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Belmont Club

White powder

December 26th, 2009 - 12:41 pm

CBS News quotes officials who say the Nigerian attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit using PETN, whose method of “preparation involves the nitration of pentaerythritol with a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acid. The preferred method of nitration is the ICI method, which utilizes concentrated nitric acid (98%+) alone, as mixed acid can create unstable sulfonated by-products.”  Pentaerythritol is a crystalline organic compound that can be described as “white powder”, seen in this advertisement. CBS says:

The suspect in the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 used a highly explosive substance called PETN, a law enforcement official told CBS News Saturday. The explosives were carried in a soft plastic container – possibly a condom – though much of the packaging was destroyed in the fire, the official said. …

A high-ranking law enforcement official told CBS News that the suspect apparently used a syringe to inject a chemical into the powder, which was located near his groin. It is a technique not seen in previous attempted attacks and it’s possible that this incident was a test of whether the materials could pass screening and how effective they might be at causing damage, the source said.

This video shows the effects of one third of an ounce of PETN on a small tree.

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Wikipedia says “PETN is also one of the ingredients in Semtex plastic explosive. PETN was the explosive chosen by Richard Reid for his plot to blow up the Boeing 767 he was traveling in from Paris to Miami. He was stopped just in time however.”  This time the person responsible for stopping the terrorist attempt was a Dutch video director named Jaspar Schuringa. Abdulmutallab sat still as a conflagration built between his legs.

The Dutch video director said that he heard a loud bang that sounded like a firecracker going off at which point somebody started shouting: ‘Fire! Fire!’

He then noticed smoke coming from Abdulmutallab’s seat, although the suspect remained still.

Mr Schuringa claimed he then jumped over the passenger sitting next to him and lunged over Abdulmutallab’s seat, at which point he saw the Nigerian had his trousers down with a burning object between his legs.

‘I pulled the object from him and tried to extinguish the fire with my hands and threw it away,’ Mr Schuringa said. ‘My hands are pretty burned. I am fine.’

Abdulmutallab seemed dazed, he said. Mr Schuringa then ripped off items of the suspect’s clothing to make sure no more devices were strapped to his body before a crew member handcuffed him.

The other passengers then burst into applause, Mr Schuringa said.

The suspect was traveling on a valid US visa “obtained on June 16 2008 and which was due to expire on June 12, 2010. He was on his way to a religious ceremony when he detonated the device, injuring his right leg badly and another passenger” according to the Punch. This developed as a prominent Nigerian banker told the press that “he reported his son, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, to the US Embassy 6 months ago when he grew suspicious of the 23-year-old’s growing extremism. The elder Mutallab is said to be both devastated by the news and surprised his son was allowed to travel to the US. … The elder Mutallab is married to a woman of Yemeni descent, but it’s not clear if she is the suspect’s mother. Authorities in London are searching a home owned by the family there.”

The Washington Post says that Mutallab’s name was forwarded by Dutch authorities to the US as he transited Amsterdam and passed the normal screening checks. There were no objections on the American side.

Officials in the Netherlands said an initial investigation showed that routine secInurity procedures were followed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with no irregularities. Mutallab’s name was on the passenger manifesto that was forwarded and approved by U.S. authorities before takeoff. … Some airlines in the U.S. have told passengers new rules require them to stay in seats one hour before landing.

Maybe that would have kept Schuringa in his place and Mutallab would have stayed in his anyway.

A recent post entitled the Cornucopia described the problem of extracting intelligence from data. The two terms are not synonymous. Intelligence is the result of making sense of the data; “connecting the dots”. But sometimes the dots are scattered among many drawers and filing cabinets, or in modern paralance, among different databases. The post Blood Red Tape quoted a RAND study which described how painful it was to move information across service, agency, national and hierarchical boundaries. Information is the “coin of the realm” and bureaucracies instinctively hoard it to enhance their power. In hindsight it is easy to see that Muttalab and some of his associates, including perhaps some of those back in Nigeria, might be mixed up in this. Muttalab’s father, for example, is described as a man who visits the US for health checkups and vacations. Who is going to look under that particular rock?

While defensive counterterrorism is valuable ultimately the greatest benefits come from offensive counterterrorism: penetrating al-Qaeda. One interesting metric would be how far US intelligence has come since 9/11 toward being able insert American assets within that and similar organizations. It is a long and painstaking process which requires patience and strategic constancy. The Cold War was won in large part because successive American administrations from both parties were to varying degrees committed to the doctrine of containment. The question that has never been asked about President Obama’s engagement policy is whether ending the War on Terror has also eroded an appreciation of who the enemy is and undermined the determination to defeat it.


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