Christmas Bomber: Where Airport Security Worked

With all the talk about the failure of airport security to detect the PETN that the Christmas bomber sewed into his underwear -- and to think I've been using the phrase "underwear bomber" as a joke all these years -- people forget that airport security played an important role in foiling the plot.

In order to get through airport security, Abdulmutallab -- or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb -- had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise; he had to resort to a much more ineffective detonation mechanism. And, as we've learned, detonating PETN is actually very hard.

Additionally, I don't think it's fair to criticize airport security for not catching the PETN. The security systems at airports aren't designed to catch someone strapping a plastic explosive to his body. Even more strongly: no security system, at any airport, in any country on the planet, is designed to catch someone doing this. This isn't a surprise. It isn't even a new idea. It wasn't even a new idea when I said this to then TSA head Kip Hawley in 2007: "I don't want to even think about how much C4 I can strap to my legs and walk through your magnetometers." You can try to argue that the TSA, and other airport security organizations around the world, should have been redesigned years ago to catch this, but anyone who is surprised by this attack simply hasn't been paying attention.

EDITED TO ADD (1/4): I don't know what to make of this:

Ben Wallace, who used to work at defence firm QinetiQ, one of the companies making the technology, warned it was not a "big silver bullet".

[...]

Mr Wallace said the scanners would probably not have detected the failed Detroit plane plot of Christmas Day.

He said the same of the 2006 airliner liquid bomb plot and of explosives used in the 2005 bombings of three Tube trains and a bus in London.

[...]

He said the "passive millimetre wave scanners" - which QinetiQ helped develop - probably would not have detected key plots affecting passengers in the UK in recent years.

[...]

Mr Wallace told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The advantage of the millimetre waves are that they can be used at longer range, they can be quicker and they are harmless to travellers.

"But there is a big but, and the but was in all the testing that we undertook, it was unlikely that it would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by al-Qaeda."

He added: "It probably wouldn't have picked up the very large plot with the liquids in 2006 at Heathrow or indeed the... bombs that were used on the Tube because it wasn't very good and it wasn't that easy to detect liquids and plastics unless they were very solid plastics.

"This is not necessarily the big silver bullet that is somehow being portrayed by Downing Street."

A spokeswoman for QinetiQ said "no single technology can address every eventuality or security risk".

"QinetiQ's passive millimetre wave system, SPO, is a... people-screening system which can identify potential security threats concealed on the human body. It is not a checkpoint security system.

"SPO can effectively shortlist people who may need further investigation, either via other technology such as x-rays, or human intervention such as a pat-down search."

Posted on January 4, 2010 at 6:28 AM • 83 Comments

Comments

robJanuary 4, 2010 6:48 AM

I'm irritated that millimeter wave full-body scanners are now going to be installed and treated as a panacea in all airports. The brits already demonstrated that the scanners don't even *see* this sort of thing. Perhaps they'd have noticed the syringe, but certainly nothing else.

I also wonder why people keep calling this a "failed terror(ist)" attack. It didn't fail at all - we've become (if possible) even more terrified.

And by "we" I mean our governments. Personally, I'm more afraid of the drivers yakking on their cell phones while they drink coffee and try to remember what airline they are on while attempting to negotiate the roads to the airport.

GweihirJanuary 4, 2010 6:58 AM

There seems to be some fundamental mental block to understanding that terrorism cannot be prevented by direct security measures. Despit numerous examples to the contrary. Seems to be a case of those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

What we see here is a very coordinated, very expensive and very public mental failure. I do not blame the manufacturers of the new scanners though, they just want to make a quick buck, which is rational for them.

uk visaJanuary 4, 2010 7:06 AM

The underwear bomb was 100% predictable.
Airport security the world over was too busy looking for explosive shoes... now they'll concentrate too much on our pants... whilst the would-be-bombers move to explosive implants...

TimJanuary 4, 2010 7:15 AM

Is PETN really that hard to detonate? You'd think they'd have tested the detonation mechanism beforehand - maybe they guy just cocked it up.

SeanJanuary 4, 2010 7:17 AM

I went to Wikipedia to checkout PETN and misread this: It is an effective underwater explosive.

As: It is an effective underwear explosive.

** Remember to donate to Wikipedia! **

jacobJanuary 4, 2010 7:31 AM

Security is and never will be foolproof or determined individual proof. Sorry, poor grammar. Any individual or group can and will find a way to either terrorize or actually accomplish an act of terror. We secure the plane and they will detonate outside where the people or cars are, the mall, etc. take your pick. This is kind of like cryptography. you are shooting at a moving target. There will always be a new attack or new algorithm. I'm not sure who to feel sorry for the people trying to defend it or the people who are surprised by the newest events/tactics.
The use of cameras, for example, simply gives you great video of the explosion....

JapansenJanuary 4, 2010 7:34 AM

I would suggest that our defenses are working. He slipped onto the plane but we stopped him before he could complete his objective, and this was in spite of having a lap blanket.

What I'm most worried about is the lines before security, especially the check-in lines. If there was one attack vector that I'd expect to get used sooner than later, it would be a coordinated attack on an airport lobby. No security to clear and having huge suitcases or boxes is expected. Pack a half dozen of those and have them synched to detonate at the same time in a major (or multiple) airport and you'd accomplish just as much as taking a plane down.

The purpose of pointing this out is to demonstrate how vulnerable we always will be. But instead of recognizing that and learning to live with it (which of course includes making every effort to improve security where we can), we'll probably end up with a system that requires us to ship our bags to the airport a week in advance and then change into a flightsuit (probably closer to a disposable paper suit) that we wear between airports.

Bruce SchneierJanuary 4, 2010 7:35 AM

"Is PETN really that hard to detonate? You'd think they'd have tested the detonation mechanism beforehand - maybe they guy just cocked it up."

I need more information on that. The chemists I've been talking to tell me that these explosives are very stable; that's why they're commercially viable. It generally takes another explosion to set them off.

But I'm very interested in talking with other chemists who have real-world experience with this stuff.

Tobias W.January 4, 2010 7:40 AM

Flying becomes a hassle more and more. I'm a frequent flyer with two flights each week for months now and I've had my share of security failures. Some time ago, I even managed to take a swiss army knife onboard a plane. I totally forgot about the knife, usually I check it in with my luggage. That time though, I left it in my carry-on backpack. When they scanned the backpack they even searched it afterwards and didn't find the knife... I noticed back at home when I unpacked my stuff and got scared. That's the first time I actually realized that with some preparation that whole airport security is nothing more than theatre.

