Flight 253 and the breach of airport security

On Christmas day, a terrorist on board of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, NOrthwest flight 253,  tried to set off an explosive device taped to his thigh, when the flight is descending to Detroit airport.

The whole incident is best described in Time magazine:

The incident occurred about 11:30 Christmas morning, as Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying 278 passengers from Amsterdam, was in its final descent into Detroit’s international airport. According to the FBI affidavit, a few minutes before the events began, Abdulmutallab went into the bathroom for about 20 minutes then, upon returning to his seat, complained that he had an upset stomach and put a blanket over himself. Suddenly, passengers heard a loud pop and then saw smoke and flames coming from Row 19. “What are you doing? What are you doing?” one woman shouted toward the man, later identified as Abdulmutallab. A male passenger leaped toward Abdulmutallab and pulled him to the floor. Flight attendants apparently rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers. One flight attendant reportedly asked Abdulmutallab what he had, to which he allegedly replied, “Explosive device.” According to the FBI complaint, one passenger saw the remains of a partly melted syringe in Abdulmutallab’s possession and took it away from him, shook it to stop it from smoking and threw it on the floor of the aircraft. Abdulmutallab was then placed in a headlock and pulled into the first-class section. “He didn’t show any reaction to pain, any feeling of shock or nervousness,” one female passenger who sat across from Abdulmutallab told television reporters after the plane landed, shortly before noon. Abdulmutallab was taken to a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The FBI has described the material apparently used in the syringe as PETN, which it called a “high explosive.” PETN is an ingredient in Semtex plastic explosives; it was also reportedly used by the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in his abortive Christmas 2001 terrorism attempt. Representative King said the device was “somewhat sophisticated,” that it was more than a firecracker and that “it should have been detected.” Federal officials swiftly called the incident an attempted act of terrorism. President Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, ordered strengthened security on international flights. The Department of Homeland Security said it had amplified screening measures.

The suspect is the son of a Nigerian banker, and the father was reported to have warned the authority that his son may have extremist views. He was thus on the ‘watch list’ of the authority, but was not on the ‘no fly’ list.

The incident resulted in many red faces in the intelligence circles. But even without  intelligence warnings,,  airport screening should have  detected the explosive. This is of grave consequence, since the failure of airport screening to detect explosive means that all of us , who travel by commercial airlines one time or another , would be vulnerable.. The end result would have been certain death, if the explosive have exploded.

Looking at the reports, there is a breach in airport security safety procedure in this case. I have been to Amsterdam many years ago, a nice place and I really enjoyed the canal cruise there. The Dutch are a very friendly and efficient people(Royal Dutch/Phillips are some of their world renown brands), and they take their tasks very diligently and professionally. SO Amsterdam airport is not manned by people with ‘tidak apa’ attitude. So even with personnel that does not have ‘tidak apa’ attitude, slips-up that are so often the case in Malaysia  can also happen in the developed country.

Amsterdam airport has very advanced security machines too. Besides the normal metal detectors, they have 2 Full Body scanners.. These full body scanners practically stripped you electronically, and your image on the screen will be like that of a naked person. Your bulges and hollows in your body will be shown as clearly as your pimples in front of a bright mirror.

Unfortunately, this person who is on the security watch list, did not go through the full body scanner. He must have gone through the normal metal detectors which would not detect plastics or liquids. HIs belongings must have gone through the compulsory scanners which scan you hand carried luggage. Under the regulation, any liquid more than 100 ml must be discarded, but even those container with liquid less than 100 ml must be displayed to the security officers inside a transparent plastic bag. So how the syringe , which can be between 5 to 20 ml, with the liquid slipped through the scanner?

A lot of unanswered questions are there. Air travel is supposed to be the safest. But with this incident, where a person can slip explosive through a well equipped airport security, then those of us flying  would be like playing the Russian Roulette; you never know when your luck is so bad that there is someone sitting next ot you with an explosive.

The explosive in this case is easily detectable, according to MSNBC, which reports:

The chemical — PETN — is small, powerful and appealing to terrorists. The Saudi government said it was used in an assassination attempt on the country’s counterterrorism operations chief in August.

It was also a component of the explosive that Richard Reid, the convicted “shoe bomber,” used in his 2001 attempt to down an airliner.

Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid. One law enforcement official said the second part of the explosive concoction used in the Christmas Day incident is still being tested but appears to be a glycol-based liquid explosive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

PETN is the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions and can be collected by scraping the insides of the wire, said James Crippin, a Colorado explosives expert. It’s also used in military devices and found in blasting caps. It’s the high explosive of choice because it is stable and safe to handle, but it requires a primary explosive to detonate it, he said.

Crippin and law enforcement officials said modern airport screening machines could have detected the chemical. Airport “puffer” machines — the devices that blow air onto a passenger to collect and analyze residues — would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab.

Terrorism in the air is a hazard, if we apply the rules of safety. It cannot be removed like removing an obstacle in the road. The risk can only be minimised through the adoption of safety policy . Under the policies, we need to implement certain programs to put in place a set of fail safe safety procedure.

In this case, perhaps the first thing all airports should do is to be given the ‘watch list’ in addition to the ‘no fly’ list. Those who man the check-in counter will run the name through their computers and anyone on the list must be marked through the issuance of a boarding pass of a different colour, so that when this person approaches the security check area, he , and he must go through full body scanners , if they are installed. If no full body scanners are available, he can be given a very thorough search, including padding down..

In addition, a certain profile of likely terrorists should be compiled and also be made available to the persons manning the check in counter. Anyone fitting the profile should be given the special boarding pass, and go through the same checking procedures as those on the watching lists.

To ask all passengers to remain seated during the last hour of flight, which is what is being proposed, is not logical, since a terrorist can set his bomb anytime during the flight . Just because in this flight, the terrorist tried to set off his explosive during the last hour does not mean that all other terrorists will do the same.

Rather than restricting the freedom of passengers, it would be better to put in place a more thorough and fail safe procedural process before boarding to reduce the risk of explosives being smuggled on board.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nameless
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 14:31:27

    So even with personnel that does not have ‘tidak apa’ attitude, slips-up that are so often the case in Malaysia can also happen in the developed country.

    Not all things are good overseas. Slip up happens, as you mentioned.

    Not all things are bad too here.


  2. klm
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 15:25:16

    Here is one idea. All passengers to strip before boarding the plane. No clothes allowed.


  3. Dr Hsu
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 16:53:05


    In that case, airport security would be the most coveted job in the world…

    And air tickets will sell like hot cakes even during economic downturns…


  4. Cheers
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 16:54:50

    Nameless said, “Not all things are good overseas. Slip up happens, as you mentioned.
    Not all things are bad too here.”

    BUT the problem is in Malaysia we have countless of bad things happen everyday and our country is turning from bad to worst.


  5. Trackback: Flight 253 and the breach of airport security « Dr. Hsu’s forum
  6. Dr Hsu
    Jan 01, 2010 @ 13:25:04

    This article is picked up by a Amsterdam website, city Guide Amsterdam:


    Social bloggings can have some influence too. AT least, my recomendations get to be read by a lot of other people, and hopefully if adopted, it may help to deter other terrorist attacks and save some lives.


  7. Chauncey Gardener
    Jan 01, 2010 @ 17:22:54

    The one hour “sit-down” was proposed because this is the time when the plane would be in its landing path and near populated places.

    Hence, an explosion over such territory will have higher impact than in mid air. For eg. detonating a device over the South China Sea vs near Changi (example only)


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