Will going commando get me through airport security faster?

If the media reports are accurate, another attempted terrorist attack on an aeroplane failed when the would-be mass-murderer managed nothing more lethal than setting fire to himself, leaving the 289 passengers and crew on flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit unharmed. 

The world breaths a sigh of relief and anyone flying in the next few weeks looks forward to more security checks and delays.

As the only person injured in this attack would seem to be the attacker, 23 year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, what lessons can we draw?

Carrying out a successful terrorist attack, especially on an aeroplane, would seem to be a lot harder than we might think (alternatively, terrorists are a lot dumber than we think – or perhaps both).


The key security enhancement after 9/11 was preventing terrorists taking control of a plane’s cockpit. That, along with sensible security screening and decent intelligence, has resulted in no successful terrorist attacks on aircraft in over eight years.

On the other hand, protecting against specific threats doesn’t seem to make much difference. A failed shoe-bomber is arrested and everyone has to remove their shoes at check-in. A possible plot involving liquid explosives is foiled and no-one’s allowed to carry liquids on board.

As Abdulmutallab smuggled the explosives onto the plane in his underpants, will we now have scenes reminiscent of Viz’s Bottom Inspectors at airport security? Will there be a fast lane for those going commando?

Checking for the specific threat may make some sense in the short term (to foil multiple and copycat attacks), but does little good beyond that – the terrorists simply vary their tactics.


We don’t know how many plots have been foiled through good intelligence.  Probably not as many as the secrity services would like us to think, but certainly more than have been foiled by checking shoes and banning liquids from planes.

In this case, it seems Abdulmutallab had appeared on the security services’ radar but not made it onto a no-fly list.

I’ve no doubt the services in question will come in for criticism over this – surely they should have said better safe than sorry? Why take the risk?

Such criticism would be unfair. A no-fly list can only work if it’s kept small. Each year, millions of non-terrorists fly. If only a fraction of one percent of those are wrongly identified as terrorists, security will spend huge amounts of time dealing with angry, innocent customers and the whole list will fall into disrepute.

A no-fly list with half a million names on it (the size of the list Abdulmutallab was on, we’re told) would surely contain pretty much every common name around. Even with supplementary information, the number of false positives would be huge and time spent checking innocent passengers is time not being spent stopping the real terrorists.

Good news

The good news is that, in the West at least, the terrorists are losing. Successful terrorist attacks are very rare and, it would appear, difficult to pull off even with money and training.

That’s no reason to let our guard down; but perhaps its time to have another look at what does and doesn’t actually work in stopping the terrorists, focussing resources on what does and doing less of what doesn’t.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I’m sure Iain already is aware, but Bruce Schneier is a security expert with a lot of interesting and cogent things to say about airline security. And squid.

  • I disagree, the terrorists are winning and our government is doing the hard work for them.

    The real terrorists in our society at the moment are our own governments and security services. In the name of “security” they are slowly introducing one new restriction after another. Each terrorist incident immediately results in a further loss of civil liberties and freedoms. Why are the citizens being punished?

    It’s getting to the point where one has to wonder if there isn’t some secret compact between our government and the terrorists. Let us rest in peace for a while, while we get used to the new restrictions on our freedoms and then have another small incident so that we can add another restriction. How much peace will we get now to get used to the new restrictions (stories are already abounding in the US press about not being able to leave your seat over US airspace, not allowed to have anything in you lap, not a computer nor even a pillow).

    What about those secret no-fly lists, how do you know if you are on one? How do you appeal it? What rights do you as a traveller have at an airport security check? Are you allowed to refuse to answer inane questions? Or are you at the mercy of security goons that have seemingly unlimited power and no accountability? How many people are scared (terrorised) by the thought that one wrong word, even a joke, might get them hauled into an interrogation room and grilled for hours on end by security forces? At which point does all this start to sound like (at airports at least) we are living in a police state? And it’s spreading (Section 44 not least, of the Anti-terrorism act, to name but one). Since when has buying an aeroplane ticket meant that I’m signing away (buying away!) my rights to liberty and freedom and due-process?

    Going commando might not be that far off… wait another ten years and you’ll be required to change into a security services issue jump suit (probably orange) when you book in and all your clothes will be confiscated (and then lost) until the plane has landed. You’ll be strapped to your seat and not allowed to talk to anyone.

    Benjamin Franklin was right. We’ve given one up for the other, and now we’re getting neither.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Dec '09 - 12:20am

    We appear to have invaded and seek to control the whole of the country of Afghanistan (not an easy place to do either) on the grounds that terrorists need the whole of such a country to practice and develop their craft, only to find that this one studied, not in Afghanistan, but in University College London.

  • David Williamson 30th Dec '09 - 4:07pm

    I completely agree with Martin and invite others not to dismiss but to consider his thread of thought. The threat is far more sinister than the obvious staged players of islamic extremism. This is a very transparent ploy to induce the population to accept ever more restrictive “norms”.

    For anyone who reads german here is a good summary of what’s really going on http://inge09.blog.de/2009/12/29/obamas-kuenftige-kriege-7659291/

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