Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Richard Reid Boards Transatlantic Flight
On December 22, 2001, Richard Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63, bound from Paris to Miami. At the time, no one could have imagined the dark purpose lurking behind this quiet young man's unassuming exterior. Reid passed through Charles de Gaulle Airport security without raising any red flags. He carried no luggage except for a small backpack. Dressed casually in baggy trousers and a hooded sweatshirt, Reid seemed like any other tourist starting his journey home for the holidays.
As the flight departed and reached cruising altitude, Reid sat silently in his window seat near the rear of the plane. Across the Atlantic, the passengers and crew settled in for the long haul to Miami. Children watched movies on the inflight entertainment screens. A few passengers napped under blankets. Flight attendants served drinks and snacks. Everything seemed perfectly routine on this peaceful holiday flight.
But Reid had a deadly plan. He bided his time as the hours passed, waiting for the right moment to make his move. His backpack contained the components for an improvised explosive device. Shoe bombs, constructed of plastic explosives and detonators hidden in the soles of sneakers, were an innovation pioneered by infamous terrorist Ramzi Yousef. Now Reid intended to follow in Yousef's footsteps with a shoe bomb of his own. His goal was mass murder through terrorism targeting American civilians.
As Flight 63 flew on through the darkness, the cabin lights dimmed. Passengers rested in anticipation of arrival in Miami. At last, Reid made his move. He retrieved his shoe bomb materials from the backpack and assembled the device inside his sneakers. Then he attempted to use a match to light the fuse. At that moment, providence intervened. A nearby passenger smelled the match and saw Reid making furtive movements. Alarmed, he alerted the flight crew.
What else is in this post?
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Richard Reid Boards Transatlantic Flight
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Suspicious Behavior Raises Red Flags
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Passengers Restrain Reid Mid-Flight
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Bomb Materials Found in Reid's Shoes
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Reid Sentenced to Life in Prison
- Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Lessons Learned to Prevent Future Attacks
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Suspicious Behavior Raises Red Flags
As the hours ticked by on American Airlines Flight 63, the initial calm onboard began to evaporate. Passengers started to take notice of Reid's peculiar behavior. Though dressed like any other tourist, his demeanor seemed oddly tense and furtive. While other travelers relaxed and socialized during the long transatlantic journey, Reid sat rigidly in his seat, not speaking to anyone.
Flight attendants circulating through the cabin found Reid's manner unsettling. When they offered him food or drinks, he responded with terse one-word answers. Reid kept his backpack clutched tightly on his lap, guarding it from view. One attendant recalled sensing "bad vibes" from this reticent passenger. She quietly alerted the rest of the crew to keep an eye on him.
Reid attracted the scrutiny of nearby passengers as well. They observed him rummaging repeatedly in his backpack, as if handling items within it. At one point, a woman seated beside Reid witnessed him removing a pair of sneakers from the bag. His movements seemed fidgety and agitated as he handled the shoes. She also noted a pungent chemical odor emanating from Reid.
As the hours passed, Reid became visibly more tense and restless. He began making frequent trips to the bathroom, emerging each time with beads of sweat on his forehead. On one visit, an airline cleaner entered soon after and detected a peculiar smell - something burning, with a faint chemical undertone. She reported this odd odor to the flight crew.
Eventually Reid'sNeighbor Richard Clune started watching Reid intensely, troubled by his jittery demeanor. While Pretending to sleep, Clune peeked out and saw Reid doing something strange - fiddling with the inserts inside his sneakers. Reid's behavior screamed suspicious intent. Clune's law enforcement experience told him this man merited close observation.
By now, much of the cabin had zeroed in on Reid's bizarre actions. The flight attendants compared notes, agreeing this passenger seemed to be up to something. When Reid suddenly made a dash for the bathroom, a crew member discreetly searched his seat, finding several suspicious items in the backpack - batteries, matches, modeling clay, and most alarmingly, a wire protruding from a shoe.
