By Rahnuma Ahmed
It seems that 23 year old Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear was padded with more than just a six inch long packet containing nearly 80 grams of a powdery substance known as PETN (chemical pentaerythritol tetranitrate). But I will turn to `deeper’ layers of padding later. First, what is generally known.
Abdulmutallab reportedly used a syringe to inject liquid into the packet which was sewn close to his groin, to set off the PETN, known to be a very powerful explosive belonging to the same chemical family as nitroglycerin. But popping noises, like firecrackers, alerted other passengers of Northwest flight 253 as the plane, which had taken off from Schipol airport in Amsterdam, was in its final descent toward Detroit.
Jasper Schuringa, a fellow passenger, described what happened, “He was holding the object which was on fire and smoke was coming out of it and I really had to pull it out of his hands because he kind of resisted and it was also kind of stuck in his underwear so I really had to rip the whole object out of his pants.” Schuringa grabbed the syringe which had partially melted, shook it to stop it from smoking, and threw it to the floor.
Passengers and crew members subdued Abdulmutallab. Using blankets and fire extinguishers, they put out the fire on his trouser legs, and a wall of the airplane. Had he been successful, the explosive would have blown a hole in the side of the airplane, causing it to crash.
It was 25 December, Christmas 2009.
The White House termed it an “attempted act of terrorism.” Abdulmutallab was soon discovered to have received training in Yemen “visiting various al Qaeda operatives including a notorious radical cleric.” US politicians, media, and experts quickly jumped into the fray calling for an expansion of the war on terror. President Barack Obama obliged by declaring that the US would strike anywhere to prevent another attack. These calls, as Mark LeVine points out, were unnecccesary since the US is already involved in Yemen, supervising attacks on militants there.
He was also discovered to have been a student of University College London, where he had enrolled in September 2005, to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering in June 2007. Finger-wagging soon ensued: liberal colleges and universities in England were a `breeding ground’ for jihadists, they `groomed’ Islamic radicals etc. etc. ?But no one, of course not, called for a US bomb attack on UK. Or on London. To make the world safer.
On December 29, the US put Abdulmutallab’s underwear on display.
A grim-faced president?leading some analysts to comment, rather admiringly, that Obama was not a man known to “anger easily” ?declared that there had been a deep failure of? national intelligence. That the government had enough information to thwart potential disaster but had failed to “connect those dots” (January 5, 2010). Although no new steps to improve the intelligence or security systems were announced, enhanced airport screening and a review of the US watch-list system was ordered. Dozens of names were added to the US’ 550,000 strong list of `suspected’ terrorists, they would be subjected to extra scrutiny before being allowed to enter the US; those on the 4,000 strong no-fly list were barred from boarding aircraft in or headed for the United States. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was instructed to give full-body, pat-down searches to US bound travellers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries. The transfer of Guantanamo prison detainees was suspended (about half of the near-200 currently detained are from Yemen). The US embassy in Yemen was closed down for several days.
According to the unclassified summary of the review into intelligence failures released by the White House, “The U.S. Government had sufficient information prior to the attempted December 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot?i.e., by identifying Mr. Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and potentially preventing him from boarding flight 253.” After all, as the review says, Abdulmutallab’s father, had met with US embassy officers on November 18, had expressed his concern that his son may have come under the influence of “unidentified extremists,” and planned to travel to Yemen. And what did those august officials do? They marked his file for a full investigation should he re-apply for a visa after his current one to the US expired in June 2010, and passed on this information to officials in Washington. Meanwhile the latter added his name to 550,000 suspected terrorist list, but not to the no-fly one, which meant no alarms were raised when he bought his one-way ticket to US using cash, checking in without any baggage.
Since the US ruling establishment consistently portrays itself as a hapless victim of irrational violence unleashed upon it by dark, evil and religious forces out there, public discussion in the US soon enough latched on to shrill cries of more security, to what LeVine has termed the “$30 billion underpants.” To a prevention strategy which means new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies, more expensive plane tickets. And, of course, inevitably, to an expansion of the `war on terror.’
It turned to talk of X-ray backscatters which reveal chalk etching images, to Millimeter wave screening which reveal fuzzy photo negative images. Amid all the security paranoia and fear-mongering, one did come across traces of humor. A commentator on a blog wrote, “I figure I?ll just show up at the airport naked carrying a vial of Propofol so that I can knock myself out before the colonoscopy.” A CNN political strategist reportedly said on the radio that he’d be willing to allow the TSA to measure his penis before the flight to dispense with full body scans. This might work for white penises, not for `colored’ ones. Iris scannings of transit passengers deemed to be `Aliens’ by the US government are taken and re-taken at US airports. Has been so, post 9/11.
Other paddings have since emerged, hinting at something deeper. At dots that are `not’ meant to be connected.
It seems that Abdulmuttalab boarded the flight to Detroit without a passport. According to Kurt Haskell, a fellow passenger, a lawyer who worked for the US federal government for 6 years, a “wealthy-looking Indian man” accompanied Abdulmuttalab to the counter before boarding, saying that Abdulmuttalab needed to board the plane, that he didn’t have a passport, and was? from Sudan. Haskell remembers the incident because the two of them had looked “strange together,” and remembers Abdulmuttalab as there were very few black men on the flight. Dutch counter-terrorism authorities have dismissed the claim: ?He had a passport and a valid visa for the United States and KLM had clearance on the passenger list to carry him to the US.? It remains to be seen whether FBI refutes the claim. And, as Alexia Parks? writes in The Huffington Post (January 6, 2010), if the plane had exploded over Detroit as planned, we would never have learned what Haskell had to say. ?In response to Park’s piece, this is what a contributor wrote: any passenger coming in on a KLM flight from Nigeria at Schipol usually has to go through US Passport Control, a place where “They interview each passenger individually, and you HAVE to present a passport at the very beginning of the interview. They scan your passport and ask you a bunch of questions, then you go through a metal detector and have any carry-on items scanned.”
I remember having gone all the way to Bangkok four years ago, to get a Mexican visa, of getting my visa but not being allowed to board the flight at Bangkok airport because I didn’t have a Dutch visa, an absolute necessity for Bangladeshis. So what if I was only a transit passenger?
Gordon Duff, senior editor of Veterans Today (an American Military Veterans and Foreign Affairs journal), connects `other’ dots, more sinister ones : (1) The senior Muttalab, back in Nigeria, “ran the national arms industry (DICON) in partnership with Israel, in particular, the Mossad.” Muttalab, though a Muslim, was a close associate of Israel, which runs “everything in Nigeria, from arms production to counter-terrorism.” (2) The two al-Qaeda leaders released by Bush from Guantanamo, although two of the highest ranking known terrorists there, had been “released without a trial.” (3) According to the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, security forces had arrested a group of alleged Islamist militants linked to Israeli intelligence (BBC news report, 7 October 2008). (4) CBS News had learnt as early as August 2009 that the CIA had picked up information on a person dubbed “The Nigerian,” suspected of meeting with “terrorist elements” in Yemen. And (5) Airport security in Amsterdam is contracted to an Israeli controlled company which not only has the most sophisticated technologies, but is the one to have developed the concept of security profiling. There is no reason to think that al-Qaeda would be operating in Yemen without American or Saudi help, or, possibly, without direct material assistance from Israel, writes Duff, adding, the game seems to be falling apart.
If larger numbers of people are able to see the game for what it is, it can only mean that we are inching closer to a showdown.
Published in New Age 11 January, 2010