And all the hassle with the liquids... This is just utter crap. I took two small oranges through security today. They're filled with liquid. If I was a terrorist and wanted to blow up a plane, I'd check out the possibility to hide explosives in something security obviously doesn't check yet. And there'll always be something they don't check yet - unless they'll force us to take nothing at all onboard and make us fly naked (I guess that's not an impossibility. Two or three more 'Christmas bombers' and we're there...). How difficult would it be to take a suitable fruit and inject a liquid explosive that's not detectable by automated X-Ray scanners? I'm not into chemistry but if somebody is putting explosives into his underwear, the idea of using much less conspicuous items such as fruits is not so dumb at all. Talking about movie plots of course...

RandyJanuary 4, 2010 7:55 AM

@Bruce:

Re: and to think I've been using the phrase "underwear bomber" as a joke all these years

I'm guessing that DHS will believe that *you* gave the terrorists the idea.

Please don't talk about denture devices or pacemaker detonators or buttocks bombs.

Happy Traveling,
Randy

Mike BJanuary 4, 2010 7:55 AM

What really ticks me off are all the people I have seen interviewed on the news that say all the new theater is worth it for safety/security. 583.com calculated that the chance of being on a plane that was subjected to a terrorist attack ( http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/... ) was one incident per 3,105 years spent airborne.

Just once I would like to see a rational person come out and say that all these extra measures simply aren't worth it and he/she would rather take the chance.

Jim AJanuary 4, 2010 8:01 AM

I can't say much about PETN per se, but the general rule is, any common explosive IS very hard to detonate (insensetive). You don't want to have large amounts of easily set off explosives sitting around. So you have small amounts of much easier to set off explosives (detonators or fuzes in military applications) that are kept appart from the main explosive charge. Commercially, they're stored in separte lockers or rooms. In traditional military use, the fuzes are only installed on the shells shortly before use. When you see stacks of artillery being shipped on a pallet, they have a lifting loop screwed innto the fuze well.

Uffe R. B. AndersenJanuary 4, 2010 8:01 AM

"But I'm very interested in talking with other chemists who have real-world experience with this stuff." - careful now, someone might mis-interpret your intentions.

PolJanuary 4, 2010 8:04 AM

Bruce, I don't follow your reasoning: you quite often mention the "theater of security" and all its annoying implications as well as supposed ineffectiveness - to be clear, I would tend to agree with that. In any case, now suddenly, "airport security" did work (if I understand you right, as a deterrent at least), so which one is it? How do you know it's not the sum of all these "stupid" security measures that effectively prevented a "more reliable bomb" to go through? Were do you draw the line?

pjJanuary 4, 2010 8:23 AM

How do these guys get their hands on PETN? I'm assuming it can't just be cooked up, like fertilizer bombs much favoured by the IRA during the troubles in Ireland.

ChrisWJanuary 4, 2010 8:46 AM

I wonder if the TSA airport security is all just misdirection.

It's so clearly theater, and particularly the most recent set of regulations being so obviously ineffectual and just stupid, that it can't be serious. At the same time, there are so many better targets that remain unprotected: energy and communication transmission hubs, bridges and tunnels, malls and arenas, etc.

Can it be that Homeland Security is fully aware that what they're doing to air travel is stupid, but it's all designed to keep attention tuned there? Like a magician that's directing attention away from the real trick, DHS wants to keep the terrorists from thinking about the "better" targets. They keep all of the debate focused on air travel, so alternate ideas aren't discussed and incubated.

I'm start to believe that DHS has chosen air travel as cannon fodder, intentionally concentrating terrorist attention there, in order to keep everything else safe. It's kind of like the wildebeests at the watering hole. As long as the lion is eating the one weak animal (air travel) the rest of the herd (American infrastructure and industry) is safe.

framecrashJanuary 4, 2010 8:47 AM

@Tim
"Is PETN really that hard to detonate? You'd think they'd have tested the detonation mechanism beforehand - maybe they guy just cocked it up."

We can surmise that none of the "high explosives" - HMX, RDX, PETN - are hard to detonate...with the right tools. After all, the mining and demolition industries need a certain amount of reliability.

So how hard is it to get a good initiator on a plane? After the shoe and underwear bombers, it would seem that terrorists have already proved successful at one of the hardest parts - getting the actual explosive on.

It is striking that they haven't been more successful. I mean, if you're going to all that trouble to get/make high explosives, why would you muck-up their initiation?

Here's hoping that the third time's not the charm.

altjiraJanuary 4, 2010 8:48 AM

I'm not a chemist, but a former US Army Sapper, with plenty of hands-on. PETN is in det cord, and we always used a blasting cap to set it off. One single blasting cap can make a 20 kg sand bag jump about 6 inches into the air. Det cord looks a lot like time fuse, so of course we've accidentally set off a fuse ignitor on it (which is basically a primer cap for a rifle cartridge), and I've never heard of PETN being set off by that. I agree with Jim A - you get a bunch of privates handling explosives, it has to be *very* stable. We would burn a lump of C4 to heat water, but never bothered with PETN.

HJohnJanuary 4, 2010 8:51 AM

@Pol at January 4, 2010 8:04 AM

You touch on what I was thinking.

Seems that all the overkill in security played a role but reducing the universe of possible tactics. To be sure, I do think shoe screening is a silly policy, but were it not for some of the screening measures (liquids for example) then he may have been able to get materials for a higher quality bomb.

I'm not saying the liquids ban is worthwhile, I'm just presenting the other side of the story. I wonder what this guy could have done with pre 9-11-2001 screening procedures.

Bob DucklesJanuary 4, 2010 9:11 AM

I travelled to and from Guadalajara, Mexico almost every week for over a year. Leaving Guadalajara, to return to the U.S., there was a gate inspection of hand luggage to find liquids, creams, gels, etc. and confiscate them. This was done at the gate, because the main security check in Mexico does not confiscate liquids. You can carry a liquid onto a Mexican domestic flight. More than once I saw passangers pass inspection and board the plane with a bottled drink in a jacket or pants pocket. It didn't make me feel un-safe.

andyinsdcaJanuary 4, 2010 9:36 AM

Why no mention of the Schipol KLM (NW/Delta) employees letting the underwear bomber on without a passport? If they'd simply denied him permission to board because he didn't have a passport, this wouldn't have happened.

And, the fact that the "Indian" guy that conned the employees into letting him onto the plane seems to have vanished...

RSaundersJanuary 4, 2010 10:08 AM

I'd really like to interview the guy who built the bomb. Was it supposed to explode? Before you scoff, consider the two alternatives:

A) Bomb explodes, pieces land all in Canada, RCMP investigates with lots of help from the U.S., TV blab-heads have to go to Rolodex to find leak/source in RCMP, forensics figure out bomb was in Seat 19A, NWA says that seat had "the Nigerian" in it. We don't know how he got the bomb on the plane, so the US elevates searches on all international passengers to the US.

