Details on the UK Liquid Terrorist Plot

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is releasing details about last summer's liquid-bomb plot:

Sources tell ABC News that after studying the plot, government officials have concluded that without the tip to British authorities, the suspects could have likely smuggled the bomb components onboard using sports drinks.

The components of that explosives mixture can be bought at any drugstore or supermarket; however, there is some question whether the potential terrorists would have had the skill to properly mix and detonate their explosive cocktails in-flight.

But they can work--scientists at Sandia National Laboratory conducted a test using the formula, and when a small amount of liquid in a container was hit with a tiny burst of electrical current, a large explosion followed. (Click on the video player on the right side of this page to view the video.)

The test results were reviewed today by ABC terrorism consultant Richard Clarke, who said that while frequent travelers are upset by the current limits on liquids in carry-on baggage, "when they see this film, they ought to know it's worth going through those problems."

There has been a lot of speculation since last year about the plausibility of the plot, with most chemists falling on the "unrealistic" side.

I'm still skeptical, especially because the liquid ban doesn't actually ban liquids. If they're so dangerous, why can anyone take 12 ounces of any liquid on any plane at any time? That's the real question, which TSA Administrator Kip Hawley deftly didn't answer in my conversation with him last week. (I brought it on a plane again yesterday: an opaque 12-ounce bottle labeled "saline," emptied and filled with another liquid, and then resealed. I held it up to the TSA official and made sure it was okay. It was.)

Another quote:

One official who briefed ABC News said explosives and security experts who examined the plot were "stunned at the extent that the suspects had gamed the system to exploit its weaknesses."

"There's no question that they had given a lot of thought to how they might smuggle containers with liquid explosives onto airplanes," Chertoff said. "Without getting into things that are still classified, they obviously paid attention to the ways in which they thought they might be able to disguise these explosives as very innocent types of everyday articles."

Well, yeah. That's the game you're stuck playing. From my conversation with Hawley (that's me talking):

But you're playing a game you can't win. You ban guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. You ban small blades and knitting needles, and they hide explosives in their shoes. You screen shoes, so they invent a liquid explosive. You restrict liquids, and they're going to do something else. The terrorists are going to look at what you're confiscating, and they're going to design a plot to bypass your security.

Stop focusing on the tactics; focus on the broad threats.

Posted on August 6, 2007 at 11:34 PM • 71 Comments

Comments

GeorgeAugust 6, 2007 11:56 PM

Assuming, for the moment, that this deftly-timed revelation reflects the horrifying truth, the real lesson here is that it was old-fashioned intelligence and patient surveillance that prevented this disaster. If that hadn't happened, reactive mass screening at airports would have done nothing no matter how many arbitrary bans or searches Mr. Hawley had imposed at TSA checkpoints. The right reaction to the plot is (I hope) to improve the ability of human intelligence to find these plots long before they get anywhere near an airport, and to keep it all invisible. The wrong reaction is to add new arbitrary hassles to airport "security" that only inconvenience millions of non-terrorist travelers-- by the time a terrorist gets to that checkpoint it's too late to stop them.

Impressario Hawley's Security Theater may well reassure some travelers that the Government is Doing Something to protect us from all those awful things with which Bush, Cheney, and Chertoff so love to scare us. But is that really worth the high cost of all the hassles? Regrettably, it's impossible to have any kind of debate on that question.

Mike SchiraldiAugust 7, 2007 12:01 AM

Does anyone have a link to the video that's not in some proprietary, reinvent-the-wheel, made-to-be-embedded-in-IE-for-Windows, moronic video format?

bzelbobAugust 7, 2007 12:13 AM

Unfortunately, I no longer believe the government on this issue of the liquid bombings. Here's some of the reasons why:

1) The report issued by the Homeland Security Institute does not appear to be available to the general public.

2) No details as to exactly what formula they tested, nor to the details of the actual test so that it could be peer-reviewed and criticized.

3) We are still allowed to bring liquids on board the aircraft, so how are we any safer. We have made it more difficult perhaps, but not impossible.
(Thanks Bruce, for pointing this out.)

4) No details as to the process that Sandia labs went through to prepare the explosive. I'm assuming they didn't try to mix it under a simulation actual in-flight conditions.

5) No details as to the components that can be bought at any drugstore. Of course that really doesn't mean much as thousands and thousands of chemicals can be bought over the counter.


All in all, this video is of the smarmy, vague, "you-should all be worried because-there's-really-a-threat-here" variety but, as usual, no detail, no peer review, no real info and we have to take their word on it. I simply don't.

