Terrorism Charges Filed in Detroit Airplane Incident

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23 year old Nigerian who was apprehended after a foiled attempt to allegedly detonate an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, has been charged via complaint in the Eastern District of Michigan with willful attempt to destroy an aircraft and willfully placing and causing to be placed a destructive device on an aircraft. Both carry up to 20 years in prison. The DOJ manual explains the offenses here. The statute is here. Abdulmutallab is charged under sections (a)(1), (a)(2) and (a)(8).

[P]assengers told authorities that Abdulmutallab went into a bathroom on the plane for about 20 minutes. When he returned, he said he had a stomach ache and covered himself with a blanket. Moments later, passengers heard a pop, smelled smoke and the ensuing fire.

A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device contained the high explosive pentaerythritol, according to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint. The FBI also found what look like remnants of a syringe believed to have been part of the device.

The complaint is here (pdf.) The Government alleges that PETN is a destructive device under 18 USC 921 (a)(4). A passenger took a smoking syringe from Abdulmutallab, shook it to make it stop smoking and threw it on the floor of the aircraft. (Interesting that the passenger knew to do that. Sounds risky and dangerous to me.) [More...]

PETN came up during the OKC bombing trial. The FBI claimed there was residue of PETN on McVeigh's clothing. At trial the chemist testified it would have had to come from an explosive device (transcript here) but later was found to have acknowledged in a deposition it is also found in heart medications. No PETN was found at the scene of the bombing.

PETN was a factor, along with TATP, in shoe-bomber Richard Reid's case. While a highly explosive substance, it is also used as a vasodilator. "Lentonitrat", a heart medication, is pure PETN.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Holy Smoke! (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by lentinel on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 07:46:35 PM EST
    This was plotted in by Nigerian with suspected ties to Al Qaeda.
    Tell Obama.
    Send the troops from Afghanistan to Nigeria.
    That'll fix it.
    What? He got some materials from an Al Qaeda guy in Yemen?
    30,000 to Yemen quick.

    just because (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by pitachips on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 07:48:07 PM EST
    AQ has favored large scale, multiple, simultaneous attacks in the past - it doesn't mean they would pass up an opportunity to down an airliner. the uss cole wasn't part of a larger attack. it may just be that large scale attacks are just too difficult right now.

    Well, everyone dropped teh ball on ... (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by nyrias on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 08:52:36 PM EST
    this one.

    His FATHER ratted him out earlier and Homeland Security did NOTHING. Not even putting him on the no-fly list.

    Thank god he is inept and cannot really make an explosive device.

    Yep, his dad warned the US about his son (none / 0) (#16)
    by Dadler on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 09:52:38 PM EST

    Good thing we're spending all that money to spy and eavesdrop and make war and do everything we can to stop this grave terrorist threat.


    The least they could have done (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by nycstray on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 12:20:23 AM EST
    was give him an extra screening . . . instead we get stupid new restrictions put on us.

    Why didn't they listen to his father? Sounds like a fairly respectable family. Can't be easy to report your kid as a possible terrorist . . .


    Funny reaction here! (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by Gerald USN Ret on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 01:01:04 AM EST
    A lot of questions about a real hero!

    But anyway some answers for a surprising fundamental lack of knowledge.  Not in any order.

    1.  Shaking an object on fire to put it out is a common.  Try shaking a candle or burning rag/paper vigorously and watch it go out.  Tossing it on the floor?  Well it probably was hot.  I understand the hero burned his hands.  He wanted the object out of his way as he dealt with the passenger.  

    2.  Someone prompting the heroic passenger? Not necessarily. Maybe it was someone asking him for clarifications or just making comments of their own.  It was really a lawyer???  Well maybe someone thought our hero stepped on the bomber's constitutional rights to barbecue himself.  This is why the "suspect" should be shuttled to Gitmo immediately so we can put these worries aside.

    3.  Only 1 bomber?  Maybe the planners thought 6 or 7 on the plane would actually arouse suspicions or maybe they couldn't find any more people low enough on the alert list to go with this guy.

    4.  You don't need heart pills to obtain chemicals in the Middle East.
    My guess is that the bomber had sedated himself for the incident.  It is common for suicides.  And thankfully this helps increase the number of "failed" suicide bomber attempts.  