B) Bomb fizzles, passengers subdue terrorist, plane lands in Detroit, U.S. law enforcement arrests "the Nigerian" and handles investigation, media gets leaks from "usual sources". We know how he got the bomb on the plane, but we've known that was possible for years, so the US elevates searches on all international passengers to the US.

I think scenario (B) causes better quality terror. The scenario is more specific, we have a specific bad guy and tactic to focus on. We can over-reach further, secure in the knowledge that if we just checked crotches more carefully everything would be fine.

I'm not suggesting "the Nigerian" knew that he wasn't a suicide bomber. I'm just not sure that if I were an Al-Queda master-mind I would tell the whole plan to someone stupid enough to be the mule. He can't tell the U.S. things I don't tell him, and the propaganda value of him saying "I planned to blow that plane out of the sky" in court is a lot higher than the alternative of having him actually blow up a plane.

miscreantJanuary 4, 2010 10:13 AM

@andyinsdca
"If they'd simply denied him permission to board because he didn't have a passport, this wouldn't have happened"

In this case yes. But more generally, it's easy to get a passport and in which case the counter-measure you suggest would not be enough.

RandyJanuary 4, 2010 10:19 AM

@RSaunders:

That also occurred to me.

Especially since this is the *second* failed attempt to detonate PETN on a plane.

Shoe bomber...underware bomber...I wonder what's next?

Enjoy,
Randy

EllenJanuary 4, 2010 10:20 AM

@Framecrash
My husband works in a coal mine. The explosive is not the "hardest part" of the problem. Stuff gets stuck on his boots all the time. It is almost identical to artist clay, you can mold it to anything or inside anything.

Detonators are very dangerous, the people who use them are very careful with them. They never put one in their pocket in fear of blowing off their you know what. Everybody in the mine knows someone who's lost a finger or piece of it. Blasting caps are almost always the cause. They are metal to protect the easy to detonate stuff inside, and so they can be mechanically crimped onto things like PETN cord.

As someone who only flys once a month, I think that the wires, batteries, and detonators are the "hard part" of the bomb to get on a plane.

WingnutJanuary 4, 2010 10:21 AM

Good quality terror AND near immediate (UK at least) implementation of body scanners, technology otherwise mired in the long process of appeal by "think of the children" and privacy advocates. Who would begrudge a naked image of themselves if it stopped an undercracker bomber? Genius by the Agencies.

RobertJanuary 4, 2010 10:30 AM

To say that it is hard to detonate an underwear bomb is a mostly irrelevant statement, since by its nature terrorism does not need a 100% success rate in order to succeed in producing terror.

Suppose the bomber had instead decided not to carry a bomb but to arrive safely in Detroit, obtain a firearm, and shoot a bunch of people in a mall? Such an attack would have inflicted substantial amounts of terror.

Vic WeisskopfJanuary 4, 2010 10:33 AM

This stupidity will continue until our leadership realizes that it's exceeding expensive and ineffective to hunt for dangerous 'things' -- much more effective to hunt for dangerous people -- folks traveling on one-way tickets bought for cash with no luggage. Should've started alarms ringing throughout Schiphol. Oh, and if they've got an arabic name ... bettter grab him or her straight away.

Bruce SchneierJanuary 4, 2010 10:44 AM

"How do these guys get their hands on PETN? I'm assuming it can't just be cooked up, like fertilizer bombs much favoured by the IRA during the troubles in Ireland."

It's a good question, and one I don't know the answer to.

Bruce SchneierJanuary 4, 2010 10:47 AM

"Bruce, I don't follow your reasoning: you quite often mention the 'theater of security' and all its annoying implications as well as supposed ineffectiveness - to be clear, I would tend to agree with that. In any case, now suddenly, 'airport security' did work (if I understand you right, as a deterrent at least), so which one is it?"

I have long been in favor or rolling airport security back to pre-9/11 levels. It's clear that some security is required at airports for a variety of reasons: the prominence of the air transportation industry, the fact that airplanes fly to some dicey countries on the planet, the general irrational fear of air travel in general, and the failure mode means that a smaller bomb kills everyone on the flight. Pre-9/11 security is what forced the Underwear Bombmaker to resort to a less effective bomb; it's the post-9/11 security measures that are security theater.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2010 11:25 AM

@ Bruce,

Something that might give you and others some sardonic amusement,

@ Gweihir,

With regards your comment,

"There seems to be some fundamental mental block to understanding that terrorism cannot be prevented by direct security measures. Despit numerous examples to the contrary. Seems to be a case of those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

You and Bruce may not belive this but...

UK Priminister the Right Hon. Dr Gordon Brown MP, PM apparently thinks according to the UK Press that we "need a cold war on terror".

They quote him as telling the BBC's Andrew Marr that,

"We've got to expose the extremists and we've go to, like the cold war in the 1950's, we've go to use every method of communications possible because there are at least 5,000 internet sites promoting Jihadist violence".

So from extreamisum to "cyber cold war" in a few mumbles...

Ho hum, I know Bruce is not old enough to remember the 1950's ;) as indead I'm not (B.F. Skinner please take note 8). So I guess we all have to use the information available to us via the historic record, a small part of which I've studied.
And the thought that occured to me on reading PM Brown's words was indeed "those who do not learn the leasons of history are condemed to relive them".

So maybe the old UK saying of "great minds think alike" might apply to other than "great minds" 8)

Which takes me on to your next comment,

"What we see here is a very coordinated, very expensive and very public mental failure."

Which Dr G. Brown PM also appears to suffer from, he recently made various press releases about what he and the current POTUS Barack Obama are going to do in the way of funding "elite anti-terror unit in Yemen"...

It turns out PM Brown has not spoken to Pres. Barack Obama in some time as the PM admitted to the BBC's Andrew Marr in yesterdays mid day interview.

In reality it turns out the statments are just a bit more of the same "spin". In fact what is in progress started several months ago and is quite low key (The reason it's low key is it's actualy a bit naughty to illegaly set up "elite units" in a soverign nation without that nations consent, so nothing new there then).

UK PM Dr G.Brown also made a wonderfull statment of,

"We have got to get back to the source of this and that is Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan".

Oh dear is this the new "axis of evil" being touted or is he realy that ill informed (or covering up for other nations with a much more favourable trade status).

And guess what, with regards to your comment,

"I do not blame the manufacturers of the new scanners though, they just want to make a quick buck, which is rational for them."