A further question is why this is coming out now? Preparation for 9/11 Anniversary? (They even compare this to 9/11 in the video.) Is this really comparable to 9/11 in the sense that there were only 16 people charged in this operation and many of them did not have airplane tickets or even passports.

(See the wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

KathyAugust 7, 2007 12:28 AM

Is it just me? The explosion looks pretty impressive, but would it be enough to down a plane?

Pat CahalanAugust 7, 2007 12:42 AM

@ Kathy

Yeah, probably. It doesn't take all that much to punch a decent-sized hole in the side of an airplane, and I don't believe they're designed for that sort of failure mode.

But, the logic is still tortured. If liquid-explosive plots are feasible, we shouldn't be allowed to carry *any* fluids on the plane.

aAugust 7, 2007 1:07 AM

It still looks to be more about selling water at airports than anything else.

And with all the liquids turning to be potentially explosive when they are in containers bigger than 3 oz, could someone explain why the liquids don't turn explosive when they are in infant formula containers or when the passenger travels with an infant?

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 1:19 AM

"Is it just me? The explosion looks pretty impressive, but would it be enough to down a plane?"
Yes, it does look impressive. Then again, us viewers were not shown what explosive and what amount was used.

It just smells so much about a grand conspiracy theory which I always want not to believe in. They're just making it darn hard not to believe in one.

AlexAugust 7, 2007 2:26 AM

A video without any(!) detail is not proof but propaganda. In the words of a renowned security expert: Refuse to be terrorised!

gulfieAugust 7, 2007 3:12 AM

(Pat Cahalan) : "Yeah, probably. It doesn't take all that much to punch a decent-sized hole in the side of an airplane, and I don't believe they're designed for that sort of failure mode."

Aloha flight 243 lost 30 ft worth of wall and roof, while at 24,000 ft. It landed, only an unsecured flight attendant died.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloha_Flight_243
http://www.iasa.com.au/folders/Safety_Issues/...

Planes can be built with greater fault (a.k.a. bomb) tolerances, they just weigh more. More weight is more cost. More cost is less profit. Profit is the real issue here.

JeffHAugust 7, 2007 3:30 AM

"One official who briefed ABC News said explosives and security experts who examined the plot were "stunned at the extent that the suspects had gamed the system to exploit its weaknesses.""

Really? They don't sound very expert to me, given that the entire method of breaching security is to 'game the system' by some means. What this probably translates to is 'a few highly paid security-theater people who proclaim themselves experts were stunned that the terrorists didn't play by the rules they invented'.

Bruce is totally correct. People with motivation looking to breach airport security as done at present will always find holes, given sufficient time.

Of course there are liquid explosives and they make a big bang, what does this prove? Not a lot. There are also solid and plastic explosives that make big bangs too. The point is whether you can smuggle the ingredients or the prepared explosive onto an aircraft and prepare and detonate it, all without being detected. No-one seems to have actually established if this was feasible.

When someone can independently demonstrate how this could have been carried out in secret on a busy aircraft without the perpetrator blowing themselves up long before getting to the airport, then I'll believe it.

Lawrence D'OliveiroAugust 7, 2007 3:39 AM

What exactly are they keeping "classified" that the criminals don't already know?

JeffHAugust 7, 2007 4:05 AM

Gulfie:"Aloha flight 243 lost 30 ft worth of wall and roof, while at 24,000 ft. It landed, only an unsecured flight attendant died."

Although a touch off the original topic, it's a fascinating side-topic, with some facts and theories about aircraft I certainly didn't know.

However, the risk is still considerable if something opens a hole in the aircraft you're in, especially at typical commercial high altitude. The big killers in that case would be oxygen starvation & cold, and the time to don masks is disturbingly short. In addition, given that the masks aren't exactly used often, you need to be confident that they are well maintained.

A quote from a 2000 crash investigation (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0UBT/is_48_14/ai_67591533/pg_1) highlights it: 'said John Clark, acting director of Aviation Safety for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "We're talking 8 to 10 seconds to take action'.

The other absolutely critical aspect is that the pilots get their masks on and descend the aircraft to a lower altitude before everyone freezes to death and/or the oxygen supply runs out.

All this stuff is really about safety and good design/training, rather than security, but it does pose an interesting security question: Should we simply be making the aircraft bomb-proof enough that the small stuff we can't stop doesn't matter?

Olaf T HairyAugust 7, 2007 4:30 AM

There is no threat from liquids and they know it.

If there is a threat then why (at Glasgow airport) are these 'dangerous' substances confiscated and then put behind the security staff in an open top plastic bin. Surely if these liquids are potentially dangerous they should be placed in a metal bomb locker?

