The details of the attempted attack on the Amsterdam/ Detroit flight Friday are still murky and I don’t trust the only official from whom we are hearing details, Rep. Peter King of New York. The LAT says Homeland Security is now downplaying the purported al-Qaeda or Yemen connection around which rumors swirled earlier Friday, saying that the al-Qaeda thing may have been “aspirational”.
Umar Farouk Abd al-Mutallib, 23, a Nigerian engineering student at the University College of London, took the flight from Lagos Nigeria to Amsterdam and thence to Detroit. Someone set him up with a leg pouch filled with an incendiary chemical that was supposed to set a big fire on board when he injected it with chemicals from a syringe. The problem with injecting a syringe into a pouch of chemicals nowadays is that the other passengers rather mind. So some tackled him and my guess is, stopped him from getting enough of the syringe discharged to set off a significant blaze. So he just set his leg on fire. It was a replay of the shoe bomber episode, in other words, and suspiciously enough occured on the anniversary of the Richard Reid attempt.
Abd al-Mutallib is said not to have been on a US passenger watch list, but to have been on watch lists of other countries. Or to have been flagged somehow in US records. Larisa Alexandrovna makes the excellent point that the no-fly list in the US is nearly a million strong and many names are there because of pure politics (attended a peace rally), and that if Homeland Security wanted to be efficient they’d pare it down to people like Abd al-Mutallib, for whom they would then have room.
The precise context of such individuals is always difficult to pin down. They fall silent or they exaggerate and lie. I wonder if he has a primarily Nigerian context or a London one. What precise causes animated his hatred? Was he part of an organization or just a small one-off cell?
The incident points to lax security at airports like Abuja and Lagos as a problem for the international system. But it also underlines how difficult it has become for terrorists successfully to attack passenger airliners. Despite King’s characterization of Abd al-Mutallib’s kit as ‘sophisticated,’ in fact the scheme strikes me as hare-brained and likely doomed from the beginning. No cause for complaisance here, but contrary to what rightwing politicians are saying, no cause for panic, either.
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