Dr. G.Brown PM, went on in his BBC interview to talk about body scanners at airports and backed the use of the 'near naked image' systems with,

"Our first duty is to the security of the people of this country"

Thus it would appear that on first look that he is badly mis-informed, as the current "expert view" is, that these (150,000USD) machines WOULD NOT have picked up the Xmas underware bomb at all...

But then again Dr G.Brown PM went on to say about these 'near naked imagers' is we need "to go further" than current technology alowes...

Which is more than a little bit worrying, as if technology is at the edge of the envelope currently this can only mean in some other way such as "manual full body searches" etc supported by a change in legislation to prevent objection etc.

Expect that legaly unrestrained "personal touch" for you and your family and friends young and old, to be comming to an airport near you real soon...

Joe BuckJanuary 4, 2010 11:37 AM

It was comedian Lewis Black who coined the term "underwear bomber", not that long after the shoe-bomber incident. Since we now have to take off our shoes to get on a plane, Black said he was thankful that there wasn't an underwear bomber.

Jan de Muijnck-HughesJanuary 4, 2010 11:41 AM

It appears that airport security is a process of adding additional layers to combat the latest threats. Shoe bombers becomes scan your shoes; underwear bombers becomes full body scanners. Will this not make things more cumbersome, slow and stupidly painful that it was already. With more scans for officials to look at and analyse does this not pose the risk of more mistakes from happening? The fish that got away.

I have admiration for the israeli approach [1]. They "profile" the passengers and try to spot those who may "pose a risk" from the entrance to the airport grounds right until they enter the plan. Not only does this reduce waiting times, but it also reduces the amount of unnecessary checks.

While no one solution is perfect, surly security must be usable for it to be effective?

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-harris/...

aikimarkJanuary 4, 2010 11:48 AM

Former Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, recently touted full body scanners without disclosing his relationship to the company that makes the devices.

Joe BuckJanuary 4, 2010 11:52 AM

The underwear bomber had a passport and a valid visa to enter the US. There was a report that his passport was not checked. If so, this is peculiar, but it wouldn't have mattered.

Rich WilsonJanuary 4, 2010 11:53 AM

According to the NY Times: "Newark Airport Delays Cause Ripple Effect"

I wonder if we'll ever see 'suicide gate runners' who's sole purpose is to shutdown airports via security breaches. I wonder how many major airports would have to be shut down for a day before we'd come to a grinding halt. Perhaps the Sunday after thanksgiving.

Probably not terrifying enough, but pretty effective in terms of total fiscal impact.

edJanuary 4, 2010 12:00 PM

@Clive Robinson, the often forgotten follow up to "great minds think alike" is "fools seldom differ"

JonJanuary 4, 2010 12:18 PM

What to make of this? "Mr Wallace said the scanners would probably not have detected the failed Detroit plane plot of Christmas Day."

It's simple: the scanners are not intended to make it more difficult to sneak PETN onto a plane. The only connection between the Christmas plot and the new scanning regime is that it was previously impossible to convince the public to subject ourselves to this kind of invasive search. What will widespread use of these devices accomplish?
- It will become more difficult to smuggle contraband items, large quantities of cash, etc.
- The public will believe they are being made safer in exchange for the inconvenience and loss of privacy
- The public will become used to this loss of privacy in the name of security, and will become less resistant overall to this type of violation

dragonfrogJanuary 4, 2010 12:23 PM

Re comments on how the fellow got his hands on PETN - perhaps from a medical supplier?

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

"Like the related explosive nitroglycerin (glyceryl trinitrate), PETN is also used medically as a vasodilator in the treatment of heart conditions. These drugs work by releasing the signaling gas nitric oxide in the body. The heart medicine Lentonitrat is nearly pure PETN."

I have no idea how medical sales are controlled in Yemen or Nigeria. Forced to guess, I'd suppose, not all that well.

JimJanuary 4, 2010 12:25 PM

Actually, detonating PETN is NOT that hard. It is one of the few high explosives that will detonate from heat, not just concussion.

They are very lucky this man was not able to get a good fire going in the PETN before his seatmate was able to intercede, or the story would end very differently.

HJohnJanuary 4, 2010 12:26 PM

I think invasive security is also a result of partisan bickering and hindsight fingerpointing.

And, as we are now seeing in the Obama administration, it isn't a partisan point either. Bush was bashed nonsensically for failing to detect 9/11, and then he was bashed for the resulting ridiculous new countermeasures. Now Obama is president, and he is being bashed for not stoping this jerk from getting on a plane, and he's going to be bashed for any new countermeasures.

Part of the problem is the nature of politics. Opponents just can't resist and opportunity to blast an opponent whether it was "failure" to stop something or ridiculous measures to try to uphold a ridiculous standard.

To state the obvious, Hindsight Bias is the after-the-fact argument that events were more predictable and/or preventable than they actually were.

ACJanuary 4, 2010 12:27 PM

@Jan de Muijnck-Hughes,

"surly security", now there's a truthful slip-of-the-tongue, if I've ever heard one!

PaulJanuary 4, 2010 12:27 PM

I predict that the next step for Al Qaeda will be a blob of C4 with a blasting cap stuffed into a condom and carried on board in the suicide bomber’s body cavity of choice. Full-body scanners will be of no help — you would need an x-ray or an explosives detector of some sort to find it.

As to where Al Qaeda got the PETN, they either stole it from some arms depot, got it from a state sponsor or bought it through an arms dealer. For an organization with their reach and connections, acquisition would present no difficulties whatsoever.

J OngJanuary 4, 2010 12:28 PM

YawningBread comments about how prudishness prevented a closer inspection of the bomber:

Sex bombs and other wayward self-destructions
http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2010/...

"...The PETN explosive had been sewn into his underwear and al Qaeda, allegedly his sponsors -- clearly knew that due to prudishness, there are no checks on that part of the body."

So if full-body scanners mask the "underwear" parts of the body, it might not be much of an improvement.

Nick PJanuary 4, 2010 12:39 PM

@ Bruce

PETN is quite hard to detonate. Homemade concoctions usually use a small explosive that detonates a booster charge that detonates the main mix. Everyones favorite primary used to be ammonium nitrate and the booster explosion was pictric acid (did I spell it right?) made from asprin.

As for making the PETN, it's actually doable. One can make both C4 and PETN at home using information from books or videos from authors like Seymour Lecker. As for detonators and boosters, many books have been around for a while, like the online Anarchist Cookbook and (better) Army Improvised Munitions Blackbook volumes. Although, I found the Army's explosive pancakes, cooked with explosive (RDX-based) flour, to be much more interesting. Get them through airport, crunch them up, put in detonator and boom! Pancakes... I wonder who came up with that one.