I also note the the authorities are finally realising that the queues caused by security screening are now a better target than the jets. Why bomb one plane when you can set off a device before the screening and get 5 plane loads. Everyone else got this point as soon as they saw the first massive crowds.

SomeoneAugust 7, 2007 5:12 AM

`Stop focusing on the tactics; focus on the broad threats.'

I generally agree, but feel free to give us some examples.

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 5:27 AM

I remain skeptical as well. The video is an excellent example of bad journalism: high in emotion, totally devoid of any substance whatsoever.

I did not need to be convinced that it is possible to detonate substances (I assume ABC would like me to believe it is TATP), nor that some scientist at Sandia can do it. Other than that, the video shows nothing at all.

First, Kip Hawley "reaching out" to the security community, and then this. Obviously someone's PR machinery is doing its best to sell the moronic machinations of the TSA to the American public.

MattAugust 7, 2007 6:36 AM

I'm more worried about the liquid terrorists mentioned in the article title. How do you stop a terrorist who can just pour himself under a door?! :)

Matt

Anon-31August 7, 2007 7:01 AM

@Anonymous
"First, Kip Hawley "reaching out" to the security community, and then this. Obviously someone's PR machinery is doing its best to sell the moronic machinations of the TSA to the American public."

There is no such thing as Public Relations. The person who coined that term did so because by his own admission "propaganda" had negative connotations and he needed a more friendly word for it.

GulfieAugust 7, 2007 7:39 AM

re jeffH: "All this stuff is really about safety and good design/training, rather than security, but it does pose an interesting security question: Should we simply be making the aircraft bomb-proof enough that the small stuff we can't stop doesn't matter?"

Good design/training is good security. Not so much bomb proof, but resistant enough to allow for minor munitions to not destroy the ship. Or if the ship is mortally wounded, allow the people a good chance of survival.

Overpressure venting, sacrificial cargo bays, structural redundancy and ballistic parachutes could go a long way from turning a 100% catastrophe into a less appealing terrorism target.

Bruce SchneierAugust 7, 2007 8:25 AM

"'Stop focusing on the tactics; focus on the broad threats.' I generally agree, but feel free to give us some examples."

Same examples I always give: intelligence, investigation, and emergency response.

tsAugust 7, 2007 9:15 AM

Don't bother with the video, you can find more impressive explosions by DIYers on youtube. You have to slog through a minute of pointless talk to get to the explosion which just shows the shockwave and a dustcloud, no before/after shots, no images of the explosive, pretty pointless.

Looks much less powerful than the explosives used by the mythbusters testing "explosive decompression".

QAugust 7, 2007 9:22 AM

Can a liquid explosive be dangerous?

Yes. There are plenty of examples. From Nitroglycerin to Fulminates and beyond that can be fabricated with liquids.

Several points are consistently overlooked:

(1) Will anybody detect the smell? The human nose is quite sensitive. Down to parts-per-billion in some cases. Some wannabee terrorist starts mixing chemicals together and everyone is going to know what's up... (There's a reason you use a fume hood in a chem lab!)

(2) Most explosives are inherently unstable. In a noisy, strong vibration like an airplane, can a wannabee terrorist manufacture their explosive before premature detonation. (Which, while unlikely to damage the airplane, will almost certainly prove fatal to the terrorist. Possibly at the hands of his fellow passengers should he survive the premature blast.)

(3) Many explosive formulations are exothermic. As the temperature rises, so does the possibility of premature detonation. You'd think folks would notice a terrorist bringing 100kg of ice on board.

(4) Demolition work is not nearly as simple as everyone makes it out to be. You can set off a big blast, and do relatively little damage. Once you rupture a hole in the skin of a plane, all the energy is going to go outward. There's a lot to be said for the mathematics behind how force is applied.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Our biggest danger is not some mythical liquid explosive. It's a toxic gas cloud. Liquids are very well suited for gassing everyone on the plane. At which point our wannabee terrorist has hours to breach the cockpit defenses and fly the plane wherever he wants.


SpiderAugust 7, 2007 9:23 AM

" focus on the broad threats."

Isn't that exactly what they did in this case? No one was looking for liquids before they were tipped off. I think I agree with Kip that both are needed. People will always game any system you have, but that process of gaming might make them more vulnerable to detection from more traditional investigation. Anything that causes them to spend more time, money, or expertise is going to give the authorities a greater chance of intercepting messages, recruiting defectors, and/or noticing more suspicious behavior.