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Passengers Restrain Reid Mid-Flight
As the flight attendants conferred about Reid's suspicious materials, events accelerated rapidly. Suddenly, shouts and commotion erupted from the rear of the cabin. The crew rushed back to find passengers wrestling a wild-eyed Reid into submission. Several burly men had tackled him and now gripped the struggling would-be bomber in an implacable hold. A woman frantically stomped up and down on Reid's feet. He howled in pain and fury, writhing against his captors.
What transpired was this: Reid had made yet another hurried visit to the bathroom. Returning to his seat, he made the fateful move to ignite his device. As Reid struck a match, the sulfur aroma wafted to passenger Richard Clune. Playing possum in the next seat, Clune opened his eyes a sliver. To his shock, he witnessed Reid holding a flaming match near his sneaker. In that split-second, Clune knew exactly what Reid intended. This was no time for second guessing.
Clune erupted from his seat, lunging at Reid while yelling, "I'm gonna kill you!" He grappled ferociously with the startled terrorist, dragging him into the aisle. As they tumbled and thrashed, Clune managed to grip Reid in a headlock. Gasping nearby passengers jumped up to help Clune, piling onto the desperate criminal. One man smashed Reid's face into an armrest, bloodying his nose. A brave woman began stomping the would-be bomber's feet with all her might. Later she explained, "I just did what I had to do."
Reid resisted violently, writhing and kicking against the impromptu posse. But he was no match for the enraged passengers who now surrounded him. Clune clung doggedly to the terrorist in a viselike hold. With Reid pinned face-down and immobilized, a French national living in Miami swung his belt down hard. He lashed Reid's wrists together behind his back, hog-tying the subdued criminal. By now the flight crew had rushed to the scene. Relieved of their burden, the exhausted passengers collapsed into their seats. Thanks to their heroic actions, the bombing had been prevented. The battered Reid lay trussed up on the floor, his evil plan foiled.
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Bomb Materials Found in Reid's Shoes
The thwarted terror plot took a chilling turn once Reid was restrained and his sneakers seized for inspection. When investigators unlaced the heavy, loose-fitting shoes, they uncovered the cleverly disguised components of an improvised explosive device hiding inside the soles. Reid had transformed his sneakers into cleverly camouflaged bombs intended to detonate aboard the aircraft.
Examining Reid's shoes, officials immediately recognized the hallmarks of a "shoe bomb" - the innovative weapon pioneered by notorious al-Qaeda terrorist Ramzi Yousef. Just a few years prior in 1995, Yousef's shoe-bomb plot targeted 11 airliners flying Asian routes. He only succeeded in destroying one aircraft and killing a passenger, but the audacious ploy sent shockwaves through the aviation security community.
Now in 2001, the discovery aboard Flight 63 proved Yousef's insidious innovation had not died. Razor-thin sheets of hard plastic explosives were artfully molded to blend into the shoe's arch. Nestled inside lay wires, matches, and detonator caps, plus a fuse disguised as a shoelace. The components could be cleverly reassembled into a functional bomb triggered by a simple lit match. Ingeniously compact, yet packing up to 100 grams of high explosive, the device was perfectly designed to evade airport screening.
Reid's crude copycat device likely had serious flaws limiting its explosive power. Still, detonated aboard a crowded jetliner, his shoe bomb could have torn through the pressurized hull, causing a catastrophic structural failure. Even a small blast could have killed or harmed dozens of passengers and crew. Reid plainly intended mass murder to further his extremist ideology.
The near-miss above the Atlantic underscored the frightening versatility of shoe-bomb designs. Plastic explosives can be molded into undetectable slim sheets or disguised amid shoe inserts, easily evading x-ray screening and metal detectors. Reid's scheme proved terrorists actively sought to target airliners with these hard-to-spot devices.
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Reid Sentenced to Life in Prison
On January 30, 2003, Richard Reid finally faced justice for his foiled shoe bomb attack aboard American Airlines Flight 63. Nearly 13 months after the frightening Christmas 2001 incident, Reid stood in a Boston courtroom to receive his sentence. Convicted on all eight counts related to terrorism and the attempted bombing, he now awaited his fate.
