It was terrorist incompetence and fast-thinking passengers--and not billions of dollars in air transport security--that prevented disaster in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day.
ABC News reports that the plot to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was averted only because a detonator failed on an explosive device smuggled onboard the aircraft by a suspected terrorist. That man, Nigerian-born Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, was subdued by other passengers and members of the plane's cabin crew as he fumbled with the device, which contained at least 80 grams of the explosive PETN.
FBI officials told ABC that the amount of PETN carried by Abdulmutallab was enough to destroy the Airbus A330 aircraft, traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit. But a faulty, syringe-type detonator apparently failed to work as planned, preventing a major explosion. Abdulmutallab did manage to set fire to his clothing and carpeting near his seat. He suffered third degree burns and is currently in a prison ward at a Detroit hospital.
Investigators say the explosive was sewn into Abdulmutallb's underwear, and was not detected by airport security scanners or personnel. And, the breach appears even more serious than first thought. According to various media outlets, Abdulmutallb's father, the chairman of one of Nigeria's largest banks, personally alerted the U.S. embassy in Lagos about his son's "radicalization" last year.
It is unclear if information from the elder Abdulmutallab was forwarded to counter-terrorism authorities in the U.S. However, other officials say the son's name was entered into a terrorism database several weeks ago. Additionally, Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab was recently denied an entry visa by the British government, but he was still allowed to board the Northwest flight in Amsterdam.
Congress has promised hearings into the matter, but those won't be held until early 2010. In the interim, there are serious questions about how many bombs may have been manufactured by Al Qaida's Yemen affiliate, which provided the device to Abdulmutallab. A recent Predator drone strike killed several high-ranking terrorist leaders in that country (including radical cleric Anwar Alwaki), but the attack did not prevent the production of the bomb that Abdulmutallab smuggled aboard the Northwest flight.
It is highly unlikely that the Nigerian man is the only operative dispatched by Al Qaida in recent weeks. There will almost certainly be more attacks--or at least, more attempted attacks in the coming weeks. We can only hope that our luck holds.