Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib failed in his effort to bomb Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit December 25. But Abdulmutalib’s terrorist effort was not without effect. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded to the terrorist bomb plot by issuing secretive new travel restrictions to be imposed intermittently on the traveling public. A breaking news report by the Washington Post revealed that a second Nigerian has been arrested for verbally disruptive behavior after locking himself in the airplane bathroom Sunday afternoon on the same Amsterdam to Detroit flight Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib attempted to bomb Friday. The investigation into this latest incident is in its preliminary stages and the actions of the second Nigerian arrested have not been linked to terrorism.
That the new rules adopted in response to the attempted bombing Christmas Day are veiled in secrecy is a deliberate part of the TSA’s strategy. The TSA tries to keep terrorists like Abdulmutlaib in the dark about its security procedures and thus is providing unilluminating bits of information to the traveling public.
Regarding international flights, the TSA released this statement December 26 about new travel restrictions designed to thwart would-be terrorist bombers: “Passengers flying from international locations to U.S. destinations may notice additional security measures in place. These measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.”
This TSA statement updates one from a day earlier that indicated that the new travel restrictions would affect both domestic and international flights. Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Director, also stated on December 26 that both domestic and international flights were subject to new security procedures.
While the TSA website does not disclose specifics of new travel restrictions designed to thwart bombers like Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib, the media has disclosed some onerous restrictions including a ban on passenger use of hand-held items during the last hour of flight. To enforce that ban, the TSA intends to require all passengers to remain seated and refrain from accessing carry-on baggage.
In addition, TSA is instituting increased numbers of pat-down searches, according to NBC News, banning blanket and pillow use in the hour prior to landing, and increasing use of bomb-sniffing dogs.
Whether TSA’s new travel restrictions could have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib from carrying a bomb onto the plane is an open question, but once on board, his ability to ignite the bomb would not have been seriously affected by most of the new rules. Abdulmutalib’s bomb making materials were strapped to his leg, making access to carry-on baggage unnecessary. Moreover, Abdulmutalib attempted to detonate his bomb in his seat, and thus, restrictions on movement throughout the plane would not have thwarted him. Perhaps the confiscation of Abdulmutlib’s blanket, under which he tried to ignite the explosives in the bomb strapped to his leg, would have led to earlier recognition of his effort.
What the TSA, Homeland Security, and the traveling public will grapple with in coming days is whether depriving all passengers of use of the bathrooms, ability to walk and prevent blood clots from forming in their legs, use of laptops, blankets, reading material, or other items in carry-on baggage during the final hour of flight is a measured or extreme response to the threat posed by terrorists with bombs.
Napolitano’s television talk circuit rounds in which she assured anyone who will listen that the traveling public is already “very, very safe” opens the door to the inquiry whether new TSA restrictions might be kneejerk reactions.
Roughly 50 million passengers travel on domestic U.S. flights each month. TSA employs 50,000 staff to protect the country’s transportation including airlines. In the week before Christmas, TSA reported 13 passengers arrested for suspicious behavior or use of fraudulent travel documents; 17 firearms confiscations at checkpoints; 1 “artfully concealed” prohibited item uncovered at a checkpoint; and 18 incidents involving checkpoint closure, terminal evacuation or sterile area breach. Those remarkably small numbers support Napolitano’s claim that air travelers in this country are safe from terrorist bombers such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib.
Whether one thwarted bomb attempt on a single plane warrants onerous new restrictions affecting 50 million passengers per month is a question that will undoubtedly get serious public airing in the coming weeks.
I accompanied my two young daughters to a midwestern-bound flight on Christmas day, hours after Abdulmutalib attempted to detonate his bomb prior to landing in another midwestern city. The security procedures I observed seemed ordinary. However, the TSA personnel insisted that I move from the empty roped-off security area where I was standing to an area behind the ropes to watch the girls progress through security. I could not see the girls from where I was directed to stand. Since I had been standing out of the way of the line in an unused area with plenty of space for anyone to pass by me, it seemed like overkill on TSA’s part to insist that I move.
With the children due back at week’s end, I can only hope they don’t encounter demands that they not hold their puzzle books and reading materials during the last hour of flight. Their flight is but a couple hours.
On the other hand, the new travel restrictions may be rescinded more quickly if applied to children. If the traveling public were to strategically plan some school trips and fill up those airplanes with children… let the flight attendants deal with plane loads of bored kids, some of whom undoubtedly will be clamoring to use the prohibited bathrooms, all directed to sit quietly with nothing to do for the full hour prior to landing. There is little doubt that the flight attendants would quickly become voices in support of the status quo ante.
Sources: http://www.khabrein.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30789&Itemid=1; http://www.khabrein.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30789&Itemid=1; http://www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/northwest_statement.shtm; http://www.transtats.bts.gov/Data_Elements.aspx?Data=1; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34595552/ns/us_news-security/; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/27/AR2009122701080.html?hpid=topnews.