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Pants bombs vs America: The infernal conflict

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Comment 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 nation of the moment, Yemen, and throwing themselves at airplane security.

The only upside is that such volunteers are generally of low quality, perhaps guaranteeing that their jerry-built experiments in explosive chemistry will fail.

While there's been no definitive explanation of the mechanics of the underwear bomb - media confusion, the usual American authority desire to suppress information, and the nature of the thing itself - the pictures that have been released indicate Abdulmutallab succeeded only in charring his device and parts of himself.

What may have been thought to be workable in a vacant lot somewhere in Yemen was hardly a plan that was sophisticated or foolproof in the hands of a 'warrior' like Abdulmutallab. He had to get the device onto an aeroplane where it had to be yanked out of the trousers in the bathroom after being sat and sweat and farted upon for hours, then squirted with a syringe of acid, the syringe partly destroyed by the corrosive effect.

It was desperate and flailing, too constrained by its design and the requirements needed to make it work to make it a game-changing formula.

However, as the subsequent national stir made clear, it was still a success. The media became hysterical and the nation's political leadership overreacted, with the usual result. We got more vows of increased punishment to be meted out in the faraway place - Yemen - and were promised more technology and watch lists promised to keep the childlike populace safe.

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

"In an elaborate ruse, a bomber posing as a repentant extremist tried to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's security chief," it reported. "[An al Qaeda] operative prepared an explosive device that was inserted into the rectum of the Saudi militant, who flew from Yemen to Jidda, Saudi Arabia to meet with the prince... He got through airport and palace security before the explosive was triggered by a call from Yemen, killing him but only wounding the prince.

"The explosive was PETN..."

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.

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".

"A suicide bomber recently put himself next to a member of the Saudi royal family, having outwitted bomb-detection machines in the palace, to set off an explosion using a charge that had been hidden in his rectum," reported the Post claimed.

However, other stories at the time were more reasonable, indicating it was an underwear bomb, hidden there because Islamic mores would preclude a search. The Saudi government pooh-poohed the rectum bomb because it exploded with a flash of light, indicating exterior placement, and the explosives were thought too toxic to have been inside the rectal mucosa for hours. It also detonated poorly, killing its wearer but only injuring the target.

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