finem respice

Two is One, One is None

Submitted by ep on Thu, 01/07/2010 - 13:08
the shape of

Apparently, Andrew Sullivan, who writes "The Daily Dish," a blog over at The Atlantic, is a favored punching bag for... well about everyone not on the far left. I became vaguely aware of the existence of Mr. Sullivan and his blog last week in an event apparently so unmemorable that I can't remember it anymore. It was, however, enough to cause Sullivan's recent attempt at penetrating investigative reporting in the panty-bomber case to catch my eye.

Sullivan relays the email of a "reader" who seems to suggest that this whole attempt-to-blow-up-a-plane thing was some kind of artifice intended to do... well... more damage by not actually blowing up the plane, I think.


If the intent of al Qaeda in this latest instance was to bring down an airplane, then it failed. But if its intent was to create fear and overreaction, then it succeeded Personally, I think it was the latter. It is quite possible (in fact I think probable) that the people who planned this event, and used the young man from Nigeria as a tool, were aware that due to security measures in place, there was no way they could actually get a bomb through that would actually work. The detonation equipment needed would have been detected. The same applies, by the way, to the shoe bomber.

Again, think about it. If you wanted to blow up a plane, would you attempt it from your seat, where somebody could quite possibly stop you? No, you would go to the washroom where you could set off the bomb without disruption.

I'm not certain what the point here is. That security around air travel is outstanding? That instead of being worried about "security theater" we should be concentrating on ignoring "Al Qaeda theater?" That someone is inventing fear to control the population? That Al Qaeda is a powerless entity? That Al Qaeda is fictional? I really have no idea and Sullivan doesn't help us sort out the purported relevance of the email he quotes. Aviation being a keen interest of mine, his article did, however, cause me to reflect for awhile on the evolving nature of attacks on commercial airline targets, and the popular reaction to same.

One thing that annoys me to no end with respect to any contemporary discussion on aviation security is the wanton and unabashed ignorance that seems to grip almost every commentator with the audacity to open their mouth on this particular subject. Sullivan's anonymous reader/tipster is no exception. Why is it that people who have never seen the inside of a cockpit (they are obviously too young to have gotten a plastic wings pin after visiting one while flying, back when such things were permitted) feel qualified to muse extensively on this topic? Take the question of how soft a target airplanes are, for instance:

Firstly, probably owing to years of Hollywood film making that reinforce the notion, many people believe that "explosive decompression" aboard an aircraft is some kind of instantly lethal effect prone to occur and suck passengers out of the cabin or pull lung tissue inside-out whenever someone jabs an ice-pick through the egg-shell fragile skin of a pressurized aircraft. This is probably related to the misconception that aircraft are like balloons or scuba tanks, under some kind of immense, sealed internal pressure. This is, of course, fantasy. Modern pressurized aircraft are, in fact, already open to the outside environment in a number of places while flying- by design.

Pictured above is the outflow valve on a 737-400. Pressure is bled off into the cabin from a system connected, astonishingly, to the engines. This will be obvious to anyone who has actually been on a pressurized aircraft owing to the little throb they feel in their ears if the pilot suddenly increases or reduces engine power.

However, as one might imagine, the crew does not actively manage cabin pressure by changing the speed of the engines during flight. That is controlled instead by opening and closing an "outflow" valve. As you can see, it is quite large. Pressure is bled into the cabin via the engines and the ultimate pressure in the cabin is controlled by opening or closing to various degrees the "outflow" valve. Narrowing or widening the opening for the outflow valve increases or decreases cabin pressure as it increases or decreases the amount of retained air from the stream pumped into the cabin.

It is amusing (if a little sad) to hear any number of self-identified expert assclowns assert that permitting pilots to carry firearms endangers the entire plane because a .45 caliber hole in the cabin will immediately kill everyone on board and bring the aircraft down when a number of 12 inch holes in the skin already exist. Oh well.

