back to article Pants bombs vs America: The infernal conflict

The underwear bomber almost perfectly illustrated the hard place the US has found itself in since 9/11. For all Washington's efforts to wall off the US, it is still unable to prevent the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs from walking in off the street, volunteering for service at the local al-Qaeda affiliate in the impoverished Muslim …


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  1. Ru

    Um, why not use a wrapper of some kind?

    There are some well known devices by well established companies that are intended to prevent chemical or biological interaction between certain fluids that may be contained within them, and the mucosal environment in which they are intended to be used. They may not be sufficient on their own, but they do represent an excellent approach to use when storing volatile compounds in the various orifices god in his wisdom has provided your body with.

    I do of course expect all the output of companies like durex to be reclassified as munitions immediately, and the TSA to outlaw the posession of flexible impermeable membranes.

  2. Wonko the Sane


    "the childlike populace safe", I think you mean the childlike pols, the proles will take care to defend ourselves.

    "where laymen have been conditioned to view them as magic wands", evidence?

    Your whole rant sounds like the usual EuroWeenie Whine about Americans, you actually believe what the media tells you about us. Us, on the other hand, have been living with American media most of our lives and know better than to imbibe.

    And your rant will be shown silly by the first butt-bomb that actually you hope you won't be sitting next to the unfortunate mule.

    1. Steve X


      I can only contrast the reactions to the 9/11 US bombs with the 7/7 London ones.

      After 9/11 the US media stirred up a sky-is-falling frenzy that frightened half the US into hiding under it's bed. I flew to/from the US several times soon after that, the planes were empty. 50 passengers in a 747 economy cabin, we all had flat beds to lie on :)

      I was in the US when 7/7 happened, and saw the incredulous reaction of the US media when they discovered that Londoners were back on the buses and underground on 7/8. The idea of "we can't let them win" seemed to amaze journalists who expected London to be deserted as terrified people stayed at home.

      As anyone who lived in N. Ireland in the 70's and 80's will tell you, you'll never stop every determined terrorist from getting through, but if you let the ones who succeed determine your actions, they have won and we have lost. Statistically speaking you're still far more likely to be killed in a road accident, but do we leave our cars in the garage? No, we fit airbags, use seatbelts, and know that the chances of us not coming home are really quite small.

      It takes some courage, yes, but so do most worthwhile things in life. It was what drove the pioneer spirit of the first european settlers in the US, and it's sad that their descendants have lost it. What is even more of a problem is that so many of the world's leaders have also lost it. I hate to think what Churchill and Roosevelt would make of the reactions of Brown, Obama, et al. The heightened security, virtual strip search and general inconvenience plays straight into the terorists' hands. They've conned the authorities into doing what they can't do themselves, and the poor dupes in power either can't see it, or are too nervous for their jobs to admit it.

      Forget the in-your-face techy toys, they're not the magic solution. The only security that works is the behind-the-scenes stuff that we don't see. Decent intelligence gathering by security services, and the courage of ordinary people not to let the bombers succeed, is the only way for us to overcome this. No potential semtex fart is going to keep me off a plane.

      1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge
        Thumb Up

        Hear hear

        I was actually in London that day, not too far away from the bus bomb, and friends of mine happened to be delayed enough to precisely miss that specific bus.

        I also lived through the IRA bomb years, and apart from the occasional lost packed lunch emptying an Underground train it didn't really stop people go about their lives as normal - even straight after a bomb report.

        It's true - if you let it affect you you might as well hide under the bed and never go out again, but in reality there is (a) a low likelihood that you get hit (*) and (b) well, when it happens you deal with it if you survive. In addition, I thought the government imposed news blackout was also a good idea. If the newspapers, radio and web were NOT reporting every fart (with out without filling) and every twitch of someone wearing a beard the news benefit (and thus the terror so spread) would vastly diminish and it may not even be worth it. However, this is exactly where the problem lies: scare stories sell newspapers and frighten voters into approving measures that would normally be laughed at.

        And that's what we must do more: laugh.

        Present those terrorists the finger, and not just during airport rectal examination.