The sentencing marked the culmination of a lengthy legal process. Initially charged in Boston due to an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation, Reid underwent trial in the same city. Prosecutors amassed a damning case proving Reid's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence included the shoe bombs themselves, surveillance footage, eyewitness testimony, and Reid's own confession. His court-appointed attorney attempted an improbable defense, questioning Reid's competence and claiming he had been brainwashed. But the overwhelming evidence rendered such arguments moot. On January 31, 2003 the jury convicted Reid unanimously on all counts after just 3 hours of deliberation.
At the sentencing hearing, Reid seized the opportunity to speak, admitting his guilt openly for the first time. He pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, stating he had no regrets about attempting mass murder aboard Flight 63. Remorseless to the end, Reid told the stunned courtroom: "I admit my actions...I do not apologize for my actions." He denounced the United States and its foreign policies, declaring his actions justified retaliation.
The heinousness of Reid's crime mandated the harshest possible sentence. While prosecutors sought a life term, even this seemed inadequate for such a callous terrorist bent on killing innocents. U.S. District Judge William Young imposed the maximum: three life sentences plus 110 years, all to be served consecutively without parole. He labeled Reid "an Al Qaeda-trained, combat-equipped, would-be suicide bomber." Additionally, the judge ordered Reid to reimburse American Airlines $298,000 and to forfeit any future earnings from publishing his story.
Young castigated Reid as representing "the face of fanaticism masquerading behind the mask of humanism." His scathing speech condemned Reid's cowardly perversion of Islamic faith to justify terrorism. Judge Young declared all present had witnessed the "day of reckoning for Richard Reid." With that, one of history's most notorious would-be bombers began serving out his lifelong punishment, largely forgotten behind bars.
Shoe Bomber Attack: An Inside Look at American Airlines Flight 63 - Lessons Learned to Prevent Future Attacks
The failed shoe bomb attack was a watershed moment for aviation security. Reid's thwarted scheme exposed gaping holes in airport defenses against novel explosive devices. Investigators were alarmed to discover how easily Reid smuggled his homemade bomb past checkpoints. The near-miss above the Atlantic made clear that major systemic changes were urgently needed.
In response, authorities mandated drastic new protocols to close security lapses. The most visible change was requiring all passengers to remove their shoes for X-ray screening. Previously, travelers only had to pass through metal detectors. But Reid proved plastic explosives molded into shoe soles could slip by undetected. Mandatory shoe removal became standard procedure worldwide after December 2001.
Additionally, restrictions were imposed on liquids and gels brought aboard aircraft. Investigators knew that potent homemade explosives could be concocted from common household chemicals. Limits of 3 ounces per container, and 1-quart size baggies for storage, helped eliminate risks of passengers brewing volatile explosives in flight.
Advanced imaging technology was also fast-tracked to boost detection capabilities. Backscatter X-ray scanners provided detailed 3D imagery able to spot anomalies like weapons and explosives hidden under clothing. Later upgrades included millimeter wave whole body scanners, improving detection of non-metallic threats.
The post-9/11 security overhaul also established the TSA in the US. Centralizing aviation screening under a single government agency helped implement consistent, mandatory counter-terrorism practices nationwide. Intelligence sharing between agencies increased dramatically as well.
Of course, the most meaningful security enhancement was elevating public vigilance. Reid benefited from a pre-9/11 complacency that no longer existed after 2001. Empowered passengers like Clune embodied this new refusal to ignore suspicious behavior. Enhanced security training for flight crews also promoted a culture of collective awareness.
Two decades later, these strengthened aviation defenses still stand guard against shoe bomb threats. While uncomfortable, mandatory shoe screening remains the best deterrent by forcing bombers to use more detectable devices. Liquid restrictions also help prevent terrorists from bringing explosive precursor chemicals aboard aircraft. Advanced imaging technology provides additional protection by detecting anomalies.