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Binary Explosives

December 30, 2009

It looks like I spoke too soon by posting my Top 10 for 2009 last week.  Just when you think it’s safe to get back in the skies somebody tries to blow up an airplane with an underwear bomb. (I will avoid the small but obvious temptation to employ sophomoric, prepubescent potty humor here.)

In an effort to underscore the seriousness with which the threat is taken, President Obama yesterday cited “human and systemic failures,” which he termed “totally unacceptable” for allowing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. His failed attempt to initiate an explosive device as the flight approached its destination occurred despite apparent warnings that al Qaeda radicals in Yemen were preparing a Nigerian operative for an attack and a nearly simultaneous warning from the young man’s father that his devout son had fallen off the grid and might be a risk to the United States.

The revelation that the United States government, possibly even two stations in the same intelligence service, had in its possession the information with which to identify and interdict a terrorist target before he could act has been taken as the intelligence equivalent to the binary explosive device that Mr. Abdulmutallab sought unsuccessfully to detonate. Like the alleged terrorist, the intelligence community’s technology failed to operate as intended.

Neither event should come as much of a surprise. Perpetrating a terrorist attack on an airliner remains a very complex undertaking, which has no doubt become more complicated due to the measures taken by the United States and its allies since 9/11. Assembling and actuating an improvised explosive device remains a complex and risky undertaking for those handling it, especially when it must be designed and deployed in a fashion that renders it both difficult to detect and under the deliberate control of an operative. A device of the type employed in this instance is difficult, if not impractical to test beforehand.

Soon after the attack, we learned that Mr. Abdulmutallab had come to the attention of officials at the U.S. embassy in Lagos, Nigeria after his father expressed concern his son had been radicalized. This understandably rare approach from a distressed parent raised appropriate alarm bells, but was not in and of itself sufficient cause to consider Mr. Abdulmutallab a full-fledged terrorist.

This morning we learned more about the information that might have led President Obama to characterize intelligence failures in such stark terms.  News reports indicate that intelligence services monitoring communications in Yemen intercepted an exchange in November indicating that an unidentified Nigerian operative was prepared for deployment. In hindsight, it seems clear that these two pieces of information are related. But combining them, like actuating the explosives Mr. Abdulmutallab carried, is harder to do than it seems.

In addition to the President’s statement yesterday, we learned a bit more about the alleged bomber himself from what appear to be his own posts to an Islamic chat room on the internet. While these musings help paint a picture of a lonely, troubled young man struggling with his identity, purpose, and relationships, these writings do not suggest anything more serious than the sorts of emotional difficulties that face many young men as they reach adulthood. Taken in the context of his activities at the time, rather than our knowledge of the present circumstances, they seem rather constructive even reasonable attempts to seek stability and direction.

That Mr. Abdulmutallab found stability and purpose, despite education and advantage, in associating with terrorists understandably troubles us. But it also suggests we should not look for easy answers lest we fall prey to the same sort of misfortune Mr. Abdulmutallab himself now faces (or would have, for that matter, had he succeeded in his designs).

By definition, a systemic failure occurs when multiple, independent structural deficiencies conspire to permit the occurrence of an unwanted or unintended consequence, which would otherwise have been avoided had any single deficiency not existed. While we examine the multiple missed opportunities that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to come so close to bringing down Northwest flight 253, we should not overlook the fact that his attempt ultimately failed.

In our efforts to outdo ourselves and improve the performance of the aviation security and intelligence processes associated with this incident, we must remain mindful that success has its own perils. Like Mr. Abdulmutallab we may either become entangled in our own plot or have to destroy ourselves to succeed in any meaningful way.

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