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Did Abdulmutallab Want to Fail? Eh, No

Prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan airs a nonsensical theory about terrorism and terrorists.

by
Bob Owens

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January 8, 2010 - 12:00 am
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The terrorist on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 did successfully sneak through both a functional detonator and a sufficient quantity of explosives. Put bluntly, Sullivan’s correspondent is wrong again. But his misunderstanding of the goals of terrorism, explosives technology, and security devices isn’t the most laughable part of the post; the claim that a “real” terrorist would have used the plane’s lavatory as the perfect location to detonate a bomb takes the cake:

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.

Abdulmutallab did not attempt to detonate his bomb in the washroom, even though he did go there to assemble it. He returned to his seat, 19A, for a very good reason.

If you look at the diagram of the Airbus A330-300 used by Northwest on Christmas Day, you’ll note that the lavatories available to him as a coach passenger are located behind row 27. While the 80-gram device he assembled could have caused significant damage to nearby passengers and perhaps blown a hole in the fuselage if detonated there, the restrooms are not in close enough proximity to any key structural elements of the plane to cause major damage. In addition, the lowered altitude and air pressure of the plane on final approach would mean that the chance of an explosive decompression would be lower.

If you look  at that same diagram again, however, you might begin to understand why the successful detonation of his bomb could have very well sent the plane careening into Detroit as a fireball.

Seat 19A is located on the port (left) side of the Airbus A330-300, directly over the port wing and the partially depleted fuel tanks in that wing. As any firefighter or explosives expert will tell you, a nearly empty fuel tank is more likely to explode than a full tank because the “empty” space in the tank is actually filled with highly volatile gas fumes. A bomb detonating in that position could conceivably send burning shrapnel into that tank, detonating the fumes in a secondary explosion that would likely compromise the structural integrity of the entire port wing, bringing the plane down.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bested airport security. He assembled a deadly bomb and brought it to a location of the plane where he had the best chance of causing catastrophic damage. Abdulmutallab covered himself with a blanket, and no one laid a finger on him as he did his part to set off the bomb.

It appears that the only reason the passengers didn’t face the explosive power of a PETN blast on Christmas Day is because the syringe of acid melted before it was able to cause the chemical reaction that would have set off the main charge. How close was it? Close enough that the PETN caught fire, but it didn’t have quite enough chemical energy to detonate.

Despite the widespread dissemination of this poppycock by a blogger perhaps best known for obsessive rants both reproductive and anti-Semitic, there is no substance to this claim. But don’t blame Andrew Sullivan.

He’s not endorsing the theory, just airing it.

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Bob Owens blogs at Bob-Owens.com.
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