In fact, pressurized aircraft aren't even fully watertight when in the air and pressurized. For this reason aircraft have special systems to make them into something other than a screen door in "the unlikely event of a water landing." Witness the famous Airbus "Ditching Switch."

That pressurization is a bit more complex than often understood by self-proclaimed aviation experts should be obvious to anyone who just pauses for a moment to consider aviation experience in, say, the Vietnam war. Any number of pressurized aircraft might be peppered with literally dozens of holes caused by anything from small arms fire to 37mm flak (or worse) in the course of their duties. Provided the damage wasn't massive, partially closing the outflow valve makes up for the increased outflow. If not, the cabin would slowly depressurize as the inflows from the engine system would be insufficient to overcome the increase outflows from dozens of new 7.62mm outflow valves. In fact, a C-130 (not exactly a hardened target) might take several hits in the cabin from even explosive 37mm or larger rounds and still limp home provided there was only limited engine damage. Explosive decompression? Highly overrated.

As it turns out, you don't have to be an expert in aviation to get a hint of what might be going on here. You just have to look at some publicly available documents. Let's run the way-back-machine to December 22, 2001 ironically (or not) also over the holiday season, and turn our attention to the last passenger suicide bomber incident as perpetrated by Richard Reid. From the government's sentencing memorandum:

Each shoe contained a sophisticated explosive device of substantially identical design. The sole of the shoes consisted of waffle-patterned cushioning cells, many of which had been packed with a quantity of plastic high-explosive. Detonating cord, containing a small quantity of high-explosive and designed to propagate the explosion-induced shock wave throughout the plastic explosives to ensure complete detonation, was laced through the shoes’ cushioning cells filled with the plastic explosive. An improvised detonator was filled with a quantity of a non-commercial explosive. A safety fuse containing black powder ran from the detonator and was accessible through the inner sole of the shoes.

Reid took his right shoe and pulled the free end of the safety fuse through the inner sole and out of the shoe. He then attempted to ignite the safety fuse through the use of matches he had brought onto the aircraft. He lit approximately six matches in an effort to ignite the safety fuse, melting the end of the safety fuse in the process. (A photograph of the end of the safety fuse, showing the melting, is attached hereto as Exhibit F.) However, he was not able to ignite the black powder in the safety fuse before he was restrained by passengers and crew members.


Further, if either device had been placed near or against the interior wall of the aircraft at Seat 29J on Flight 63, it is Special Agent Carl’s opinion that the resulting explosion would have breached the outside skin of the aircraft.

There are a number of interesting details here.

First, the description of "plastic high-explosive" apparently refers to plasticized TAPN (triacetone triperoxide).

Second, it is not clear if "detonating cord" is meant literally here. But detonating cord or "Primacord®" is generally used for fusing or triggering other high explosives. It is sort of an explosive string composed of compressed PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) wound up in nylon or other weave, giving it the appearance of nylon rope. Even though generally used as a priming trigger, detcord is still powerful and dangerous. It's often wrapped around trees by troops in the field to clear temporary landing areas in areas with high vegetation. This analysis of Reid's shoe device would explain the media reports that PETN was "mixed" with TAPN. (Taken literally, this makes no sense at all, but if you view the detcord being primed by TAPN, and the media as composed of idiots, then it fits).

(As an aside, finem respice is sure all the cool kids will be wearing Primacord® bracelets this season).

Third, and probably most importantly, if you are Special Agent Carl penning an opinion for the government's sentencing memorandum, why speculate that "the resulting explosion would have breached the outside skin of the aircraft" rather than "the resulting explosion would have resulted in the loss of the aircraft"? Probably because this much explosive might not actually get the job done. Kudos to Special Agent Carl for taking perjury seriously. More on this further down.