Michael AshAugust 7, 2007 9:49 AM

@JeffH "The other absolutely critical aspect is that the pilots get their masks on and descend the aircraft to a lower altitude before everyone freezes to death and/or the oxygen supply runs out."

The pilots getting their masks on is indeed extremely important. However, they know how important it is, they're trained to get them on quickly, and if both pilots are not strapped in to their seats then the pilot who is strapped in is required to have the oxygen mask already on.

An emergency descent will get you from a high cruising altitude to a breathable altitude in just a few minutes. You will not die from oxygen deprivation in that time even if you didn't get your mask on at all. The passenger oxygen masks are for consciousness, not for survival.

xreyAugust 7, 2007 10:43 AM

@Q: Your comment about smuggling ice on board got me to thinking about coolers... specifically the coolers used to transplant live organs.

Do security screeners check those? Now there's a movie plot threat. Transplant organs will have to be banned.

As Bruce mentions often, if you have two paths through security, the attacker will go through the one with lesser security.

RichAugust 7, 2007 10:45 AM

Given the large number of bottles of liquid sold in any major airport it would not be hard to smuggle in one explosive bottle through the concession delivery system (or its components, if the mixture was unstable).

Remember: this bomb plot was discovered through, as Bruce terms it, "intelligence and investigation".

RoyAugust 7, 2007 10:46 AM

"The components can be bought in any supermarket or drugstore."

Aha, there it is -- 'components', not 'ingredients'. Common products are formulated with the bomb components, but to use the components to make a bomb would require laboratory extraction, concentration, filtering, washing with solvents, drying, weighing, and precise mixing before reacting together to produce the explosive.

A bottle of water, after all, contains oxygen and hydrogen -- and in the exact proportions needed for an efficient explosion.

Yep, they are lying their asses off.

Erik V. OlsonAugust 7, 2007 11:14 AM

Roy hits hit.

They have no credibility. I'm not surprised that Sandia can produce explosives. I want the formula, because I'm willing to bet that the chances of it being done on an airplane are nil.

Otherwise, I'm going to assume they're lying to me again.

charlieAugust 7, 2007 12:30 PM

Look at the original intel. Have they been able to crack these guys to see how much information they got from other cells/sources and whether other people are plotting along similar lines. I think TSA did do a good job with the orginial ban on liquids -- fast reaction -- but after that period the efficancy of a semi-liquid ban is over. I also think now any would be terrorist knows to go on the internet, look at the drugstore, and copy the same idea......

RFCAugust 7, 2007 12:44 PM

So, Bruce walks onto a plane with a foreign substance in a 12 oz bottle marked "saline". Even stops and asks the TSO if it's OK, and gets approval.

Hmm, I guess Kip Hawley's BDOs were MIA (Behavior Detection Officers were Missing In Action, for the the TLA-impaired).

JamieAugust 7, 2007 1:47 PM

"But you're playing a game you can't win. You ban guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. You ban small blades and knitting needles, and they hide explosives in their shoes. You screen shoes, so they invent a liquid explosive. You restrict liquids, and they're going to do something else. The terrorists are going to look at what you're confiscating, and they're going to design a plot to bypass your security.

Stop focusing on the tactics; focus on the broad threats."

The point is that the more convoluted you make their plot have to be, the longer it will take them to plan (so you have longer to intercept them), the more plotters will lose enthusiasm before bringing their plot to fruition, and the less likely they are to succeed.

Nobody thinks air security can be made watertight. What we can do is raise the bar and reduce the chance of a successful attack.

htomAugust 7, 2007 2:11 PM

Oh good grief.

I'm convinced that there's a real danger -- and that this isn't it. Sport bottles full of xxx and yyy, mixing to release zz2 in the closed, recirculating cabin of an aircraft, now that's a danger.

AlanAugust 7, 2007 2:14 PM

It does not matter whether the device will work, it is the threat that it could work. What is the cost to the west with regards to a dozen or so chaps with a couple of bottles of fizz been?

It is not a bad way to sort of martyr yourself, without actually getting hurt too much. You have got Heaven in the bank for a later date, without going through the agony of 90% burns.

What the answer is, I do not know, but invading Sovereign States to protect oil is not it!

ChrisAugust 7, 2007 2:48 PM

Nice little explosion there. What quantity did they let off? Minor detail... As is the fact that the Lockerbie bombing was done with half a kilo of plastic explosives - which is what they were presumably using for the footage of the exploding aircraft (quantity also not mentioned).

Ingredients available from drug stores? If the reports are true, and it was TATP, then sure. Only trouble is, its going to be in a dilute form - I doubt they will sell 30%H2O2 or conc. H2SO4 to the public. So if you manage to get the conc chemicals from a specialist supplier (not that hard, but no longer your average shop either), you're not making it in a lab like was done for the video.