    1.  My guess is that the bomber intended to blow a hole in the shell of the plane and was seated at the window for that purpose.  The seat could actually have been chosen very specifically at a weak spot in the structural frame.  Likewise a fire would start which would further have caused damage, smoke and confusion.  In fact just starting a fire would cause great panic in the airline travelers.

    2.  As for someone saying "if this is the best AQ can do" I would point out that they only can say that because this attempt failed.
    I further point out that in the Northern Ireland bombings in England and elsewhere, a famous terrorist/radical said in a message to Mrs Thatcher something like: --We have to be lucky only once (in a while) but you must be lucky every time to stop us.--
    Though I didn't read directly what he said, I would say "Spencer Ackerman" sounds like the worse kind of self serving idiot.

    7.  Typically people trying to hide stuff from the police and others put it in their bras or somewhere in the vicinity of their pubic area, and finally if they are really serious, in their rectums.  Every kid in a car with MJ or worse knows to do that when the cops stop the car for some reason.
    This bomber probably went to the bathroom to retrieve some ingredients and to prepare the material for the detonation back at his window seat where the planes structural integrity was most vulnerable.

    Sure there are bomb sniffing dogs, and sniffing machines, and thorough pat downs and personnel x-ray machines that just skim the skin's surface but there aren't enough of these things.

    We are lucky the bomber didn't do a good job, and that there were heroic people nearby who did the best they could at the risk of being burned.

    Re location of his seat, yes -- (none / 0) (#22)
    by Cream City on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 01:41:24 AM EST
    it apparently was very strategically selected, according to a source on CNN knowledgeable about the airplane.  It was right over a fuel tank.

    Thanks for the sum-up (none / 0) (#1)
    by ruffian on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 05:07:04 PM EST
    I'm trying to think of any reasonable precautions that could have prevented this one. Possibly not letting people stay in the bathroom that long? But if they are sick, or say they are, what can you do?

    I hope we don't get an over-reaction in airplane procedures. Also wonder if there is going to be noise made about holding this guy in jail in Michigan, the way there is about the Gitmo suspects being moved to the mainland.

    Suspect the chap was drugged up (none / 0) (#2)
    by RonK Seattle on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 05:29:28 PM EST
    Regardless of mental state, third degree burns to the testicals would normally induce frantic physical and vocal reaction before shock set in.

    Is this guy ... (none / 0) (#3)
    by Robot Porter on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:15:15 PM EST
    gonna be called "the groin bomber"?


    And is this all just an elaborate ruse to allow airport security to feel people's ... um ... ?

    This seems less like terrorism, and more like an attempt to give stand-up comedians fresh material for their New Year's Eve shows.

    I hereby dub him the "Nutbag Bomber". (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by RonK Seattle on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:20:27 PM EST
    I await the breast implant bomber (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by andgarden on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:42:04 PM EST
    Don't go giving them ideas.... (none / 0) (#9)
    by scribe on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 07:12:56 PM EST
    Not that the Austin Powers movies didn't alread ... remember the fembots with their, um, strategicaly placed weapons?

    Also odd there's just one of him (none / 0) (#4)
    by RonK Seattle on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:19:36 PM EST
    The trademark Qaeda caper entails multiple simultaneous strikes.

    Are they running short of doofusses, or what?

    It's a fine line, but (none / 0) (#8)
    by ruffian on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:49:58 PM EST
    I guess going down in an plane crash is one thing, blowing your nuts off is another. There are some lines most guys just won't cross.

    The term "al Qaeda" no longer (none / 0) (#25)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 11:05:08 AM EST
    means very much, if it ever really did.  But now it's a worldview, not an actual organization.  See the group "al Quada in Iraq," which by all accounts had no real connection the the bin Laden/Zawahiri core.

    Various people call themselves "al Qaeda," maybe get a little long distance encouragement from bin Laden or similar, and just go do what they want to do.

    IOW, this is not the IRA, a tightly organized, disciplined, centrally directed cadre.  "al Qaeda" is a diffuse bunch, some small groups of them competent and knowledgeable, most of them a bunch of individual wannabes eager for martyrdom and revenge.

    Whether you approve of Predator drone attacks and the like, the U.S. appears overall to have concentrated on identifying and taking out competent leaders/organizers of these small groups.

    Where they've succeeded in these large, simultaneous attacks, they've not been centrally planned.  Even 9/11 wasn't actually operationally planned and carried out by bin Laden or even Zawahiri.  KSM supposedly did that, and if he didn't, somebody like him did.  bin Laden/Zawahiri provided encouragement, funding, contacts, etc.  They're no longer really in a position to do much more than encouragement at this point, though.