It is difficult (probably by design) to put together exactly what was going on here in the Reid case, but it appears that he was trying to use the more sensitive TAPN as a primer for the PETN charges in his shoes. This would make sense given the higher sensitivity of TAPN generally and the description of "detonating cord" (PETN?) Using TAPN as the main charge would be rather dangerous (shock, static and heat all have the potential to trigger the substance) and even producing it is highly hazardous. Why use it at all? Well, probably because it is hard to initiate PETN. You need what amounts to another explosive. Detcord is a commonly used commercial explosive (perhaps even commonly available), but you can't exactly bring blasting caps through security to initiate it.

Interestingly, neither explosive in the Reid shoe is easily detectable by the sort of equipment currently deployed in airports (or anywhere else). Most security checkpoint explosive detection (remember those "sniffers" that would suck air through a swab that had been run all over your laptop bag? Those are ion mobility spectrometry based units. Where'd those go anyhow?) has been targeted to nitrogen based explosive compounds. Reid's fusing device purportedly had black powder in it, but no one was swabbing shoes for explosives in 2001 anyhow. Also, peroxide based explosives (and PETN) are more difficult to catch, which probably explains an increasing resort to them by terrorist groups (the London bombings on July 7th, 2005 are a notable example). Also, their precursors are more widely available and, as a result, harder to monitor and control.

So you have a group that is resorting to ever smaller but less detectable devices. PETN and TAPN are powerful (detonation velocities of ~8000+ m/sec and ~5000+ m/sec respectively) which means you don't need as much, but they are difficult to synthesize and deploy. PETN because of the initiation issue. TAPN because of its sensitivity. Not only this, but planes are not as soft as you might think. Just blowing a hole in one isn't always enough, and when it is, you need a really, really big hole, and your best chances are when the plane is at altitude and cruising speed. If you cannot cause the aircraft's break-up in-flight you need to force it down somewhere unforgiving. Reid's handlers apparently had this in mind. To wit:

Between two and one-half to three hours outside of Paris, while Flight 63 was over the North Atlantic, out of radio range to any land-based air traffic controllers, and en route to Miami, Florida....

Few people are likely to survive a major incident over the North Atlantic (brrr!) by clinging for several hours to a seat cushion (or, as George Carlin once described, "a pillow full of beer farts") even if they survive the explosion, the descent and the water landing.

It becomes obvious that the selection of a window seat by would be bombers is no accident either. Consider:

Reid was seated in Seat 29J on Flight 63, a window seat aft of the wing of the aircraft. The adjacent aisle seat, Seat 29H, was occupied by a man from Italy. Reid had been assigned Seat 29H, and the Italian man had been assigned Seat 29J. However, Reid arrived at his seat first and sat in the window seat. The Italian man decided not to ask Reid to move, and sat in the aisle seat.

The news that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, sitting in seat window seat 19A, injected the device with fluid from a syringe causing it to pop, smoke and burn (but not explode) fits right in when you consider this, also from the government sentencing memorandum:

During Reid’s attempt to detonate the explosive device in his right shoe, Hermis Moutardier, a flight attendant on board Flight 63, and others noticed the smell of sulphur in the coach section of the aircraft. Upon investigation, she found Reid with a lit match in his hand. She requested that he put the match out, which Reid did by putting it in his mouth. Ms. Moutardier then left the area of Reid’s seat to report her observations to other flight crew members, but returned shortly thereafter to find Reid again with a lit match, this time trying to light what she thought was a fuse in the tongue area of his shoe which he had between his legs.

Matches might not have been the best idea. Not only that, but we managed to tell would be bombers that it was not the best idea by subjecting Reid to criminal prosecution and making disclosures like this in court documents. Anyone on the planet with access to the internet can run an after action analysis on the Reid attempt and realize some things:

Matches attract attention.

At the very least you will attract the attention of flight attendants ready to remind some passenger who has been sleeping under a rock for the last fifteen years that there is no smoking on the plane. Butane lighters? Likely to subject you to secondary inspection. (Or at least they were in 2001).

Passengers are paying attention and they will support flight attendants and deliver a vigilantesque smackdown.