No doubt TATP is nasty - a student in my lab lost half his left hand and a few fingers from the right (no, he wasn't supposed to be making it!). We suspect he didn't keep the reaction adequately cooled - never-the-less it highlights the point that even people who have some vague idea, and working under ideal conditions (i.e. in a lab), still can manage to have it go off prematurely.

And what went off in that video was most definitely a large quantity of TATP, prepared with stoichiometric quantities, under proper lab conditions, and by people who really do know what they are doing.

Makes for great sensationalism if you want to scare people though.

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 4:09 PM

The explosive is not TATP. And yes, it is possible to create a liquid, binary explosive from readily available materials in about 2 seconds. Add A to B, stir or shake, ready. And this isn't some ugly, smelly, corrosive explosive that would tip any screener off if he/she smelled at the bottle. The explosive in question is at least as strong as TNT, has been used by several armed forces, and as we all know from a certain Mythbuster episode it takes about 100g of detcord (PETN) to tear a HUGE hole in a passenger jet. So with 200ml of liquid explosive it is possible to down a passenger jet. It's also no problem to create well concealed detonators.

The fact that none of you "security experts" so far were able to name this binary explosive proves how clueless you people actually are.

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 4:17 PM

> There has been a lot of speculation since last year about the
> plausibility of the plot, with most chemists falling on the
> "unrealistic" side.

Bullshit. Every chemist will tell you that is "unrealistic" to synthesize TATB and similar explosives on board of a passenger airplane. They will not tell you that it is unrealistic to create liquid binary explosives by simply mixing two easily available components.

Jay WeinshenkerAugust 7, 2007 4:31 PM

Funny.. I can buy powdered sports drink at the store, and I'm guessing the big reason that it was sports drink in the first place was because it contains salt, so it can carry a current easily... and good luck keeping salt out of airport concessions.

bmcmahonAugust 7, 2007 4:39 PM

Another example of focusing on past tactics, to the detriment of overall security:

"Les Ardennes sont infranchissables."

hamfistAugust 7, 2007 5:06 PM

"And yes, it is possible to create a liquid, binary explosive from readily available materials in about 2 seconds. Add A to B, stir or shake, ready."

I know! Diet Coke and Pop Rocks, right? I think you can substitute Mentos if Pop Rocks aren't available though.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 7, 2007 5:16 PM

@Anonymous Troll
Take some time and learn what makes an explosive explode.

If what you said were true, then we'd be seeing explosions all over the place, all the time. If for no other reason than kids playing with the "two easily available components".

Explosions are about releasing energy bound in the material. Your description doesn't seem to fit anything like that.

KiloAugust 7, 2007 6:08 PM

"Aloha flight 243 lost 30 ft worth of wall and roof, while at 24,000 ft. It landed, only an unsecured flight attendant died."
Posted by: gulfie at August 7, 2007 03:12 AM

Well good for that one plane then.
Meanwhile there's a show called air crash investigations where you can see thousands of people killed as a result of a cracks in the frame of a plane no bigger than a bee's dick.

Seriously WTF was the point of posting that ?

Hackes OffAugust 7, 2007 6:21 PM

OT but a good example of the current way we do things:

http://armchairgeneralist.typepad.com/my_weblog/...

Another link that is more on topic:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/...

I will not fly now unless I absolutely have to. It is beneath my dignity to submit to taking my shoes off and submitting to highly intrusive searches at the behest of an airport screener.

Are we winning the war on terror? Whatever happened to personal responsibility and risk taking. We are being infantilised.

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 6:30 PM

Dear Brandioch Conner,

> Take some time and learn what makes an explosive explode.

I actually know very well what makes an explosive, both chemically and physically. Comes with the job, y'know.

> If what you said were true, then we'd be seeing explosions
> all over the place, all the time. If for no other reason than
> kids playing with the "two easily available components".

Welcome to reality. Kids ARE experimenting with that shit. And these explosives have been used in the past to cause mayhem. I actually wonder why they aren't being used more often, since these explosives are well known and being used for quite some time.
Just because you are clueless doesn't mean such substances do not exist.

> Explosions are about releasing energy bound in the material.
> Your description doesn't seem to fit anything like that.

The speed of detonation of the explosive I'm talking about is about 20,000ft/second. Such binary explosives are being manufactured for professional use, too, since the components are pretty safe individually and only become explosive when mixed.

Filias CupioAugust 7, 2007 6:35 PM

Can a "decent sized hole" in a plane bring it down?

