Amanda Ripley

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Christmas Surprise: Attempted Bombing of Northwest Airlines Jet over Detroit

25th Dec 2009 posted in Resilience

A Nigerian national allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it descended into Detroit today around noon. The small explosive device burned the suspect’s hands but did no other serious damage, it appears. It’s too early to know exactly what to make of the incident, but a few thoughts to help sort through the frenzy of news that is already whipsawing into circulation.

* Who dunnit? Nigerian suspect, Yemeni device, al-Qaeda connection…?

The bomb, which the New York Times is saying was made partly of liquid, partly of powder, reportedly came from Yemen, and the suspect is said to be claiming an al-Qaeda connection. If true, this is not a shocker. We know that Yemen is a haven for al-Qaeda. In fact, al-Qaeda members have explicitly announced their intention to use Yemen as a regional base. The instability and weak government in Yemen make it very vulnerable to exploitation by extremists. To see footage from a very recent al-Qaeda rally in Yemen, check out this al Jazeera (in English) clip:

* Who’s to Blame? Obama! Yemen! Airport security! Fill in the blank!

Wasting no time, the ranking Republican on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee seized upon the news of the attack to criticize the Obama administration for not taking the Yemen threat more seriously and call for more aggressive action. “People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra told the Detroit Free Press.

An odd thing to say on the very same day that Yemeni forces, back by the United States, launched an air strike on suspected al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen. That strike killed some 30 people and was the latest attack in a series. Last week, a battery of strikes killed about 34 people. The attacks were ordered by President Obama himself, ABC News is reporting.

To further complicate the blame game, these kinds of military raids can actually make the al-Qaeda threat worse, at least in the short term, by boosting recruitment and support among locals. No cruise missile goes unpunished, that old American story. From TIME:

But regardless of who did what, a primary target in the attacks — Qasim al-Raymi, the al-Qaeda leader who is believed to be behind a 2007 bombing in central Yemen that killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemenis — is still at large. And reports of a U.S. role, and mass civilian casualties at the sites of the attacks, have sparked a public outcry and added to anti-American sentiments across the country. ...
Indeed through the backlash that followed, the attacks have started to look like more of a boon than a bust for Yemen’s al-Qaeda revival, as well as for other opponents of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Iran — which Yemen accuses of backing the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north — headlined the attacks on its state-sponsored Press TV with: “Obama ordered deadly blitz on Yemen.”

For now, most of the televised speculation will probably focus on airport security: How could a passenger carry incendiary materials from Nigeria through a connection in Amsterdam? And that’s worth exploring. But if it’s true that the suspect mixed the materials on the plane and injected the liquid with a syringe into powder, which was strapped on his leg, as the New York Times is reporting…. AND none of this worked…well, it’s probably worth focusing most of our energy on understanding U.S. policy and intelligence in Yemen and Nigeria.

* Who is Not to Blame?

Once again, we are reminded that are most reliable counter-terrorism assets are…regular people. As on 9/11, the people who took the most courageous and impactful action were fellow passengers—who helped tackle the suspect and put out the fire, according to the eye-witness account of a passenger sitting three rows back. Check out the blow by blow from the Detroit Free Press:

Syed Jafry of Holland, Ohio, who had flown from the United Arab Emirates, said after emerging from the airport that people ran out of their seats to tackle the man. Jafry was sitting in the 16th row—three rows behind the passenger—when he heard “a pop and saw some smoke and fire.” Then, he said, “a young man behind me jumped on him.”...He said the way passengers responded made him proud to be an American….By all accounts, the suspect was immediately tackled by at least one man, and several other passengers ran towards him immediately trying to put the fire out.

None of this will come as any surprise to regular readers of this blog. But it’s worth pointing out since, in all the hearings that Congress will inevitably hold about the Detroit incident, I doubt much time will be spent talking about how the people in charge should trust regular Americans with more information and work much harder to leverage the dedication of regular people with the same conviction the government invests in new (fallible but highly profitable) explosive-detection equipment.