Given that the citizen militia (read: wiser, more "paranoid" and more pro-active passengers) has been alerted to the fact that hijackings probably mean a horrible death now instead of 40 hours of air-conditioned negotiations on a tarmac in Mexico City followed by a long bus trip home and an interview on Larry King, attracting attention on commercial flights if you are up to something is a real "no-no" at this point. When you look like you are about to smoke your shoe and you aren't on a flight from or to Jamaica, it is not just the flight attendants that are getting directly and aggressively involved anymore. Terrorists seem to have noticed this.

Switching seats is going to attract attention.

There have been a number of ejections of "suspicious" (and inevitably middle eastern appearing) passengers engaged in seat shuffling. Seat shuffling gets noticed. No more seat shuffling.

First class attracts attention, particularly if you don't look like you belong there.

Need I elaborate on this point?

The long and the short of it is that, for attackers, there is more to worry about than just airport security now.

In response to what amounts to a "defense in depth" structure with every single passenger on an aircraft as the last line of resistance, recent attempts on commercial aircraft have begun to share some common characteristics:

1. A shift to foreign based operations with a nexus to the United States.

No doubt, Amsterdam was selected after reconnaissance identified security there as laxer.

2. A shift from baggage bombs (Lockerbie) and hi-jacking (9/11) to quick and powerful surprise attacks on the aircraft itself by actual passengers.

Read: Suicide bomber initiated explosives.

3. A shift to more complex devices with a focus on low probabilities of detection before attempts to use them.

Boxcutters simply won't cut it anymore- if you will forgive the pun- now we need liquid explosives, or cleverly concealed solid devices that are designed to work through the cracks of the security perimeter at airports. (More on this presently).

4. A shift to more complex devices with a focus on low probabilities of detection during attempts to use them.

Matches? Open flame on an aircraft? Bad idea. Discrete injection of device on lap under blanket? Better.

Numbers 3 and 4 above necessitate weaker devices, and more complex devices not to mention, notably, more sensitive devices. This, in turn, requires more thought to device placement. The preference for window seats seems to indicate that this is a feature of attack design now. I find this irritating because I prefer window seats.

There are some other hints that suggest certain operational shifts in methodology. For instance:

An emphasis on important dates / seasons.

I cannot imagine it an accident that the most recent incident, as well as Richard Reid's attempt, took place over the holiday season. The more sophisticated among extremists are very much in love with the symbolism of timing. Only when the operational constraints of highly complex operations dictate timing (9/11 comes to mind) are exceptions likely to be made. Partly, this might be some degree of religious projection with respect to the importance of religious holidays. (Perhaps the terrorists read a lot of religious census data without considering the widespread presence of Creasters? Perhaps it is tied up with fantasies of a Holy War between faiths?)

Attempts to proxy an attack on U.S. soil without actually touching U.S. soil.

The Detroit bombing attempt is very curious. The lethality of the attack was certainly reduced by targeting the last phase of the flight versus an over-the-Atlantic incident (the aircraft is slower, lower and closer to several big, wide runway). This must have been a deliberate attempt to drop bodies on U.S. soil, and, one assumes, a conscious trade-off between lethality and shock or public relations value. Will forward window seats become desirable as attackers realize that tossing debris into engine intakes increases lethality?

A move away from complex, coordinated attacks on Western targets.

The last real, successful, coordinated attack I can think of off the top of my head would be the London transit bombings, and that was undertaken against a fairly undefended target- in terms of security measures at least. I might be forgetting some, but certainly when it comes to commercial aviation, the attack profile has shrunk down to individual suicide attackers in individual incidents. This makes sense for an organization that is facing a great deal of scrutiny by U.S. and related intelligence organizations. The more complex an attack and the more individuals involved, the more susceptible it is to the efforts of foreign intelligence services.

Underestimating even a crippled and dispersed anti-western movement is a mistake. Consider the 9/11 attack. While it required highly-educated, highly-trained attackers and a great deal of in-country coordination and collaboration, the basic plan relied on fundamental gaps in aviation security:

1. Lax perimeter security even with respect to its core focus: prohibited objects- particularly with respect to unconventional weapons. (Box cutters).