    2. Anonymous Coward


      According to his profile George Smith lives in Pasadena, California.

      I know Americans have a bad reputation for your geographical knowledge, but you take the biscuit* Wonko!

      * - that's a 'cookie' to you colons

    3. Rob

      Small point

      Do you know where and what Europe is?

    4. William Boyle

      Ass-urdities abound

      Methane when mixed with air is a highly explosive substance. Next attack - feed lots of beans to the bomber before takeoff along with a bunch of wide-necked balloons to fart into. Mix that with some oxygen (available on the plane), and voila! We have a true butt-bomber!

    5. Anonymous Coward

      I wish that were true

      In the same way that I wish there were no people who actually believed the drivel that The Daily Mail pushes out, I also wished that there were no people who believed Fox News, or The NY Post. Unfortunately, after 2 years living in the US I can testify that there are far too many people who do believe that drivel.

      And yes, I do believe there is an institutional belief that you can put bad people on a list and that will fix everything. Despite the obvious fact that numerous of the bad people who have tried stunts recently weren't on watch lists, and when someone on a watch list does try something stupid the watch list didn't even work.

      The interesting thing about Terrorism in the US is that prior to 11/9/01 the US hadn't really seen terrorism up close. Now they think they are the world's expert on it. Despite the fact that Europe has dealt with much more serious terrorism problems for much longer. The UK, with a population a fifth that of the US, has had more people murdered by Irish Extremists that the US has had murdered by Muslim Extremists. And the Irish Terrorists were half way competent - their bombs usually went off as advertised rather than just causing a few leg burns.

      Yes, someone may, some day, manage to blow up a butt-bomb and take down an airliner. I don't think it is the most serious risk that we face though. The risks at airports that most concern me are things like collaboration of airside staff. It would be very easy for someone airside to smuggle a bomb into an airport and then hand it to a suicide bomber for example - especially at one of the third world airports.

      Remember that the key reason Sep 11 worked was because it was something different. Prior to that incident, airborne terrorists had always tried to survive the attack. This meant that bombs would go on board unaccompanied (hence why it is such a hassle now when someone fails to board and their bags have to be removed). Or hijackers would try to land somewhere. If people had been expecting a suicide attack, all 4 aircraft would have had passenger led takeovers just like the 4th jet did. You now see people having a go when someone tries to detonate a device (Shoe Bomber, Underwear Bomber). I think things will have to change drastically again before we get another spectacular of that form.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Karl Rove of Al Qaeda

    You didn't mention the bomber that brought down a flight last Feb in New York. The Continental flight in Feb 2009? The one that killed 45 people?

    Ahhh, hang on, that was ice on the wing, not a bomb... funny the same right wing extremists weren't trying to scare people then, were they!?

    It's always the extreme right trying to talk up terrorist plots to make people afraid. The terrorists try to make people afraid, the right wing talking heads like Rove, then pick up the thread and they ALSO try to make people afraid on Fox.

    There's not a millimetre between the rhetoric of the terrorists "be afraid" message and Karl Roves "be afraid" message. Karl could work for the terrorist and he would be spouting the same terror message word for word.

  4. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    It's not the bomb silly!

    What the world does not seem to have figured out is that it's not the bomb that's important - it's the attempt. The US has incurred huge costs attempting to prevent anything getting blown up since 9/11 and has effectively destroyed the airline industry - for very little visible effect. It's time to admit that it is impossible to make everyone perfectly safe in a free society and still have a free society. There are risks to life - and responsibilities too.

    Look at the costs associated with the security "breach" in Newark last week - imagine what would happen in the US if is was discovered that security was being breached on a daily basis? All they would have to do is smuggle one form of contraband or another into the airport and leave it in the rest rooms to shut down the country every single day - the ensuing security theater to "make travel safe" would cost the US far more than any real incident.

    We shoot ourselves in the foot every day.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Just a small correction ...

      "... it is impossible to make everyone perfectly safe in *any* society". Otherwise, I agree entirely.

  5. eJ2095

    Should have

    Done what the joker did to that guy in with the internal bomb in Batman Dark Knight??

