Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Secret Weapon in the War on Mile-High Terror

By Jennifer O’Connell

Air travellers from 14 mostly Muslim countries deemed to have links with terrorism – and, er, Cuba – will face extra security checks on flights into the US from next week.

The move comes after the botched attempt by the so-called underpants bomber to set fire to a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas day.

Passengers travelling to the US from countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan - and that well-known Al Qaeda hotspot, Cuba - will undergo full pat-downs and have their carry-on luggage automatically searched. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has given the go-ahead for full body scanners to be introduced at Heathrow.

Of course, it might be more effective, less invasive, and cheaper, if the US simply stopped giving out visas to those who have cut off contact with their family, fled to Yemen, been reported to the authorities for suspected terrorist activities by their own father, as well as the government of another country, and already feature on a ‘Do Not Allow’ entry list to the United Kingdom.

It would be cheaper again to do absolutely nothing. And it would probably prove just as useful.

There is a certain, not unpleasant, irony in the fact that, despite all the billions of dollars spent since 2001 on increased airline security and counterterrorism measures, fancy airport scanners and sophisticated intelligence networks, it was the willingness of another passenger to put out a fire with his bare hands that ultimately foiled the Christmas day bombing attempt.

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a lonely 23-year-old Nigerian who was, as one blogger put it, “hardly the sharpest nail in the nailbomb”, allegedly attempted to ignite explosives stored in his underpants on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit on 25 December, Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch filmmaker, climbed across the seats separating the two men, and put out the flames with his hands.

 “Without any hesitation, I just jumped over all the seats,” Schuringa later said.“I was thinking, ‘Oh, he’s trying to blow up the plane’. I was trying to search his body for any explosive. I took some kind of object that was already melting and smoking, and I tried to put out the fire and when I did that I was also restraining the suspect.”

This near-miss doesn’t bode as poorly for the future of safe air travel as you might think.

The Transportation Security Administration may find it has a secret weapon in the war on mile-high terror, in the not very hi-tech shape of all the other Jasper Schuringas out there: the armies of frustrated, cramped passengers who can’t sleep with the restless, sweaty guy muttering his prayers in the seat next to them, and think it’s not too much to ask that they might arrive at their destination without getting blown up.

Since September 11 2001, air passengers who find themselves at the scene of a putative hijacking have been willfully defying all the rules of crowd behaviour, and getting themselves involved.

Instead of failing to think independently and indulging in irrational, panic-stricken behaviour, as all the sociology books tell them they should, they have proven more than willing to take matters into their own hands.

The revolt seems to have started with the American Airlines flight 93, which was originally headed for San Francisco on the morning of September 11, 2001. Flight recorders and phone calls made from the plane reveal that passengers held a vote on whether to ‘rush’ the hijackers who had taken over the cockpit, and seemed intent on taking the plane to Washington.

A flight attendant called her husband a few minutes before the plane went down and said she was boiling water to throw on the hijackers. At around 10am that morning, the passengers stormed the cockpit and forced the hijackers to crash the plane into an empty field in Pennsylvania. The last words of one of the passengers, Tom Beamer, to his wife - seconds before the plane crashed at 10.03 - were, “Let’s roll.”

These words apparently resonated in the minds of the passengers on board a flight from Paris to Miami, a few months later, in the company of one Richard Reid.

After a female member of the cabin crew found Reid trying to light a match and challenged him about it, his fellow passengers intervened, and eventually restrained the 6’ 4” 200lb would-be shoe bomber using bottles of Evian, plastic handcuffs, seatbelt extensions, headphone cords and some valium found in the first aid kit. He was so tightly bound that when the FBI eventually boarded the plane at Boston, they had to cut him out of his seat.

Afterwards, the flight attendant who had first challenged Reid said: “I don't believe I would have grabbed [Reid] the way I did, had I not known about September 11. I don't know that the passengers would have come to my aid so quickly had they not known about September 11.”

Those responsible for aviation security can’t afford to count on there being a Jasper Schuringa or a Tom Beamer on board every plane that is subject to an attempted hijacking. But those planning such attacks can’t afford to assume there won’t.

Since September 11, people seem increasingly willing to defy the self-preservation instinct that would, in different circumstances, allow them to walk past as someone is beaten in the street, or hide behind their newspapers as a fellow passenger on a train is mugged.

Observers were baffled by the caring, considerate behaviour of the London commuters who were trapped underground in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, which seemed to totally contravene the accepted truths about crowd psychology.

Perhaps it’s because people caught up in a terrorist situation know that, like it or not, they are already involved.

Whatever the reason, other people are the unknown factor that appears to have made life much more complicated for would-be terrorists. And if Al Qaeda is forced to rely on the likes of Abdulmutallab – a lonely, overprivileged, 23-year-old who fantasised online about masturbation, Liverpool’s chances in the Champions League and the global jihad - to carry out their jihad, you’d have to concede that it’s hardly an organisation at the heart of its powers in any case.

None of this is likely to provide much solace to those responsible for airport security. And that’s where the terrorists will always win in the end.

The likes of the dull, depressed Abdulmutallab and the intellectually backward Richard Reid will continue to have an impact on world affairs way beyond their ability to actually see anything through, simply because we in the the West cannot but react hysterically to the merest hint that someone, somewhere, might bear us a grudge.

Increasingly, the power of terrorists comes not from their ideas, their reach, or their weapons, but from their ability to force the rest of us to undergo further humiliations in the name of greater airport security.

First published in The Sunday Business Post on January 10, 2010