2. Lax cockpit security.

3. Low to no passenger scrutiny on purely domestic flights.

4. A cultural propensity for non-resistance. (Before 9/11 hijackers were generally given free reign until they could be lured into a situation where ground forces could attempt a strike. To this day many police departments preach "don't resist" as an anti-crime mantra.)

In short, the 9/11 attack was successful because it understood very well a few basic limitations of commercial aviation security and developed a novel use of these limitations to maximize the damage inflicted.

So what do recent clues about attack adaptation tell us?

1. A focus on "prohibited objects" is doomed to failure.

Late last year Abdullah Asieri walked through two sets of international airport security complete with metal detectors and x-ray machines before being cleared by palace security and spending 30 some hours in the company of secret service agents protecting Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi Arabia's counter terrorism agency before detonating an explosive device hidden in his rectum. The device exploded and killed Asieri (one would hope) but only slightly wounded bin Nayef. (It appears the device was also PETN based). Screening for prohibited objects (even carried on a passenger's person) is just a losing battle.

2. Relying on "border security" in the United States is not going to cut it when the attack is designed to take advantage of the period before "border security" is engaged.

Apparently, "border security" was ready and waiting to question Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the moment he landed. (Of course, that would have been a dramatically less interesting interview if Umar was laying in a smoldering heap just short of a runway in Detroit). They have managed, however, to revoke his visa in the last 48 hours.

3. Somewhere out there, even as I type this, security personnel at a foreign airport tasked with screening passengers bound for the United States are waiting to fuck up.

And you can bet that advance teams for the attackers are watching to see when and where. Of course, this is both impossible to enforce, and politically sensitive. Already foreign authorities are rebelling against the current "foreign airport crackdown" (Quelle surprise!) and data privacy laws in, say, Canada, prohibit sharing passenger information with the United States for flights passing through (but not arriving landing in) U.S. airspace. (I don't blame the Canadians one bit, by the way).

4. A focus on "prohibited persons" is a political non-starter.

Watch how I end this discussion in 4 syllables or less: "Profiling!" -fin-

5. Turning the focus onto foreign airports is just going to annoy officials of foreign airports and foreign states.

This has already begun, of course.

So is anything working? Well, probably. For instance:

We seem to be moving away from attacks with multiyear long planning phases and spectacular results.

I suspect this is because western military and intelligence pressures abroad prevent this much contiguous planning and training, and make large groups difficult to assemble. Perhaps this is because "safe havens" are more difficult to come by and exploit. Notice, for instance, that this works both ways. The panty-bomber managed to get training and coordination in Yemen, a region that, so far as I am aware, has not attracted much recent attention (but suddenly is the target of military intervention rumors and alarmist geopolitical strategy papers). As this safe haven emerges, and the longer it endures, the more sophisticated (and lethal) attacks are likely to get.1

Domestic security with respect to immigration in the United States appears much improved.

We don't see attackers successfully basing themselves in The States anymore. Attackers have moved abroad and seek to reach the United States before interfacing with its border and immigration controls. Even before Mumbai I always wondered why we hadn't seen three or four attackers slip into the United States, acquire semi-automatic rifles and systematically attack fast food restaurants in conjunction with public statements that no McDonald's or Burger King is safe anymore. (Can you imagine the financial impact of an attack on American fast food infrastructure? The political impact? You can mess with many things in the United States, but fast food and low gas prices are not among them.) That no one has bothered to try (so far as we know) says something.

Attackers appear to be exceeding their technical expertise in attack design.

There have been a number of significant efforts which failed primarily because of technical shortcomings (Reid- fusing failure, Abdulmutallab- detonation failure, Asieri- insufficient explosive force). Three dynamics are likely at work here:

First, an increase in the required complexity of attacks caused by aviation perimeter security. Boxcutters, blasting caps, wired devices, timers and the likes are harder to get aboard aircraft.