  6. Dibbles

    Too much credit to the TSA et al

    The thing is, there's no evidence whatsoever that there's any constructive or unscripted thought at the TSA. Give them the number 2 and they will marvel in amazement at it, never once wondering what happens if you add 2 and 2 together. Likewise, give them an incompetent would-be shoebomber and they start testing everyone for shoebombs (but nothing else). Give them an incompetent pantslighter and they start looking at everyone's underwear - they will not actually start looking in people's folds of fat (good idea, btw, but fat people rarely sign up to Al Qaeda, it seems) until someone actually tries that method of bomb-carrying.

    Which is a shame, really, as it just goes to show that airport security is really about backside covering (and not in the pant-lighting sense). Airport security officials need to be able to say 'we tested everything that could be reasonably expected', where 'could be reasonably expected' means 'been tried before', rather than 'things we thought of that someone is going to try some day'.

    1. Pete 2 Silver badge

      and that's the problem

      > we tested everything that could be reasonably expected

      I suspect that if they did test every reasonable security loophole they would discover (but probably know already - which is why they don't do it) that their security procedures are so full of holes that anyone they do catch is more by jam than judgment.

      Luckily, the number of crazies trying to blow up planes is very, very small, mostly incompetent and not at all well informed about what goes on in airport security (it would take almost no collusion between a planted plastic piggie and a baddie to get pretty much anything smaller than an H-bomb through the checkpoint) so the current "security through obscurity" of withholding information about the technicalities of scanning and profiling is probably optimal. Until a security guard does collude with a bomber, then all hell will break loose.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      > Airport security officials need to be able to say 'we tested everything that could be reasonably

      > expected', where 'could be reasonably expected' means 'been tried before', rather than 'things

      > we thought of that someone is going to try some day'.

      I recall hearing that someone had the bright idea of hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House to get rid of Nixon... Perhaps they should've expected some fool from the Middle East to catch up eventually...

  7. Dave 64 Silver badge

    pooh-poohed the rectum bomb

    ha ha ha

  8. Lottie

    Fear the repost!!

    So now that an example of how a colostomy bag may be used is online, it won't be too long before it's scraped up and pasted into an "official threat assessment" a la the WMD facts and figures.

  9. Robbocop

    Who's winning?

    What gets me down is that each extra security measure, each delayed flight, and each extra piece of security equipment just means that the plot actually worked. OK, so nobody died and we can be thankful for that. But thousands of frustrated travellers doesn't count as a win in my book. Each time a plot is uncovered, new methods to inflict terror have to be devised, so we have no choice but to react, but I wonder if the war on terror can ever really be won.

    On a lighter note, my idea is that we have a list of all the terrorists and suspected terrorists and we make them all travel everywhere together :)

  10. Pete 2 Silver badge

    A new threat

    OK, since the world of terrorism is moving towards ever more intimate places to conceal explosive materials, how long will it be before gastric methane is classed as an explosive material. Airport scanners could easily be fashioned from simple combustible gas monitors and the flatulent could be filtered out, denied boarding and frog-marched away for 42 days confinement without charge (cheaper than a holiday?).

    We could even make it part of the Advanced Passenger Information questionnaire: have you eaten any of the following foodstuffs within 24 hours of flying?

    What's worse is if the baddies start to do work in that area - developing super-beanz or the like, which produce far more gas than common or garden varieties (and quicker, too). Or the nightmare scenario: they diversify away from producing explosive internal gasses, to making "silent but deadly" poison gas (hydrogen sulphide is much more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, but being more smelly is detected earlier, in smaller concentrations) where the closed environment of an airplane cabin would both spread it quickly and prevent any escape from it's effects.

    Maybe we should start to take notice of the airline safety demos and familiarise ourselves with exactly how to use the oxygen masks.

  11. b b

    @Wonko the ...erm ... sane

    You've got to be kidding me right?

    And I thought Americans didn't do sarcasm!

    Well done - you nearly had me going there. I actually believed, for a brief second, you believed that trupe you posted! I see now that you would have to be a complete window-licker to do that.

    Well played sir - I tip my hat to you.