One more thing. I really liked QinnetiQ's responses on this. Most companies making security software and hardware with big contracts act like they have a silver bullet. They blame any failures on others. This company seems to admit both its weaknesses and that it's only one part of good security. Looks like some progress to me.

Nomen PublicusJanuary 4, 2010 12:40 PM

Here's a question I'd like answered. Was this attempt just a very lucky and rare penetration of the airport security system at the first attempt? Or was it the final step in a long period of research during which the various layers of security were tested by many people over weeks or months?

John IJanuary 4, 2010 12:41 PM

Re- where he got it. I've always wished there was more and better reporting on this aspect of terrorist acts, and I'd include IED's in that category. Where do the high explosives come from? Is it easy to cook up? Does it come only from certain manufacturers or suppliers? Is it traceable? Is this where Saddam's un-secured stockpiles ended up? Light and easy to conceal and transport explosives are they key ingredient which doesn't get much analysis in the press.

bexJanuary 4, 2010 12:43 PM

@Ellen: 'I think that the wires, batteries, and detonators are the "hard part" of the bomb to get on a plane'

I can't comment on detonators... never seen one. But, as a computer geek I travel regularly with batteries and wire in my carry-on bag. One wired mouse, and one wireless mouse. Not to mention, that you could use a hand-crank flashlight to charge up a pretty big boom.

@Bruce: I always loved your security model of "prevention, detection, reaction." Every though of doing another article in the Atlantic, this time spelling it out for the TSA in easy to follow bullet-points?

Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2010 12:54 PM

@ Bruce,

"Is PETN really that hard to detonate? ... I need more information on that."

There is a problem with explosives, in that the energy is tored in the chemical bonds, and this is actually not that well understood.

"The chemists I've been talking to tell me that these explosives are very stable; that's why they're commercially viable."

Hmm I think you have that statment the wrong way around.

Commercialy viable explosives are a very very small subset of the chemicals that have exothermic properties.

The range of "sensitivity" or it's inverse "stability" depends on a large number of factors not the least being temprature.

Talk to your friends about the "entropy hump" as it is sometimes called. Overly simply you have to put energy in to get energy out this is true of all chemicals that release energy.

However many chemicals (the thermites for instance) can release very very large amounts of energy but are not explosives.

Also some explosives are not explosive unless sufficient energy is added in a sufficiently small time. One such explosive is C4 which many soldiers know makes a good substitute for Heximethane in stoves.

"It generally takes another explosion to set them off."

Actually it often takes as many as five different types of "explosive" to get the desired energy signiture to cause the "main load" explosive to detonate.

For instance a moderatly unstable fulminate or chlorate initiator will be used to cause a more stable explosive to explode which in turn...

Such systems are known as "explosive trains" and in a conventional munition the primary "pistol" (fulminate etc) is mechanicaly seperated by the equivalent of a "firewall" to prevent an accident causing the main line charge being set off.

In the likes of bombs (air screw) Shells and torpeadoes (sea log) there is an arming system that moves a "shutter" in the "firewall" to alow the explosive chain to be compleated.

This safety measure in part was why a number of Argentinian bombs did not explode on hitting british warships because they Argentinian pilots released their weapons to late and the "logs" did not have time to arm the weapons before impact.

There are also multiple detonation munitions such as FAE/FAX with additional "flare material" these systems are found in the likes of the "MOAB" and "Bunker buster". What happens is an explosive charge (with it's own train) is used to spread a fuel or fuel and oxidizer into considerably larger volume of space before they are detonated. These cause significant "overpreasure" that would not be obtained by a solid or non dispersed explosive. Some FAE/FAX can produce in a confined volume greater overpreasure than some nuclear weapons could within a short range.

I have seen the results of FAE testing where quite small devices have produced preasure waves that have turned well dug in tanks and other military vehicals to be urned over at several hundred meters from the FAE's point of origin.

Which brings me around to your last question,

"But I'm very interested in talking with other chemists who have real-world experience with this stuff."

They are actually very few and for the most part "unavailable" due to who their employers are.

Research into conventional munitions etc is not what you are actualy interested in (terrorists tend not to use FAE's for instance).

What you are interested in is "process engineers" and scientists who have to design chemical systems so they don't inadvertaintly explode.

As you may be aware you can get the chemicals required to make some extreamly powerfull and not very stable explosives from the likes of "home baking", "hair dressers/nail bars", "home plumbing", "camping" and "auto repair" shops.

What your "terrorist" wants is in the main is unconventional very high yield explosives some of which can be made quite simply with "acids-n-bases" that do not contain the "usuall suspect" chemical markers such as nitrates, that will be picked up with CAM and other similar "sniffer" technologies.

This information is not something that would usually be of concern to weapons designers as they are looking for primarily a "long safe shelf life" in a "wide range of diverse environments".

"Nobby No Nuts" / "Captin Underpants" and his ilk care not a jot about shelf life or storage environments nor to any great extent safety or stability. What they care about is "yield/gram", "untraceability", "undetectability" and "easy detonation".

Thus your search is not going to be for conventional "explosive technologists".

For instance can you see a terrorist being that interested in a micro particulate thermite/ptfe flare material dispersal and detonation system?

When hydrogen peroxide and various permaganates will produce much more interesting materials?

Andre LePlumeJanuary 4, 2010 12:54 PM

@framecrash - Beat me to it :^)

As of the morning after the bombing attempt (or perhaps late that night) the Powerlabs link was one of the top Google results for PETN as a search term. I suppose it has been pushed down a bit now.

scepticJanuary 4, 2010 1:27 PM

what's the cost of a couple bomb-sniffing dogs at the security checkpoints versus the cost of one of these machines?

A bomb-sniffing dog will not be as much of a privacy violation and it will find plastic explosives shaped like a penis which will be blurred by the machine in question.

NMXJanuary 4, 2010 1:36 PM

PETN is medium-low difficulty to make, but I doubt a militant type would bother when they can readily extract it from detcord or other explosive device.

Amongst practical high explosives PETN is fairly easy to detonate, but this kind of misses the point. Commercial and military use would always involve a proper detonator such as a blasting cap. From reports I gather this plot did not use a detonator, so the question is, what can be done without one?

Some high explosives will "cook off" and detonate without a blasting cap, if a large enough amount is set on fire. PETN is apparently one of them, though I have never tried this personally. A cook-off is less reliable and less powerful than a cap-induced detonation but it can still be very effective if it happens. My guess is the bomber was attempting a cook-off detonation but failed to get one.

