A Reflection: 10 years after the ‘Underpants Bomber’

A Reflection: 10 years after the ‘Underpants Bomber’

Air transport has seen exceptional growth over the past decade. Aviation security has developed exponentially, with a view to foiling the ever-present terrorist threat. It’s a kind of race, a virtual competition in which ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ are the contenders and the prize could either be the sensations of wellbeing or sheer terror. The trophy depends on the winner. The impressive evolution of the aviation security industry suggests that the terrorist menace is an issue that deserves careful examination and attention. Darío D. Delfino provides a timely reflection ten years after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an IED concealed in his underwear on a Northwest flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Air transport has seen exceptional growth over the past decade. Aviation security has developed exponentially, with a view to foiling the ever-present terrorist threat. It’s a kind of race, a virtual competition in which ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ are the contenders and the prize could either be the sensations of wellbeing or sheer terror. The trophy depends on the winner. The impressive evolution of the aviation security industry suggests that the terrorist menace is an issue that deserves careful examination and attention. Darío D. Delfino provides a timely reflection ten years after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an IED concealed in his underwear on a Northwest flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

I am from Argentina. Having graduated as a translator, I decided to enrol on a course for aviation English raters in the UK, which commenced in February 2019. Before my flight to Plymouth, my worst fears began to pop up in my mind; would the flight control software fail? During high altitude flight, could a pitot tube become frozen and give a false reading to the instruments on board, causing a tragedy? Sometimes I would find myself working out a plan in case we crashed into the middle of the Atlantic. Could I swim? Yes. Could I save other survivors? I don’t know. The more I thought about it, the more it filled me with fear. In any case, in the event of an air crash, as a passenger, things would be beyond my control; I’d have to be prepared to try and survive the crash, on land or at sea.

But there was something else that I had never really thought about – the possibility of a terrorist attack or hijack. The truth is that air passengers, and ordinary people in general, have confidence in the advanced systems that protect us from such threats. Air transport is by far the safest way to travel and, over the last decade, there have been dramatic technological advances in air safety, and accident statistics from this period demonstrate that confidence in air transport is not misplaced.

With that in mind, the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach vanished and was replaced by a mellow sensation of optimism. According to World Bank data, the number of air passengers globally in 2010 was 2.628 billion. By the end of 2019, there are expected to have been 4.233 billion Passengers who will have flown on an estimated 39.4 million flights, representing an increase of over 50% since the start of the decade.

In 2018, the global security screening market was valued at US$6.95 billion and it is expected to grow to over US$13.6 billion by 2027. The security screening market includes technologies such as X-ray scanners, biometric systems, and explosive trace detectors in public places, airports, seaports, railway stations and others.

Aviation makes up a substantial part of the transportation industry and its size, impact, integration and global nature make it vulnerable to attacks. Over the years, we’ve witnessed persistent threats to aviation and recognise that they will continue as long as there are people who want to cause harm.

The Threat: the art of concealment

Creativity and resourcefulness of the criminals who try to breach security barriers show noteworthy ingenuity and an attention to detail.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have long existed and yet they remain a major threat to aviation and security. IEDs are often made from common household products and range from the simple to the elaborate. They can be assembled in several different ways and be a range of different sizes, enabling concealment in any number of items.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the former London University student who tried to detonate a bomb above Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had smuggled his explosives on to the aircraft in his underpants.

Since the Abdulmutallab incident, now a decade ago, there have been heightened concerns surrounding creative concealment techniques and a new generation of IEDs and components that will be even more difficult to detect. This includes thermite-based incendiary devices which the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) acknowledges are a serious threat, burning violently at a high temperature.

Today’s IEDs can be created and assembled using materials commonly available to purchase at both local stores and online. IED components are easier to obtain than ever before and are inexpensive to produce. IEDs can be electronically programmed to detonate either automatically or remotely. They can be cleverly constructed with elements that are difficult to detect such as non-metallic components and be enhanced with extra materials to increase the explosion’s impact using shrapnel and hazardous materials.

A frequent component of modern IEDs is peroxide. The most common peroxide explosive is triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which is made from two liquids: acetone, the primary ingredient of most nail polish removers, and hydrogen peroxide, commonly used as an antiseptic when diluted. TATP, which can be used as a detonator or a primary explosive, has been used in al-Qaeda-related bomb plots and by Palestinian suicide bombers.

Other concealed weapons could include knives disguised as lipsticks, combs, or other every day, harmless objects. By way of example, the following illustrations depict sharp-edged, non-metal blades and knifelike weapons which could be easily concealed and overlooked.

Finger grip non-metallic knife
Finger grip non-metallic knife

This kind of weapon is made of a very strong nylon composite that is almost as hard as steel. It can be driven through plywood like a nail and go completely undetected when passing through a metal detector.

Carbon fibre ventilator
Carbon fibre ventilator
A knife comb
A knife comb

With what appears to be no more than a cheap pen in a shirt pocket, someone with negative intent can carry a potentially devastating weapon onto a plane.

It looks like an innocent, common item when sheathed, but it can become a deadly weapon when drawn.

In addition to concealed weapons, it is worth mentioning that criminals may also be equipped with methods to conceal their own biometrics such as fake latex fingerprints and using contact lenses to fool iris scanners.

Counter-IED Efforts

Since the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab incident, security and defence sectors around the world have made countering the IED their primary focus. It is imperative that security screening personnel be trained in IED recognition. This includes developing a thorough understanding of IED components, recognising and identifying suspicious activities, using detection equipment, and keeping up with the latest threats and concealment techniques.

Technological developments such as advanced imaging technology (AIT) increase the ability of security screening procedures to prevent unwanted items from passing the checkpoint and, of course, minimises the possibility of an attack by an individual/s concealing non-metallic threats (including weapons, explosives and other objects) under layers of clothing. However, whilst the radiation risk from backscatter X-ray screening is extremely low, passengers do have health concerns.

Afterword

Aviation and air transport are vital factors in the growth of any economy. As such, the responsibility for improving its security should not be placed on the industry alone and governments, both at the federal and state level, should make efforts to support developments which aid in eliminating aviation security threats.

Cutting-edge technology applied to aviation security has the potential to revolutionise airport security worldwide, not only for passengers, but also cargo. However, terrorists will always strive to be one step ahead, so it is vital that security measures are preventive, rather than reactive, and that the industry continues to innovate.

To achieve effective aviation security standards governments, regulatory authorities, aviation agencies, security personnel and other security departments must work together to ensure the development and effective implementation of standards and recommended practices (SARPs). Terrorists will feverishly seek out vulnerabilities and the aviation industry and law enforcement agencies must remain aware of the latest methods and developments in concealment. To support this, the different actors involved must be on the same wavelength, act together and be prepared for the next challenge.


Darío Delfino

Darío Delfino is a translator and liaison interpreter. He works as an HR analyst and logistics operator in Murchison Argentina, a major logistics company. He spent most of his working life in the Argentinean Naval Aviation. Based in Santa Cruz, Argentina, he is currently the assistant to the Integrated Management System coordinator at Murchison’s Puerto Deseado branch. He can be contacted at: ddelfino@murchison.com.ar