    IOW, "Was this al Qaeda" is pretty much a meaningless question now.


    Irish Times headline: (none / 0) (#7)
    by oculus on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 06:47:55 PM EST
    Well, the thing about PETN (none / 0) (#10)
    by scribe on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 07:35:16 PM EST
    is - as you note, TL - that it is used as a vasodilator.  This is much like nitroglycerin;  for some reason nitro-based explosives have that sort of medicinal effect on people.  The point is, though, that to collect a sufficient amount of PETN (or nitroglycerin, for that matter) to make anything go boom, one would need a heck of a lot of heart pills.

    The primary use of PETN remains in fuzes, boosters and initiators in military explosives.  Looking to wiki, I note it has an RE of 1.66, meaning a pound of it has the power of 1.66 pounds of TNT.  Again, though, the amount of PETN in a fuze, booster or initiator is relatively tiny - not nearly enough to do anything more than boost the explosion of, say, a blasting cap, to cause a larger body of explosives to explode.  Yes, wiki says PETN is a component of the infamous Semtex plastic explosive, but if he'd had Semtex in this, we'd either be reading about the plane crash, or about the guy who was nabbed with semtex, trying to get on the plane.  

    Then there's the whole pair of issues that this was a solo attack attempt and apparently inept in execution.  The first hallmark of AQ operations has been simultaneous, multiple attacks.  That was the core of the Pacific airliner plot, the 9/11 plot, to name two.  The second hallmark was their realtive professionalism:  their stuff tends to work.  AQ has had eight years to refine the shoe bombs since Reid was caught trying to light his sneakers over the Atlantic.  You would think that a competent terrist organization would have given their operatives something more reliable and designed to effect its desired purpose.

    So, contrary to the news organizations and governments trying to push the AQ angle, IMHO, this was a lone knucklehead who read what he could and cobbled together something that didn't work.  Maybe he had some "friends" or "helpers", but I kinda doubt this was an AQ operation.

    That, or as Spencer Ackerman noted in a post earlier today, if this is the best AQ can do, then they have become both relatively impotent and relatively irrelevant.  The people whose status, jobs and budgets depend on the continued existence of the AQ threat will, of course, disagree because an impotent, irrelevant AQ means their status, jobs and budgets disappear in the absence of an AQ threat.

    More than 80 grams PETN (none / 0) (#11)
    by RonK Seattle on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 07:46:05 PM EST
    ... "sewn into his underwear". How much more than 80 grams we won't know (since we don't know how much burned off in the botched detonation), but it sounds sufficient to the intended task.

    do the math (none / 0) (#26)
    by scribe on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 03:24:37 PM EST
    PETN has an RE of 1.66, so that makes the 80 grams of PETN the equivalent of 133 grams (or so) of TNT, or roughly 3/10 of a pound of TNT.  Correctly placed, that's enough to cut through a structural steel member not quite a square inch in cross-section, or an aluminum member almost 4 square inches in cross section.

    The skin of an aircraft is nowhere near that substantial.  Even shabbily placed, it's way more than enough.


    i'm kind of curious (none / 0) (#14)
    by cpinva on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 08:10:15 PM EST
    as to how he got on the plane, with this strapped to his leg, and the syringe? me, they make practically disrobe at the ap. if i were anymore the antithesis of the terrorist "profile", i'd cease to exist.

    frankly, he sounds more like a doofus, terrorist wannabe.

    Stop underwear bombing, Fly naked. (none / 0) (#18)
    by Ben Masel on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 11:47:04 PM EST
    It was plastic (none / 0) (#23)
    by jbindc on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 09:47:36 AM EST
    not metal, and not picked up by metal detectors.

    curious (none / 0) (#17)
    by Lil on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 10:23:05 PM EST
    Just watched the interview of the hero from Amsterdam. Seemed like someone was prompting him at times. Would he need a lawyer for any reason?

    To negotiate movie rights (none / 0) (#21)
    by Ben Masel on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 01:11:21 AM EST
    He had a show producer (none / 0) (#24)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 10:49:51 AM EST
    talking in his ear.  All guests on these shows have thingies in their ears in order to hear the interviewer if they're not on set with them, but also the producer/director types.