Why Did The Bomber Return To His Seat?

Andrew Sullivan posted an email from a reader wondering why the “undie-bomber” didn’t just set off the explosion from the bathroom as opposed to returning to his seat. On first read it is a compelling theory that al Qaeda wanted the bomber to be seen by other passengers:

If the intent of al Qaeda in this latest instance was to bring down an airplane, then it failed.  But if its intent was to create fear and overreaction, then it succeeded  Personally, I think it was the latter.  It is quite possible (in fact I think probable) that the people who planned this event, and used the young man from Nigeria as a tool, were aware that due to security measures in place, there was no way they could actually get a bomb through that would actually work.  The detonation equipment needed would have been detected.  The same applies, by the way, to the shoe bomber.

Again, think about it.  If you wanted to blow up a plane, would you attempt it from your seat, where somebody could quite possibly stop you?  No, you would go to the washroom where you could set off the bomb without disruption.

To have plausibility, it is probably necessary to assume that al Qaeda was using him as a tool. We know that al Qaeda would have no problem recruiting people who are willing to die in such a bombing. It’s the old 70 virgins reward. The same thing which makes some willing to take up such a deal would also make many reluctant to set off a bomb which is not intended to explode in their pants. I suspect that it would be harder to recruit someone to ignite such a device near their testicles knowing they were going to both live and be apprehended. (This brings to mind an episode of The Sopranos where Tony was confronted by a religious individual who did not fear death and would not give into his demands. The target complied when the threat was changed from death to castration.)

I really have my doubts that al Qaeda’s main goal was anything other than for the plane to explode. Yes, they had a partial victory with the fear they created in this country, but that was nothing compared the reaction they would have obtained from a successful bombing.

There is a good explanation for why the Nigerian returned to his seat. He was intentionally seated over the fuselage. I’ve heard speculation that the intent was not only to destroy the plane, which might not have been successful from another location, but to have an explosion while the plane was descending which would have resulted in casualties on the ground in suburban Detroit. While still not as dramatic as 9/11, this sounds far more what an al Qaeda organization would plan than an intentionally failed bombing attempt.

This is not to say that they it is not possible that they realized that the could salvage some degree of a psychological victory even if the bomb did fail to explode.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    carl says:

    While questions should be asked about how this Nigerian plot was hatched, I don’t understand how people are making this out to be a personal national security failure for Obama.  The plot did not result in the destruction of American lives.  On the other hand, GW and the neocons preside over the largest act of terrorism in US history and they and he are seen as terrorism experts?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Carl,

    There are several other posts here on the attempts by Republicans to play politics with this.

    The important difference between 9/11 and this attempt with regards to attributing blame is not the success of the attempt but the actions by each president. Obama requested a security briefing before the holidays and had a system in place to deal with such attempts. There was a breakdown lower down, but Obama cannot personally be blamed for every failing of everyone in government as long as he is taking actions to attempt to prevent such errors.

    In contrast, Bush ignored warnings and did not have systems in place to attempt to prevent such attacks.

    It certainly is absurd that the Bush people are seen as terrorism experts because of their failure. Since Clinton paid attention and prevented planned attacks, such as the Millennium terrorist plot, his actions against terrorism remain largely unappreciated.

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