  12. GarethJones

    Chemicals used

    I recon the "Chemicals" used were "Star Dust" and lemonade. Those of us old enough to remember the '70's will know how explosive that combination is.

  13. Old Tom
    Dead Vulture

    Flabbergasting - and wrong..

    "But in the US, and for the mob journalism which accompanies every domestic terror story, careful thought has no place.

    In fact, other media outlets had bitten on the rectum bomb story back in September, notably the Murdoch-owned New York Post, whose editors thought it was mighty funny, calling it the "butt-bomb" and dubbing the perpetrator an "ass-assin"."

    Also - notably - The Register's 'Suicide bum-blast bombing startles Saudi prince' report of the incident -

  14. Mike Richards

    Improving security with Channel 4

    Surely we will only be secure when the bowel-fixated Doctor* Gillian McKeith is running homeland security?

    * Not really a doctor but it did get her a TV contract.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Det cord is a bit dodgy under friction...

    As a lab-rat in an explosives factory in the eighties, det cord was the one thing I was told to be careful with, when chopping it up with a razor for testing - slice it the wrong way or too quickly and say goodbye to my fingers. NG, on the other hand was thrown around the lab in a plastic bottle with great abandon... mind you, that was only in winter when it was stable enough.

    Ah, the good old days before responibility crept in to my consciousness...

  16. Rich 11 Silver badge

    @Wonko the Sane

    "Your whole rant sounds like the usual EuroWeenie Whine about Americans, you actually believe what the media tells you about us."

    George is an American (although you could have been confused by the fact that he spelt 'sulphuric' correctly).

  17. Ian 31

    Re Euro-Whine

    To quote from the article,

    'Having said all this, the possibility exists that it will work some day.'

    I also think you'll find the George Smith in question is an American.

  18. clive howard


    Yup, I've worked for American compamies for over 30 years and confirm high levels of hysteria every time an incident happens in a foreign land - as long as One or more US citizens was impacted, of course. They just get scared to travel here. This amuses us and our colleagues every time it happens.

    Terrorism is evil and I don't wish it on anybody, but the hypocrisy of the Americans is breathtaking.

    The unpalatable truth is that American governments have sponsored terrorism around the globe many times. That hundreds lost their lives in Belfast at the hands of bombers funded by citizens on the streets of New York and other cities is equally indisputable.

    The childlike over-reaction when others do unto them that which they have so often done to "foreigners" would be funniy if it wasn't so sad.

    Oh, all right then, it is funny.

    1. George of the Jungle
      Thumb Down


      "The unpalatable truth is that American governments have sponsored terrorism around the globe many times. That hundreds lost their lives in Belfast at the hands of bombers funded by citizens on the streets of New York and other cities is equally indisputable."

      Provide credible sources that state the United States government or its citizens were killing people in Belfast please.

      "The childlike over-reaction when others do unto them that which they have so often done to "foreigners" would be funniy (sic) if it wasn't so sad."

      The "holier than thou" attitude of many outside the US is just as nauseating.

      1. Adam Salisbury

        Wakey wakey

        The dirty Merkin governement apologised for American funding of the IRA after 9/11 genius, once that happened they woke up (slightly) to their own hypocrisy so how about you get a clue before posting.

        Everyone keeps trying to blow up America because they're doing what the UK tried hundreds of years ago and ultimately failed at; bringing the whole world under the yolk of imperialist opression

      2. Anonymous Coward

        You want a credible source, I'll give you one.

        Credible source for American citizens funding IRA? You have heard of NORAID? That money didn't go to widows and orphans, although it helped create many.

        1. SirTainleyBarking

          We should thank Al Quaida for that

          It finally woke the American Gubment up to the fact that they were sponsering terrorist organisations in a country that was supposed to be an ally in the war against terror

          Funny how Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and other murdering pus-bags suddenly decided to go for the peaceful option of the Good Friday agreement when they realised that they wouldn't be getting any more money from dumb idiots in America who wanted to "Support the Boys in the old country".

      3. Paul 4


        You have far more blood on your hands than any jehadist funders. Please appologise rather than just hiding, as is so often the US way.

  19. regadpellagru

    latex gloves

    "Previously, on 30 December, the Los Angeles Times had informed its readers of a rectum bomb."


