Reid failed in his attempt to ignite a bomb in his shoe
The attack on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day appears to be the latest twist in a form of terrorism that has been evolving ever since the 9/11 atrocity.
Since the twin towers of New York were destroyed in 2001, terrorists have tried to stay one step ahead of airline security in finding ways to destroy planes, from hiding bombs in their shoes — or, as last week, in their underwear — to carrying them inside their bodies.
Norman Shanks, former head of security at BAA, the airports operator, said: “September 11 was the birth of suicide bombers on planes. Up until that point the idea was that they would attack and live to attack again. Today lives are more disposable.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many of the security steps taken by airlines concentrated on securing planes from terrorists carrying knives to hijack a plane in the manner of the September 11 gang.
Cockpits were sealed off and passengers forbidden from carrying blades on planes.
The first attempt to use an alternative method — still apparently with suicide in mind — came just three months after the September 11 bombings. Richard Reid boarded a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 wearing a pair of ankle boots packed with plastic explosives.
Two and a half hours into the flight he took off the boots and quietly prayed, before trying to detonate the bombs.
He struggled to do so and after lighting six matches he found he had inadvertently melted the fuses attached to the plastic explosives hidden in the hollowed-out soles of the boots. An FBI reconstruction of what would have happened if Reid’s bomb had detonated showed that the blast would have blown a hole in the aircraft and caused catastrophic damage. Everyone on board would have died.
Unlike the privileged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the banker’s son and University College London graduate charged with attempting to bomb the Amsterdam-Detroit flight, Reid was a petty crook who grew up in Bromley, south London. He had a disaffected childhood and became a disciple of Osama Bin Laden after being introduced to Islam at the Feltham young offenders’ institution in west London.
Since 9/11 two such attacks have been successful. In August 2004 two Chechen women, who had lost their husbands in the region’s war with Russia, blew themselves up on two planes near Moscow, killing 90 people. Investigators discovered traces of hexogen, a type of explosive previously used by Chechen bombers, in the wreckage.
In 2006 would-be suicide bombers changed their tack. A gang of British Muslim extremists plotted to blow up seven transatlantic aircraft using liquid explosives. They were arrested in August 2006 before they could carry out the attack; three of them have since been jailed.
One of the growing threats facing airline security is bombs carried inside the body, which may be able to evade conventional scanners. In August an Al-Qaeda militant passed through several airport security checks with a bomb hidden in his rectum.
After taking two flights he detonated the device at the private palace of his target, a prominent Saudi prince. The blast blew the bomber to pieces and left his arm embedded in the ceiling but failed to kill his target.
Security officials admit there is little screening technology available to stop people hiding bombs in bodily orifices. “It’s one of the industry’s biggest concerns,” said a source.
Friday’s failed terrorist attack also bears similarities to an incident in China. During the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in March 2008, Guzalinur Turdi, 19, was arrested on a China Southern Airlines flight after crew members smelt petrol on her as she left the lavatory.
They found a drinks can containing flammable liquid in a bin in the lavatory. The drink had been replaced with the liquid using a syringe. Chinese authorities say Turdi has since confessed.
Abdulmutallab’s choice of a bottle to carry his explosives shows that the techniques used to tackle this method of attack are still inadequate.
Scanners under development include one that can analyse the contents of liquids being carried. One of the most advanced types of machine, the x-ray full body scanner, has been installed at Schiphol, from where Abdulmutallab took off, although he did not pass through it. They have also been trialled at Heathrow and Manchester airports, although no decision has yet been made on whether to install them as standard at British airports.
Concerns have been raised that they could infringe passengers’ privacy by making them appear naked.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said: “The events of September 11 brought the risk of suicide bombings home to the authorities. In certain parts of the Middle East people are lining up to be martyrs for their cause so it’s perfectly understandable, albeit shocking, that people in the UK might have similar beliefs.”
Professor Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism specialist at St Andrews University, said of last week’s incident: “This case reminds me of the shoe bomber. The fact he has managed to get his leg on fire after getting through security is surprising.
“Big questions will have to be asked about airport security if this was a sophisticated device.”