excerpt from my book on technology, terrorism, and
DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order, but I have started putting chapters up in
pdf form from time to time.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address.
If you’ve got to fly during the holidays, Christmas Day is as good as it gets. For a brief moment, the crowds drop off. Airports are almost peaceful. And if you start the day early in Europe, you can be in the United States in time for Christmas dinner.
Nearly 300 passengers were taking advantage of that brief respite on December 25, 2009. Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit had been uneventful. No one thought anything about the young Nigerian complaining of a stomach bug; he had spent twenty minutes in the toilet and then covered himself with a blanket when he returned to his window seat in the middle of the plane.
The flight was well into its descent when Umar Abdulmutallab burst into smoke and flames. As the flames climbed the wall of the plane, and a brave Dutch passenger struggled with the man at the center of the fire, the passengers could be forgiven for wondering whether they were flying on Christmas Day or Groundhog Day. For the 2009 attack bore an eerie resemblance to another Christmas season attack eight years earlier.
It was another transatlantic flight, another al Qaeda terrorist from outside the Middle East, and another near miss. Once again, the solo terrorist had trouble triggering the explosive – in his underwear this time, instead of his shoe. Once again, he didn’t get a second chance, as passengers and crew subdued him and extinguished the flames.
Counting the “liquids plot” of August 2006, this was al Qaeda’s third post-9/11 attempt to bring down transatlantic jets. The fixation on destroying transatlantic flights is reminiscent of an earlier fixation on the World Trade Center. It’s safe to assume that they’ll keep trying until they succeed.
We’d known that for years. We’d revamped our entire Visa Waiver Program just to make it harder for European al Qaeda members to launch transatlantic attacks. Yet we hadn’t managed to keep an al Qaeda operative and explosives off flight 253.