In the headlong rush to “fix” security after the Underwear Bomber’s unsuccessful Christmas Day attack, there’s far too little discussion about what worked and what didn’t, and what will and will not make us safer in the future.
The security checkpoints worked. Because we screen for obvious bombs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb — had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient homebrew mechanism: one involving a syringe and 20 minutes in the lavatory and we don’t know exactly what else. And it didn’t work.
Yes, the Amsterdam screeners allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane with PETN sewn into his underwear, but that’s not a failure either. There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this. It isn’t a new threat; it’s more than a decade old. Nor is it unexpected; anyone who says otherwise simply isn’t paying attention. But PETN is hard to explode, as we saw on Christmas Day.
Additionally, the passengers on the airplane worked. For years I’ve said that exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. It was the second of these that, on Christmas Day, quickly subdued Abdulmutallab after he set his pants on fire.
To the extent security failed, it failed before Abdulmutallab even got to the airport. Why was he issued an American visa? Why didn’t anyone follow up on his father’s tip? While I’m sure there are things to be improved and fixed, remember that everything is obvious in hindsight. After the fact, it’s easy to point to the bits of evidence and claim that someone should have “connected the dots.” But before the fact, when there millions of dots — some important but the vast majority unimportant — uncovering plots is a lot harder.