    "This was flabbergasting - and wrong. But in the US, and for the mob journalism which accompanies every domestic terror story, careful thought has no place."

    Right, so now that the US is gonna make body scanners mandatory any time soon, I think anytime one will be asked to come here for a minute, at an airport security gate, he'll meet a staff with latex gloves ...

    Geez, I'm not flying to the US during the next decade !

  20. M Room

    Words of Advice

    An open message to all those planning to carry these human bombs:

    Before you embark on your task, check all your equipment is in place and most important of all - when your all ready to set out, give a big goodbye hug to your organiser and at the same time, have a test run to ensure it actually works.

  21. ian 22

    "Bum-ber": HAHAHA!

    After a 17-hour flight, my underpants are always deadly!

    Seriously, the yanks don't have a security system, they have a people-bothering system.

    @SteveX - not to be a pedant, but as I recall, ALL airlines were avoided following 9-11. Caused several European national airlines to go titsup. Twasn't only the yanks doing the avoiding!

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Idiots in charge

    The sad truth is that contemporary, mass media "news" organizations lost credibility years ago when they were deemed "profit centers" and placed under the wing of the Entertainment divisions of the media corporations. This basically gutted the organizations of quality journalists as their funding evaporated. There is little fact-checking and an attitude that it's more important to be first with a story than to be correct.

    The majority of our "security" operations at airports are completely worthless. I have made the remark, while removing my shoes, that they must've gotten some sort of memo that middle-aged, white-bread crackers were bent on making a political statement through terror, otherwise there was no earthly reason to subject me to such crap.

    I've adopted a policy that, if I can drive somewhere in two days or less, I refuse to fly. It was bad enough to be treated like cattle prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, but to pay for the privilege of being treated like _possibly criminal_ cattle is absurd. I expect at any time that we'll have to fly naked, strapped to a board on all domestic flights. "Can't be too careful, now!!!" Bah...

  23. Estariel

    Media Hype

    @Wonko - how come Dubya got elected if all americans are too clever to be taken in by hysterical media?

    @Steve X - you hit it on the nail. Our hysterical overreaction is what the bad guys want.

    We should be more worried that hysterical overreaction seems to be what our own leaders want to.....

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Anyone remember Blaster Bates?

    Rather suspect is stage routine wouldn't go down too well these days. He lit some det cord or fuze in a pint of water, then warned the audience not to drink it unless seriously constipated. Given PETN's use as a medicine, not sure I'd want any quantity close to something that could absorb it.

  25. blackworx


    Kill kill kill kill kill the trolls!

    Hunt them down there shall be no clemency!

  26. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    NOT security measures

    That's right the "security measures" in the airports have nothing to do with security. You often hear "well it's annoying but if it catches a single terrorist it's worth it". The point is, the "security" measures are not designed to catch terr'ists, they are designed to bother passengers. More specifically, they are designed to mildly inconvenience all passengers (that's the "if it tastes bad, it must be efficient" effect) AND to majorly humiliate a few of them, while making sure that the others can see (a combination of "I thought he looked funny, too" and "I'm glad it's not me"). That way the populace feels "protected" -from a threat that doesn't exist in the first place.

    It's the old trick of the tiger-repellent stone. Governing efficiently is difficult. Tackling real issues is difficult. It's much easier to invent a fake problem, make sure that everyone takes it seriously, and throw in a few random measures, making sure they are as visible and intrusive as possible. Bonus points for advancing your civil liberty-suppressing agenda. And it works, of course. Look, since all passengers are treated like criminals, there has been no terr'ist crashing a plane in a large US building. Now tell me, how many of these incidents had occured _before_? In the almost 100 years of commercial airline operation in the US? Yes, this stone repels tigers indeed. Of course there was no tiger here in the past, there is no tiger here now, and there will probably never be any tiger here in the future. But hey, "if it repels even a single tiger, it's well worth it". Except that in this case the tiger-repelling stone is really a chunk of Uranium, and this strange diarrhea of yours is beginning to be a bit worrying...

  27. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up


    "Anyone remember Blaster Bates?"