If anyone has links to reports covering the nitty-gritty details of the device I'd appreciate them. I haven't spent a lot of time digging, but so far the news reports seem very light on facts and details.

Major Variola (ret)January 4, 2010 1:47 PM

PETN is just a regular poly-ol
which is nitrated like any poly-ol.
Glycerin is one poly-ol; PE is
another.

PETN has a much lower vapor
pressure than NG.

PETN powder is a powder;
you can make platique with
it by adding plasticizers but
by itself its just a chemical.
When making plastique you
typically add volatile tracers
so the sniffers can find it.
Not so with clandestine manufacture.

The Detroit device is a column of PETN
with sugar + chlorate mix on
top. Initiated with sulphuric
acid, which is carried in a wax-plugged
syringe. A little Al powder in
the transition area would help too.

The whole thing was a demo of
non-electric initiation and "deflagration
to detonation".

Its not shoes v. underwear; its electrical
vs. chemical initiation.

....

Folks in Glass Empires should not
throw stones or fly drones.

Dom De VittoJanuary 4, 2010 2:08 PM

Why isn't the government buying ADE 651's while the scanners are being installed???

Airports protected with ADE 651's have NEVER had any bombs pass through them.

I have a stock for immediate delivery and bulk pricing!

Dom

PaulJanuary 4, 2010 2:50 PM

> Why was he allowed to travel by Schiphol / KLM without a passport?

Why do you waste your (and our) time repeating unsubstantiated rumours?

Have you ever tried to tried to get on a plane at Schiphol or fly to Schiphol without a passport? I have. You can't. Period. Unless you are an EU citizen flying to your home country or country of residence. I tried to fly to Schiphol from the far east using my Dutch driving license as ID. That was fine, but they decided that going on to Rome, which I could have done in a car with no passport, was not ok. So I had to go all the way home and pick up my own passport (instead of my wife's) and fly the following day.

You really, seriously think anyone would be allowed on a plane to the US without a passport?

You do have a passport yourself?

Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2010 3:21 PM

@ ed,

"the often forgotten follow up to "great minds think alike" is "fools seldom differ"

Oh for the middle ground where common sense is not that uncommon ;)


@ HJohn,

"To state the obvious, Hindsight Bias is the after-the-fact argument that events were more predictable and/or preventable than they actually were."

It was ever thus...

What amazes me is that the politicos allow themselves to be "called out" on such things.

Also it leaves me somewhat puzzeled that the general populas cannot work this out for themselves instead of just troting out as "the wisdom of the gods" the nonsense they here bleated by the various "talking heads" and their sponsors.


@ dragonfrog,

"Like the related explosive nitroglycerin (glyceryl trinitrate), PETN is also used medically as a vasodilator in the treatment of heart conditions. These drugs work by releasing the signaling gas nitric oxide in the body. The heart medicine Lentonitrat is nearly pure PETN."

Although not viable as "explosives" due to the small quantity (TNG spray with 20 puffs in it has about 3mg of TNG)

They have a much more serious threat...

We are seeing "nearly nude image" body scanners being talked up currently even though there appears to be a view from the experts that they would not have worked with Captin Underpants device (which makes me think his supplier and controler has definatly done their homework).

And it will not be long before these 150,000 USD imagers are shown to be little more than over priced "big boys" toys for the likes of patrons of the less pleasant of rags that hustle their way to the top shelf in adult stores.

Which means "what technology next" and it's reasonable bet it's going to be those "puffers" / "sniffers" that take an air sample into some kind of sepctrometer...

Now they have a real problem in that not only are they slow, ungainly, awkward to use and draw lots of power, they also can only say some "specific" chemical "is present" but not the volume or location which is a big opps.

This means that "Marvin Mayhem" et al only have to get a prescription for TNG or PETN spray to legitimatly carry a DoS weapon. They just get to some vantage point above the herd of traveling sheeple and a couple of quick puffs and there will be quite a few "false false positives" to enliven the bored screeners day...

What's the betting that after a few quick and easy "false false positive" attacks the operators will either ignore the machine or even just turn it off...

Then it's time for the return of Captain Underpants et al in the sequal "The Boston Strangler bombs out"...

DermittJanuary 4, 2010 3:29 PM

"Russian Military Analysts are reporting to Prime Minister Putin that US President Barack Obama has issued orders to his Northern Command’s (USNORTHCOM) top leader, US Air Force General Gene Renuart, to “begin immediately” increasing his military forces to 1 million troops by January 30, 2010, in what these reports warn is an expected outbreak of civil war within the United States before the end of winter.

According to these reports, Obama has had over these past weeks “numerous” meetings with his war council about how best to manage the expected implosion of his Nations banking system while at the same time attempting to keep the United States military hegemony over the World in what Russian Military Analysts state is a “last ditch gambit” whose success is “far from certain”."
http://www.eutimes.net/2009/11/...

Avoid the airport guys.

HJohnJanuary 4, 2010 3:35 PM

@ed: "the often forgotten follow up to "great minds think alike" is "fools seldom differ""
_____________

lol. I find it amusing that there is a proverb for everything, whichever way it goes.

"birds of a feather flock together" vs "opposites attract"

"the voice of experience" vs "new ideas"/"a fresh set of eyes"

"slow and steady wins the race" vs "you snooze you lose"

and my personal favorite...

"early bird gets the worm" vs "second mouse gets the cheese"

canuckJanuary 4, 2010 4:09 PM

Wondering how silicon implants look like on a scanner... now switch the sillicon for PETN and you got a hysterical movie plot.

(I'm not going down the path of describing the detonator(s)... )

What counter measures do you think they'd come up with ?

Seriously, I like the defence-in-depth approach of the Israelis which doesn't rely on technology but on multiple layers of types of security. Their "hit" rate is pretty good.

MarkJanuary 4, 2010 4:13 PM

Apologies for the digression, but the window closed while I was reading a comment about factoring large primes. Was it a spam announcement of something interesting, or was it just spam?

SteveJanuary 4, 2010 4:30 PM

@ Dermitt: "Russian Military Analysts are reporting to Prime Minister Putin that US President Barack Obama has issued orders to his Northern Command’s (USNORTHCOM) top leader, US Air Force General Gene Renuart, to “begin immediately” increasing his military forces to 1 million troops by January 30, 2010, in what these reports warn is an expected outbreak of civil war within the United States before the end of winter."

Those troops will be needed to handle the deep disappointment after 27 Jan, when Apple does NOT reveal a tablet.