Second, a reduction in the ability of attackers to develop technically complex devices. To speculate, perhaps it is the case that pressing attacker groups out of urban areas where technology (wiretaps, informants, signals intelligence) favors western intelligence efforts and into remote enclaves has had the collateral effect of reducing technical capability. Rural areas are less likely to present educated recruits or support an advanced chemistry undertaking, for example. (Just try to get a shipment of nitric acid in the mountains of Pakistan).

Between the two you have a squeeze that pushes attackers into more technically complex attacks, and, at the same time, denies them safe urban areas to find the expertise able to develop (and the environment permitting the development of) same.2

Third, a reduction in the competence, experience, expertise, or capability of individual attackers.

This might actually be a derivative of dynamics one and two. As examples of attackers, the 9/11 group was exceptional. Though they were suicide agents, they were able to avoid most scrutiny in a foreign land, undertake advanced technical training (flight school), develop and coordinate independent elements of the operation, coordinate with the home base effectively and clandestinely, and generally conduct a multi-year sleeper operation. The profile for a contemporary attacker appears to be more along the lines of "get on a plane flying solo and fail to get ejected before you can detonate an improvised device near a window during a particular phase of the flight." Of course, recent examples haven't even been able to live up to this low standard. Recruiting seems to be suffering.

One hopes these dynamics are the result of purposeful multi-front efforts on the part of officials in the United States, rather than an accidental and fortunate harmony that flows from a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach.

Despite all this, as a group, attackers seem undeterred. They continue to find novel cracks in perimeter security and are demonstrably willing and able to adapt their methods to focus on weaknesses in western defenses.

So what might the always-looking-for-the-next-trade finem respice reader take away from a detailed analysis of the present situation?

First of all, policy change (the classic definition of terrorism goals) doesn't seem to be the aim of the attackers. Without a doubt they had an opportunity to engage the present administration (whatever your views of the Obama gang, they are certainly more "dialogue with extremists friendly" than their predecessors) and have, so far, declined to avail themselves of same. America is an essential enemy to have for a group trying to rebuild and establish or expand their global footprint through recruiting. The United States could probably elect Neville Chamberlain and still not enjoy a productive dialogue with extremists.

Second, attacks on European targets simply won't do. No one in the United States really cares.

Third, expect another attack. These guys haven't given up. Expect it to target United States interests. Expect it to originate from foreign staging areas. Expect aviation to be targeted (there is a lot of bang for the buck in this sector for attackers- even if the raw numbers don't justify it).

Fourth, expect it to have economic components. Attackers cannot have failed to notice that the United States is on shaky fiscal footing right now. What might cause a bank run?

Fifth, the lone suicide bomber with sufficient western exposure to at least board a plane or walk into an embassy is the likely attack vector. Expect such to emanate from any of a plethora of third world countries not yet on the U.S. threat board and not likely to adopt U.S. standards for screening.

Sixth, look for small, tailored attacks directed at the soft underbelly of specific targets. (Aircraft are really a prime example here).

Catalysts I am watching for include:

The failure of the United States to concentrate on emerging staging areas. (Yemen?)

The continued failure of the United States to move away from "prohibited items screening." It's easy to design a dangerous item that takes advantage of the many cracks in the system. Boxcutters. Shoes. Panties. The screening infrastructure in the United States has likely reached the political Chandrasekhar limit now that underwear is potentially hazardous. The implementation of devices that, for example, arguably create child-porn when used on minors suggests to me that the first 16 year old suicide bomber is but a few years away. (If that).

The next several years promise to be interesting.

  1. 1. The interested finem respice reader will marvel at the work done by e.g., Sean Gourley on group dynamics, attack size and insurgency evolution.
  2. 2. Cf. Yemen, etc.
[Art Credit: Unknown "Untitled," Digital (Unknown), From the author's private collection. PETN looks harmless on paper.]

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