Unused body scan could have revealed explosive powder
Amsterdam airport is not using the 17 special security equiptment it has had since 2007. A millimetre wave scan would have detected the explosive powder Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set off on board Northwest flight 253 to Detroit on Friday. The radio waves scan people's bodies and reveal anything they wear underneath their clothes.
The millimetre wave technology security scans are still in the test phase, Schiphol spokesperson Mirjam Snoerwang told NRC Handelsblad. "European regulations tell us we can only put people through them on a voluntary basis. And objections have been raised with regards to privacy," she said.
Citing anonymous FBI sources, American media said Abdulmutallab carried 80 grammes of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), possibly inside a condom, in his underwear. PETN was also used by Richard Reid, known as ‘the shoe bomber’, in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an American Airlines airplane from Paris to Miami in December 2001.
Dutchman put out fire
Abdulmutallab reportedly complained of a stomach ache twenty minutes before
landing in Detroit and then pulled a blanket over himself. Passengers said
they heard a bang that sounded like firecrackers or a popping balloon as the
passenger in seat 19A set himself on fire. Dutchman Jasper Schuringa, who
was sitting in row 20 on the opposite side of the plane, immediately jumped
out of his seat. "He is trying to blow up the plane," he recalled
thinking in an interview on CNN.
Schuringa overpowered Abdulmutallab and managed to extinguish the fire between his legs and under his seat. He searched the would-be bomber for other explosives and, together with a cabin crew member, dragged the 23-year-old Nigerian into the business class and put handcuffs on him.
'Igniting loose powder has little effect'
The question remains whether the explosives could have destroyed the plane. Missile and explosives expert Herman Schöyer, formerly with European space agency ESA, doesn't think so. "Most explosive materials have be placed in high-pressure containers for an explosion to occur. That was not the case here," Schöyer said. Even if the man had not been subdued immediately, Schöyer doesn't believe the fire would have been much larger. "Eighty grammes of PETN burns away within a second and the seats are fire resistant. Although quenching was of course necessary. "
Abdulmutallab could have made a significant hole in the side of the plane had he placed the PETN in a box against a wall, according to Schöyer. "Depending on the altitude of the aircraft and the difference between air pressure inside and outside the plane, this could have been fatal to the passengers. But if someone, like this man, ignites loose powder, it has little effect."
No security is airtight
US authorities had been warned about Abdulmutallab's religious radicalisation by his own father. He told the embassy he feared his son had gone to Yemen for jihadist training. In response, the young man's name was added to a central data bank containing about 550,000 names of purported terrorist sympathisers, but the tourist visa to the US he already had was not revoked.
Abdulmutallab took a KLM flight from Nigeria's commercial hub Lagos to Amsterdam on Thursday evening before transferring to the Northwest flight there. His passport was checked twice in Lagos, according to Nigerian airport authorities. He passed through a metal detector and his hand luggage was searched.
Abdulmutallab arrived in Amsterdam at 5.30 in the morning. He did not pass through customs, because he technically never entered the Netherlands, but he was subjected to another standard security check before boarding the flight to Detroit.
Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said "no irregularities were reported". But immediately added no security is airtight and passengers can "carry potentially dangerous objects" on board.
Dutch military police are investigating a lead from an American couple that said they saw Abdulmutallab with a tall, well-dressed man aged about 50 at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. They have claimed the man spoke for Abdulmutallab and attempted to get him aboard Northwest flight 253 without a passport.
"At this moment we have no information on whether there was another guy," a military police spokesman said. "We are checking all clues and information we get." The spokesman said it would be unlikely the man could board the plane without showing his passport at some point in the boarding process.
Airport security was tightened in Europe and the US on Saturday. Passengers travelling to the US from Schiphol were searched at the gate and their carry on luggage was checked manually.