Bruce ClementJanuary 4, 2010 4:38 PM

@Nomen Publicus "as it the final step in a long period of research during which the various layers of security were tested by many people over weeks or months"

Make that decades. The west's rather futile war on drug suppliers (as distinct from consumers) has caused a lot of effort to go into finding ways of smuggling organic substances by passengers on aircraft. Al Quaeda just happens to be based in a prime opium poppy growing area and I'm sure that they command sufficient local support for a little "technology transfer" to have occured, then a few dry runs to test it out.

@sceptic
"A bomb-sniffing dog will not be as much of a privacy violation and it will find plastic explosives shaped like a penis which will be blurred by the machine in question."

Until the bad guys find ways of masking their explosive from the dog's nose. A two pronged scanner / dog approach would be even better.

On the other hand, drug dogs don't seem to have completely stopped drug smuggling by passengers either, so their effectiveness is probably over-hyped.

RoyJanuary 4, 2010 5:04 PM

As for the availability of high explosives, a friend who worked in oil exploration often handled explosives. The shop would let his crew check out all the explosives they might need for the job, but they would never let anything be checked back in -- for obvious safety reasons.

The policy in the field was to take all that you might ever need, and then get rid of the excess, either blowing stuff up for fun, or trading it away.

Where would terrorists get PETN in large multi-ton quantities for training? A rich supporter could buy it under legitimate-seeming ('truthy') cover, as for mining or roadbed excavation, and ship it to them under a 'truthy' manifest. It comes into the plant as PETN and leaves as 'canned beets'.

B. RealJanuary 4, 2010 5:07 PM

"Double-D" implants filled with explosives and fired off by a modified pacemaker. You heard it here first, folks...

finidJanuary 4, 2010 5:15 PM

uk visa wrote: "now they'll concentrate too much on our pants... whilst the would-be-bombers move to explosive implants..."

By that I think you are referring to explosive breast implants. Now, how is any technology going to detect that? Or how is any pat-down, no matter how thorough, going to detect that?

Let's hope the other side's terrorists (we have our own terrorists too) never think of using this. Maybe they are already thinking about it..

DCJanuary 4, 2010 7:59 PM

Bruce,
If you really want to talk to a chemist who has made and used PETN many times, you have my email, and I will gladly scan some authoritative book pages on the subject -- the books aren't commonly available for reasons that should be obvious, and oh yeah, stuff like the anarchist cookbooks are quite unreliable and allowed to be distributed FOR THAT REASON.

I guess you don't allow attachments here for good reasons, but a couple of scans I could have provided would have stopped quite a lot of silly and wrong discussion right off on the subject of explosives and chemistry.


Easy to recognize would be bombers who learned from cookbooks by acid burns and missing body parts when they try to learn from sources like that after all, as I told the DHS when they asked. Which is why you can still get those easily.

PETN is one of the easier secondary explosives to detonate (a firecracker will do it if used right), so much so that it's used in detacord and as the "booster" in many blasting cap designs to conserve the amount of primary (lead azide, mercury fulminate etc) needed to detonate the hard to detonate final stage stuff -- TNT, RDX, ANFO (which is about the hardest to get a large amount to "go" without yet another layer of booster or nitroglycerin/nitromethanol/zirconium along with the "fuel"). There are other tricks with ANFO, but I'm not putting them up, even here.

Although the reports on this incident have suspiciously changed from "man set off firecrackers" to "man attempts to blow up plane" to "man smuggles components of PETN on board and tries to make it in his underwear" there is a little bit of credibility to some of them. Did we all miss that he had a syringe of nitric acid in one report?
I heard that, but above someone mentioned sulfuric/chlorate, a nice way to make fire, but not a detonator by any means. Nitric and pentaerythritol are all that are needed. Ice too, if you want to live through the nitration process, else you will get a runaway exotherm and maybe detonation (more likely just fire and a big mess). As discussed here before, and missed frequently by the armchair guys who know a little chemistry but don't "get it", this guy didn't intend to live, and so didn't need some of the stuff they claim you need to make something (and survive). Which came up endlessly in the acetone peroxide discussions, and all of that was dead wrong.

Pentaerythritol is kind of hard to get here in the states, as it is also a drug precursor (Valium) and "on the lists", but is widely used in industry and freely available elsewhere in the world -- cheap. It's useful stuff as paint filler, plastic precursor etc, nothing that special chemically.

GweihirJanuary 4, 2010 8:38 PM

@Clive Robinson: There I am trying to make some innocent provocative statements and you supply the evidence that I am actually pretty close to the mark. Scary. ;-)

Jef PoskanzerJanuary 4, 2010 8:46 PM

I'm interested in what Abdulmutallab was doing in the bathroom for 20 minutes, and why he didn't set the device off there. I think it's possible that he brought it onto the plane in his rectum, retrieved it while in the bathroom, then returned to his seat so that he could set it off near the wing root.

GeorgeJanuary 4, 2010 9:10 PM

It now appears that the full body scanners are most analogous to the polygraph. Every validated study shows that the polygraph is completely unreliable for its claimed purpose of detecting deception. But the government has made it a cornerstone of security clearance investigations. That's presumably because they believe a lie detector test is essential in determining who should get a clearance, but they have nothing better than the polygraph for that purpose. So they use it because it's better than nothing, even though it's not much better. The fact that most people aren't aware that it's bogus may be enough to provide a small measure of protection from spies.

Similarly, the TSA (with some valid justification) believes that strip searching all airline passengers will enhance their ability to detect dangerous materials. The millimeter wave scanner may be largely useless for that purpose, but they have nothing better available. So to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, they use the tool that they have, not the tool they want. It may be ineffective (like most of what the TSA does), but it is intrusive and invasive enough to convince some members of the public that the TSA is doing something.

By making travel that much more onerous and humiliating for every traveler, the full body scanner offers a remote possibility that it might somehow deter an unsophisticated terrorist. To the unaccountable bureaucrats who make such decisions in secret, that small theoretical possibility is apparently enough to justify the expense as well as the hassle and humiliation to every passenger. They aren't accountable at all for either deploying effective measures or protecting the privacy and liberty of passengers. They're merely accountable for reacting quickly whenever there's a breach or failure. Nothing they do has to demonstrate effectiveness or cost-effectiveness, it merely has to be a reaction meant to justify the TSA's continued existence and expansion.

Major Variola (ret)January 4, 2010 10:01 PM

"This means that "Marvin Mayhem" et al only have to get a prescription for TNG or PETN spray to legitimatly carry a DoS weapon. "

Yes. I often see TSA folks crossing
the street to go to work, I work across
from an airport. The sidewalk
is an obvious place to spray. Holidays
would be best time, natch, max system load.

....

Many don't seem to realize that PETN
has very low vapor pressure
(parts per million million) and
chlorate and sugar have none.
You would worry about particles
but cleanliness is close to godliness.


