Did Abdulmutallab Want to Fail? Eh, No

Did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab really mean to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it came in for a landing on Christmas Day over Detroit, or was the object of his terrorist plot simply to scare us? As bizarre a question as that seems to be, Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan indulgently quotes six paragraphs from one of his readers espousing that exact theory.


The reader’s argument seems to hinge upon the supposition that the goal of Islamic terrorists is terror for the sake of terror, and that if terrorists really wanted to bring down an airliner, Abdulmutallab would not have carried out his attack in the manner that he did.

But how well does Sullivan’s reader understand Islamic terrorism, and how well does he understand what it would take to carry out a successful attack against a modern airliner? Answering both of those questions is meaningful, if only to shut down another wild, “trutheresque” conspiracy theory before it takes flight.

The unknown author starts his justification for his theory with his views of terrorism:

First, what is the major goal of terrorism? It is not to bring down airplanes. It is not to destroy the West. It is, pure and simple, to create terror in people. Why? Because when people are afraid they overreact. And this includes most of us, yourself included.

The major goals of terrorism have been to create political or social change (typically both). The major goal of the Irish Republican Army was to end British rule in Ireland and create the Irish Republic envisioned in the 1916 “Easter Rising.”

The major goal of Hamas is to obliterate the state of Israel, as noted in its charter. Likewise, the terrorist group al-Qaeda, in whose name Abdulmutallab was willing to kill, has goals of establishing a hardline Sunni theocracy. Also, in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war fatwa against the United States and Israel, he provides a point-by-point list of alleged grievances and consequences.


The minor goal of some religiously motivated groups is to create an overreaction — one that will marginalize groups from which they can then draw more recruits and support. But one cannot cavalierly declare that the minor goal serves the major, especially when it flies in the face of the terrorist organization’s clear and constantly restated goals.

Sullivan’s reader then tries his hand at being both an al-Qaeda strategist and bomb builder, stating:

It is quite possible (in fact I think probable) that the people who planned this event, and used the young man from Nigeria as a tool, were aware that due to security measures in place, there was no way they could actually get a bomb through that would actually work. The detonation equipment needed would have been detected.

In actuality, the security measures used at the time were quite susceptible to the exact kind of device that Abdulmutallab employed. The detonator syringe filled with acid did not have any metal parts to set off detection equipment, nor did the primary charge of 80 grams of pentaerythritol trinitrate (PETN),  one of the most deadly explosives in the world. In a bit of rich irony, the new body-scanning devices being touted by governments in Europe and the United States as the next necessary security upgrade are just as unlikely to detect these same low-density weapons.


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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