airport. Would-be hijackers now found it increasingly difficult to smuggle arms on board, while security forces around the world created units specialised in assaulting hijacked aircraft.

Even less than completely successful rescue attempts, such as the Egyptian commando assault in Malta in 1985 when 58 passengers perished, did not alter the ground rules. Flight crews should offer no resistance and get their plane safely on the ground as quickly as possible. Passengers understood that their best interests were also served by not confronting armed hijackers.

This second, armed-intervention phase of hijacking ended at Marseille’s Marignane airport on St Stephen’s Day 1994. Algerian hijackers had seized an Air France Airbus. The French government believed they intended crashing it as a flying bomb into central Paris. The elite GIGN unit of the French gendarmerie stormed the plane killing all the hijackers.

The world now faced a new terrorist threat, one that involved using aircraft as bombs rather than bargaining chips. It was a threat many did not fully comprehend until terrorists armed with nothing more than box-cutter knives made it catastrophically clear on September 11th, 2001.

Just before 9am that day, American Airlines flight 11, en route from Boston to Los Angeles was crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. United Airlines Flight 175, also Los Angeles-bound from Boston, was flown into the south tower less than 20 minutes later.

The terrorists had selected transcontinental flights because of their full fuel loads of nearly 90,000 litres each. These transformed two passenger planes into bombs sufficiently powerful to destroy the World Trade Centre.

In their ghastly success the terrorists, probably unwittingly, changed the rules of hijacking and rendered it all but impossible for others to follow in their footsteps.

United Airlines flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco took off just as the first plane hit in New York. When passengers realised they were in any case destined to die, they fought for control of the plane, which eventually crashed in a Pennsylvania field at 10.03am.

Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch passenger who overpowered Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as his failed bomb set his clothes alight, was operating within this “nothing to lose” approach on Northwest’s flight 253 as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day.

While this offers little comfort to the 290 people aboard that flight from Amsterdam, it is important to recognise the amateurish failure of al-Qaeda’s latest attempt. A potentially lethal failure, but a failure nonetheless. Enhanced security has robbed terrorists of the hope of seizing control of an aircraft. They must now confine their efforts to destroying a plane, even one with its fuel tanks almost empty as it comes into land.

Abdulmutallab’s bomb contained about 80g of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), the same explosive that had failed Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) in his 2001 attempt. The PETN was either home-made or commercial, not the more powerful military block version whose texture gives it its common name of plastic explosive. His acid or nitroglycerine detonation attempt failed, leaving the PETN to burn furiously.

US intelligence did not manage to usefully synthesise the different elements at its disposal, but al-Qaeda also threw away a golden opportunity to use a malleable Nigerian in potentially much more lethal ways.

While new scanners will reduce further terrorists’ already limited field of action, better intelligence systems and co-operation between agencies remains vital. Boston and Newark airport police could have easily prevented the September 11th attacks, had they been forewarned.

Washington needs to resist the temptation to become embroiled in Yemen, another wobbly Muslim country where the fusion between former Ottoman and British colonies remains far from complete. Aden was the terrain for Britain’s last failed colonial campaign, and an injured Nigerian, a burned airline seat and bruised amour propreare insufficient reasons for the US to plunge into yet another Asian morass.

Meanwhile we need to confront the stark reality that suicide bombers, however terrifying, pose no more than a marginal threat to humanity.

I wonder if anybody is working on scanners to identify deranged investment bankers before they trigger another global apocalypse?