I can think of six relevant incidents of hull breach leading to sudden decompression (I'm omitting the Comet crashes, as they were so long ago and we've learned to make aeroplanes more resistant since then.)

The Windsor Incident (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windsor_incident). DC-10 cargo door blew out, damaging control cables. No casualties.
Ermenonville forest crash (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_Airlines_Flight_981): a repeat of the Winsor Incident, but all on board died.
Japan Airlines Flight 123 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan_Airlines_Flight_123).
The rear pressure bulkhead failed, damaging hydrolics and vertical stabilizer. 520 deaths (only 4 survivors.)
Aloha Airlines Flight 243 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloha_Flight_243): lost a large section of roof and walls, one fatality.
United Airlines Flight 811 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Airlines_Flight_811): lost a cargo door. 9 fatalities.
British Airways Flight 5390 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Airways_Flight_5390) blew out a cockpit window. No casualties.

In the two cases where the plane was lost, this was due to damage to the control systems.

Conclusion: Blowing a sizable hole in the side of a modern airliner will not, in itself, cause it to crash. To do this, you need to damage other vital systems. Depending on circumstances, the decompression may cause the required additional damage.

Presumably careful aircraft design can minimize the vulnerability of vital systems to such events. (After the Turkish Airlines crash, the DC-10 cabin floor was modified to reduce its vulnerability.)

LumaAugust 7, 2007 6:36 PM

Kilo refers to this television show:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayday_(TV_series)

The episode summary contradicts his claims. The vast majority of crashes detailed in the show are variations on the "operator error" theme. Only a handful are related to structural integrity problems, including the aforementioned Aloha Airlines flight as well as United Flight 811 which lost a cargo door in flight in an event very much like an explosion.

Clearly, the reason for citing the Aloha incident is to show that even massive amounts of damage similar to a bombing are not necessarily sufficient to bring down a plane.

LumaAugust 7, 2007 6:47 PM

I predict that Anonymous will never actually name his mystery explosive because to do so would expose his claim to critical evaluation. Perhaps he will resort to a claim of protecting us from terrorists by not further disseminating amazingly common yet amazingly secret material.

If you have facts, share them. The "I know something you don't know" routine is for kids and ego-fluffers.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 7, 2007 7:10 PM

@Luma
"I predict that Anonymous will never actually name his mystery explosive because to do so would expose his claim to critical evaluation."

Big time. Welcome to the Internet. Anyone can make any claim they want ... anonymously.

Even when such claims contradict observations.

You'd think he'd have learned after people did not take Kip's claims of "scientists" who had "verified" his claims. If we don't believe a named government official, why would anyone believe an anonymous troll?

JakeAugust 7, 2007 7:12 PM

For what it's worth, this chemist thinks that the on-board preparation of explosives is well within the realm of possibility. A TATP-like compound (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, or HMTD) is just about as simple to make as explosives get. For HMTD, all of the components are available over-the-counter in pretty much any city in America, and I think that even the undergrads I have to teach occasionally could pull it off, even in flight. And also don't forget that the actual explosive need not be made on the plane, just in the airport bathroom past the checkpoint.

I go over it (mostly the chemistry) in a bit more detail on my blog, if anyone is interested. /shamelessplug

JackG'tAugust 7, 2007 7:16 PM

Going a few minutes without oxygen would cause unconsciousness and medical crisis in the best case. Cessation of breathing and normal heart function would be highly likely. The brain and all other vital organs require oxygen.

How can it be assumed that passenger oxygen requirements are less per person than are oxygen requirements for pilots and crew? I couldn't let the assumption go untouched.

AnonymousAugust 7, 2007 9:24 PM

Note: to some extent, not only liquid explosives, but explosives themselves are red herrings.

3 ounces of nerve agent is enough to kill everyone on the plane.

There are incendiary options.

The air is constantly being recirculated, put something in it that's not good for people, say bio agents. It happens every day. Lots of people get the post flight scratchy throat. Just use something else.

Jon SowdenAugust 7, 2007 10:33 PM

@ JackG't: "Going a few minutes without oxygen would cause unconsciousness and medical crisis in the best case."

Yes, but it isn't "without oxygen", is it? It is "reduced oxygen", or if you like "markedly reduced oxygen". Were it anything else, then the plane wouldn't be able to fly.

Jon SowdenAugust 7, 2007 10:53 PM

Add to above: explosive decompression at cruising altitude - say above 30,000ft - is likely to induce severe hypoxia within one minute, leading to loss of consciousness. _Staying_ at 30,000ft in an unpressurised a/c will rapidly prove fatal, but that seems an unlikely scenario.