    Saw him live one time. His "Why firing a shotgun barrel underwater is a bad idea" was side splitting.

    Much missed.

  28. mafoo

    White Phosphorus

    I'd love to see someone stick white Phosphorus up their pooper. I don't think they would make it to the airport.

    by *see* I don't mean look at.... thought it would defiantly be a hit on YouTube.

  29. /dev/me


    And now that 'Schiphol airport' has been dubbed 'Terror airport' by foreign press, it got them so worked up to take drastic measures that they proudly proclaimed the next day they had bought the entire stock of body scanners. 60 of them, so we can all be safe!

    And now, as it seems, even the vendor of these scanners doesn't hide the fact that the ordered scanners are not the kind that could have detected the bomb used. We seem to be of the opinion that something must be done, even if it is ineffective.

  30. nrhtnhorzn

    So what are we supposed to do??

    The bulk of you Europeans make it sound like if we do anything to try to counter-act terrorism we are over-acting. Tell me, do you where your seat belts, or is that over-acting, too?

    1. Steve X
      Thumb Down


      Of course we wear our seatbelts, but we don't go for the crash helmets, Nomex underwear and armed bodyguards when we pop out for a pint of milk.

      1. nrhtnhorzn


        And we don't strip search and conduct a body cavity search of every foreigner that enters the country. As long as all you are talking about is a little inconvenience, I think a little cheese would go well with your whine....

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Bombs, targets and that kind of thing

    Things that go bang.

    I am old enough to have done school chemistry when every chemistry teacher had a galaxy of ways of making all sorts of bangs, flashes and noxious gases, sometimes from the obviously hazardous (phosphorous, sodium, ammonium nitrate, and aluminium and iodine, that kind of thing) but sometimes from the much less obviously so. This was partly how they did their job; get teenage boys interested in chemistry by blowing things up. Worked a treat, but probably not allowed anymore. Thank God terrorists don't know any old chemistry teachers.


    The whole security thing seems focussed on the idea that the terrorists only want to target planes and all you need to do is have some means of stopping the bomb from getting onto the plane - all very 1970s hijack model (though that was guns and planes - gentler times). Think what chaos would result if the bombers targetted the security gates (and their often very long queues) - blow up the systems intended to prevent people from being blown up. How would you counter that in any reasonable way? Having a security gate to protect the security gate would not really work. Can you imagine getting the (poorly-paid?) civilian security staff to even turn up for work if they became targets?

    Of course there all sorts of other targets that terrorists could attack (trains, like in Madrid) so discussion of other ways of causing chaos could go on for ever. Maybe we should just be thankful that the current crop of terrorists seem to generally lack the creativity of the IRA when it comes to picking targets, so we only need to obsess about better airport security.

  32. Robert E A Harvey

    Mastery of the problem.

    I flew to the US on the 4th of Jan, held up by the panic at Newark. I was told to expect more searches and pat-downs, and someone did just that as we entered the gate before boarding.

    No such extra security took place on the internal USA flights, or on the return flight to the UK.

    Oh, and no-one took any interest in my underpants at all.

  33. Wize

    To hostile an environment?

    Drugs mules have been transporting substances hidden from and searches for years. Wrap a few condoms round it and its mostly harmless.

    No body scanner will find that.

    Nor will ID cards stop it.

    Although having a sniffer dog trying to shove its nose up your bum might make them crack.

  34. Wayland Sothcott 1

    Daily Mail pushes out

    "I wish that were true # ↑

    Posted Friday 8th January 2010 17:01 GMT


    In the same way that I wish there were no people who actually believed the drivel that The Daily Mail pushes out, I also wished that there were no people who believed Fox News, or The NY Post. Unfortunately, after 2 years living in the US I can testify that there are far too many people who do believe that drivel."

    I happen to support the Daily Mails stance on many things. That Global Warming is a tax con. That David Kelly was murdered. I support Fox news giving Obama a hard time over his broken promises.

    Just because these news people have not yet declared 7/7 and 9/11 to be an inside job does not mean they are no good. I think that the day will come and it will be the Daily Mail who exposes 7/7

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