Sunday, January 03, 2010

the boy's a time bomb!

As you'll probably have guessed, I'm not terrified by the pantsbomber. As Spencer Ackerman puts it:
it doesn’t do any good to blow this out of proportion, since blowing things out of proportion to spur an overreaction is Usama bin Laden’s explicit strategy
However, as more details have filtered out, I've revised my original view of it a tad. My first thought was that it was another very low-grade terrorist - probably a self-starter, with limited contacts, shaky technology, and worse execution. Therefore, I thought, there was a strong case to be made that he was a sign of terrorist weakness rather than strength. This is the best they can do? Pants.

With more information, however, it looks like he wasn't quite as crap as that. On the other hand, everyone's talking about his using a charge of PETN; if true, that would imply he had a contact for valid high explosive. But the fact he went fut rather than bang argues against this. PETN is the most sensitive of military explosives with the exception of nitroglycerine - it's the stuff in detonator cord (Akzo-Nobel PDF - probably not one to read on the plane) - and as a result, it's quite rare. Nobody wants explosives that explode when they shouldn't. Had the main charge consisted of PETN, he should have exploded. (From the data sheet: NEVER attempt to cut by abrasion or blow with a sharp object!)

That, and the fact he was apparently seen fiddling with a syringe, suggests that this was yet another attempt to make the explosives at run-time as it were - as this comment at Bruce Schneier's explains.

Fortunately, doing serious chemistry in your chuddies is not the way they do it at Bayer AG; a special problem is that the reaction he may have been aiming for is exothermic enough that the stuff (and him) would have caught fire before the job was done. If there was a detonator of some sort present, that might have gone up in the heat and panic, thus accounting for the small bang reported.

Come to think of it, a serious barrier to this plan would be enduring a powerfully exothermic reaction involving a strong acid in your crotch long enough to initiate the explosion...also, it seems impossible to avoid making a spectacle of yourself such that someone would spray your blazing boxers with an extinguisher and/or bash your head in with a crash axe long before you were ready to explode. As Bruce Schneier points out, bringing the explosive and the detonator on separately would be hard to detect...but it's not clear that this is what pants boy actually did.

So, what does this tell us about the terrorist threat? I would argue I wasn't too far out to begin with. This wasn't a pathetic attempt, but it was still a weak, one-man job with poor technology and worse execution - just one of a slightly better class than we've had recently. And the startling bit is that far from being a self-radicaliser with a copy of the Anarchists' Cookbook and the York Notes to the Holy Koran, he claims to have actually been in contact with real live Al-Qa'ida members. To begin with, I was dubious of this - he might have meant that he did it with the same aims as Al-Qa'ida, or that they inspired him to do it, or that he believed himself to be part of the wider movement, or perhaps that he was deluded in imagining himself to be in Al-Qa'ida.

But it seems he actually met with the real thing, and some accounts say they gave him the explosive device, such as it was. This strongly suggests that the terrorist threat is only as bad as it was before he set fire to his testicles - and possibly considerably less so. After all, an assessment before this would have had to state that there was at least the possibility of another well-organised, multiple attack, but that the track-record suggested that it was not very likely. Now we know that they had a go, and the outcome was a single attack with dodgy chemistry and bungled tactics.

This does not suggest that we need another wave of security bingeing. Arguably, the whole point of attacks like these and Al-Qa'ida international itself is to get our attention so that their local affiliates can pull off ones like these:
Regarding reports that a suicide bomber infiltrated deep into a U.S. forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan, yesterday, killing seven CIA officers and seriously wounding six others, a former senior CIA official posted to the region writes:

"Yes, Jaluddin [sic] Haqqani spent nearly 10 years fighting to get Khost back from the Soviets. That is his area and we were stupid to think he was going to let us stay there.

The anti-terrorism industry, of course, has to do something similar. The Undabomber's bungling is already being reported as a "strategy of failure"; but this is silly. If you really wanted to create disruption without spending any money, you'd launch hoaxes, which cost nothing.

In related news, why are we not surprised that the fact he was in a database of over 500,000 suspects didn't help much? Are there 500,000 terrorists? This is one of the legs of the false positive/false negative problem - the more people you include as suspects, the less dense in information that list becomes. Rather than looking for a needle in a haystack, the problem becomes more like looking for hay in a haystack. Yes, you'll find it. Plenty of it...but what do you do then? You've just pushed the problem of filtering your information down the production line one step.

As Ackerman also points out, you have to make a decision about what to take seriously, or else the suspect list will overtake the population of the earth.

The response from the British and Dutch governments appears to be a sort of half-hearted pretend version of that after the last one; a bit like the attack.

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