Filias CupioAugust 7, 2007 11:05 PM

@JackG't: The cockpit crew require enough oxygen to be active and rational. The passengers need enough oxygen to survive a few minutes while the plane descends into thicker air.

@Jon Sowden: All you have to do is remove the word "explosive" and your unlikely scenario has been reality. If the autopilot is on and nothing happens to disengage it, the plane will remain at altitude.

In an explosive decompression, the first thing the pilots should be doing is securing their oxygen supply, not messing with the flight controls/autopilot. If something went wrong at that point (e.g. no oxygen flow) the autopilot might never be disengaged.

AnonymousAugust 8, 2007 2:28 AM

Luma and B. Connor:
The reason I don't want to reveal the ingredients of this explosive are different than what you think.
It has in fact been used to down at least one plane, a Korean airliner.

> why would anyone believe an anonymous troll?

Because contrary to you people this anonymous troll knows what he's talking about?

PLX

Colossal SquidAugust 8, 2007 4:09 AM

"Because contrary to you people this anonymous troll knows what he's talking about?
PLX"

You're referring to this?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
'Cos if so you forgot to mention the 350g of C4 that was also used in the device.

AnonymousAugust 8, 2007 5:14 AM

> 'Cos if so you forgot to mention the 350g of C4 that was also used in the device.

I didn't forget to mention anything. I merely gave ONE example where this "mysterious", and according to some people non-existant explosive was used (there have been more occurences).

Even without the C4 the amount probably would have been sufficient to down the plane. And the C4 alone would have been sufficient, too. It worked in Lockerby, they just played it safe and used twice the amount actually needed.

So that explosive I talked about actually exists! Surprise, surprise! It is well known to anyone with the slightest clue about chemistry, and most pyromaniac adolescents can tell you about it.

AleAugust 8, 2007 6:30 AM

@Anonymous:

Isn't nitromethane supposed to have a very distinctive smell? This should be easily detectable by dogs, unless the attackers did a very good job of masking it. However, I do not understand how the partial liquid ban addresses this: smaller sealed amounts can still be aggregated inside the plane. The only reason I can think of is that having to implicate more people in the attack increases the probability of any one of them making a stupid mistake and the attack being discovered.

It is still unclear to me, though, that the partial liquid ban is a rational security tradeoff. I still think we are talking about CYA.

Biswaroop TodiAugust 8, 2007 8:03 AM

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PeterAugust 8, 2007 8:30 AM

@Troll:

I have a perpetual motion machine. Honest, I do. How it works is a secret. If I told you then you might cause untold damage to the world economy. Trust me, I am a professional.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 8, 2007 9:01 AM

@Anonymous
"Because contrary to you people this anonymous troll knows what he's talking about?

PLX"

Hmmmm, isn't PLX mostly nitromethane? When you had previously stated:
"Such binary explosives are being manufactured for professional use, too, since the components are pretty safe individually and only become explosive when mixed."

No, nitromethane is an explosive.

"So that explosive I talked about actually exists!"

Ummmm, only in your head and in the movies.

"They will not tell you that it is unrealistic to create liquid binary explosives by simply mixing two easily available components."

Again, your example that you used to "prove" your expertise does not match your claims. Big surprise there. :)

Or maybe you believe that people are allowed to travel with cans of gasoline and such in their carry on luggage?

Yes, you're a real smart "chemistry" person. Real smart. Much smarter than anyone here.

AnonymousAugust 8, 2007 9:49 AM

> No, nitromethane is an explosive.
Which, of course, is wrong.


> Yes, you're a real smart "chemistry" person. Real smart.
> Much smarter than anyone here.

Obviously. Since none of you security dumbasses came up with it, instead telling fat tales about manufacturing TATB and HMTD during flight...
And remind us, who exactly denied the existence of simple and widely available binary explosives, you or me?

JakeAugust 8, 2007 9:56 AM

Nitromethane alone actually isn't a decent explosive - it needs another chemical to sensitize it.

Nitromethane doesn't have that bad a smell, it's light and sort of sweet. The other component, however, is a different story. Ethanediamine, the sensitizer in PLX, reeks.

Here's why I don't buy PLX as the mystery substance: Nitromethane is quite volatile and contains the forbidden nitro group, which could likely be caught at the swab stage. I don't know if PLX can be detonated by electrical discharge, but typical applications need a blasting cap, further requiring the use of materials with a high degree of detectability. And ethanediamine is a whole lot harder to find than hydrogen peroxide.

Hopefully we'll get to see more of that DHS report the ABC folks cited. And also hopefully, it won't be filled with chemophobic mysticism (OMG! Drugstore terror!) and will let us know anything more than Hawley did. I'm still wondering why explosive or poisonous liquids become safe at the quart baggie level.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 8, 2007 10:37 AM

@Anonymous
"> No, nitromethane is an explosive.
Which, of course, is wrong."

http://physchem.ox.ac.uk/MSDS/NI/...

I would have expected a "chemistry" person who's job is doing "chemistry" to be aware of the MSDS

"And remind us, who exactly denied the existence of simple and widely available binary explosives, you or me?"

Shall I quote your exact words back at you? Okay.
"Such binary explosives are being manufactured for professional use, too, since the components are pretty safe individually and only become explosive when mixed."

And it only depends upon you getting a container of nitromethane through the security checkpoint.

Next up, "Anonymous" demonstrates how to destroy an airplane using a cupcake.

Step #1. Get a cupcake.
Step #2. Put a stick of dynamite in the cupcake.
Step #3. Light the dynamite's fuse.

IntelVetAugust 9, 2007 11:22 AM

Decompression.

Time of useful consciousness is the operative concept in an oxygen deprived state, a period of time when one can reasonably expect muscles to respond to conscious will. The time is an average that depends on ones physical state. My roommate had his hypoxia test terminated after ten minutes because he was able to fully function at 25,000 ft pressure altitude without supplemental oxygen. I always thought his massive consumption of alcohol was carefully disguised training for that very test. :-)

Yes, pilots are trained to don oxygen masks first, then head for a safe, oxygen-rich altitude. Not all pilots have experienced an altitude chamber, where hypoxia can be experienced under supervised conditions.

A consideration of explosive decompression involves a reasonable determination of possible flight control damage before putting an aircraft in what could turn out to be an unrecoverable dive.

Anonymous troll. You, sir, are a moron.

AnonymousAugust 10, 2007 5:27 PM

There is a 34 second version of the explosion available also on the ABC site. They go through the explosion at normal speed, and then slow it down to about 2 frames/sec. What you can clearly see in the slowed down version is a high speed det cord flashing from half way down the right hand side of the frame directly towards the liquid explosive.

The same liquid explosive thats meant to go off with a "small electrical charge".

I think if the footage had any credibility at all, it certainly has lost it for me. I do not believe the explosion shown to be an accurate representation of the actual liquid explosive. If it is, why the det cord?

NolanAugust 16, 2007 10:05 AM

I travelled from London Stansted last week and had an almost empty plastic bottle of contact lens solution in my bag. The security staff took this from me and told me that I was not allowed to take it on the plane as the bottle was larger than 100ml.

I pointed out that the bottle was almost empty and there was clearly a lot less than 100ml of liquid, so what was the harm?

He said that he could see that it was nearly empty, and believed me when I said it was contact lens solution, but that the BOTTLE itself was the problem - it was too big to allow onto the plane (presumably because I could then fill it up with something "dangerous").

I pointed out that I could buy a much bigger bottle (e.g. of coke) once I'd been through security and fill THAT with whatever he was worried about. He said that those bottles were OK because they had been "checked". I asked him if he understood that however well they had been checked they were still larger than the bottle of contact lens solution I was trying to get on the plane!

I could see in his eyes that he knew he was talking absolute nonsense.

RogerSeptember 2, 2007 12:04 AM

@Bruce Schneier:
> There has been a lot of speculation since last year about the plausibility of the plot, with most chemists falling on the "unrealistic" side.
[Linking to previous blog entry http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/08/... ]

Bruce, my comment probably comes too late to be read -- as did my comment to the previous article -- but the article on which that blog entry was based is complete nonsense. It was produced by a first year chemistry STUDENT who completely misunderstood the process of synthesising TATP. He thought it involved a precursor step of making Caro's acid (a.k.a. "Pirhana bath"); it does not, and the rest of his article is consequently completely wrong too.

In this post:
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/08/...
you also claimed that chemists were very skeptical about the plot, but -- as several commenters pointed out at the time -- the four links you provided didn't support that claim at all. Neither of the two linked commenters who were skeptical had any chemical or explosives qualifications whatsoever. A third linked article was neither written by chemists, not came to any particular conclusio anyway. Worse, in the one and only linked article which quoted actual explosives chemists, every single one of the quoted experts found the plot plausible.

You may -- and probably do -- have other, perfectly valid reasons to object to banning of liquids in carry-on luggage, but please stop spreading the new conspiracy theory which claims that explosives chemists say it couldn't work. That just isn't true.

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