Which means, you can't sniff,
and if you pack it right, you can't
grope it or terahertz/x-ray scatter
it.
.....

Also: medical nitrates are way too
dilute and small to be a source.
Easy enough to make.

.....

Also: the IRA eventually received plastic
from Libya. Half was turned in.
Kinda doubt that Libyan synth stuff
was doped with tracers.

Read http://www.amazon.com/...

......

Also: a blasting cap (electric or bp)
strikes me as quite artfully concealable
as a tampon. One can also make
blastiing caps with eg tatp and christmas
lights. Acetylides are also accessable.

.........

Re ""Double-D" implants", a Russian
airplane was blown up by Chechnyan
women presumably with prosthetic
endowments.

(Wait until a US prep school is taken over)

........

Folks in glass empires should neither
throw stones nor fly drones.

Xmas FlyerJanuary 4, 2010 10:48 PM

Sorry Bruce, I don't agree. Security Theatre failed, the "mad bomber" got his bomb on the plane. They were just lucky that he was incompetent and didn't have an adequate trigger.

I flew a few days after Xmass. Lines were back to normal, planes were on time and the guards at the security checkpoint didn't even bother checking my photo id.

I was glad to see that the passengers learned from 9/11. Taking action is better than trusting the nasty old terrorist and "being a good boy/girl" waiting to fall out of the sky.

The thing that you and all of the other media have missed (intentionally or not) was that once again the bad guys have won:
- The bomber got his bomb on the plane.
- Security didn't have a clue until after the fact
- During the busiest travel period of the year, dozens of flights (at the airport I was using, hundreds or even thousands world wide) were cancelled outright and delayed.
- A new round of spending on visible but minimally effective security theater will take place (filling the pockets of profiteers)

Clive RobinsonJanuary 5, 2010 12:31 AM

@ Major Variola (ret),

"The Detroit device is a column of PETN with sugar + chlorate mix on top. Initiated with sulphuric acid, which is carried in a wax-plugged syringe. A little Al powder in the transition area would help too."

Why go to the hassel of sugar+chlorate+ sulphuric acid in a syringe?

A "red lead + Al" thermite mix graduated down to a "Al + ferric cloride" mix would be better as all it takes is a little water to get +2000f temp, so a "drink in the lap" (not unknown on comercial airlines) would get it started with little or no problems.

The same mixture can be used to set stock rods of Al tube on fire. I found this out many many years ago whilst not quite a teenager and used it as a way to produce even higher temps. Think home made thermic lance which did indeed cut through an old style "bank safe" door on the local scrap heap which earnt me much credability with my school peers (yup I was a nerd@school before the term was invented).

For those that want to try it in their back yard red lead and Al powder are routinely used in paint and are very very easy to get hold of (think auto/boat shop). As for ferric chloride it's used for etching copper clad board and the last time I needed some in a hurry in the US I got it from a well known "hobby electronics" store you will find in most major US towns. However Please Please wear not just the usuall protective cloathing but a proper breathing mask as well as one by product if you don't get the amounts right is a greenish white gas that will cause organic compounds such as a human significant choking problems as well as significantly tarnishing metal surfaces...

As far as I'm aware there are one heck of a lot of (maybe not quite infinite though ;) "useful" chemical reactions that you can get from everyday chemicals you can buy by the pound retail at a shop near you.

Oh and those daft enough to want to get hold of "chlorate" to make the old "chlorate + sugar" bomb you can buy it in pound lots as "weed killer" however it usually comes as crystals with other "fire retardant crystals" included. These other crystals are a slightly different colour and different density and so can be fairly easily removed by a very simple use of the old "bounce and twist" the bucket method you see "jobing builders" use to grade p-stone gravel for use in exterior surfacing on houses...

And one thought that has ammused me for a while is the "by product" of home brew "bio-diesel" production from used frying oil etc. It is a useful sorce of one of your,

"PETN is just a regular poly-ol which is nitrated like any poly-ol. Glycerin is one poly-ol; PE is another."

As for,

"One can also make blastiing caps with eg tatp and christmas lights. Acetylides are also accessable."

I used to make my own electrical caps/ignitors when around eight from things that where very very easily available to me and have described it before on this blog.

But for those to lazy to search, in many toy shops you can buy "cap guns", there are two basic types, those that use little chemical blobs on a strip of paper, and those that have bigger blobs of chemical in little plastic "caps" you put on the spigot or hammer in your cap gun.

If you look carefully at the little plastic cap it usually has a small piece of brown paper over the chemical, you can remove this with a pin or small needle. Again using the pin/needle you can make two small holes in the side wall of the plastic cap adjacent to the surface of the chemical blob to take the "tails" of your electrical ignition coil". The coil is easely made by taking 40AWG enamaled copper wire and winding a ten turn solinoid around your pin/needle as a former. You need to remove the enamal and "tin" the tail wires from the coil before you put them through the holes in the side wall of the plastic cap (otherwise it might go off when you try to do it afterwards ;)

Having done this you will find that the application of a very small torch/flashlight battery is enough to make the cap explode (provided you made sure the coil was in contact with the chemical blob). All you then need to do is find some way of increasing the effectiveness of the chemical blob (which I'm sure most of you adults can figure out as well as an eight year old boy can).

You can do the same thing with the heads of matches both "swan vester" and "safety matches".

If you cannot get those little caps for toy guns anymore, have a look at some of those "party poppers" you might have left over from your "New Year Party". Although I have not tried I suspect that same thing can be done with those, now think just how much other chemicals you can place in that bit that held the paper streamers...

Then if you have a look around the Internet there used to be photos of a home made contraption somebody had made to blow the brains out of a clever mouse/squirel. Essentialy what they had done was take a conventional "little nipper" mouse trap drill a couple of holes in it one for a string the other to take a .22 rim fire "garden gun" shotgun cartridge. The little nipper was held on the table with a "mirror plate" and G-Clamp, the hole for the string went through both the trigger and base boards and the string had a large knot in the top and the bait on the hanging free end. When the "varmint" reached up for the bait it pulled the trigger board down releasing the spring that would normaly kill the "not so clever mouse". Instead this hit the second hole where the .22 rim fire cartridge is mounted, this went off sending a "cone of death" down towards the floor where the varmint was reaching up to the bait...

If you need any more proof that our current crop of "would be terrorists" are in the main not "inventive" you need little further evidence.

Oh and also why body scanners and chemical sale restrictions etc etc etc are just ways of "liberating tax dollars" for the inventive or as Bruce so rightly says "Security Theater"...

It's why I have come to the conclusion that the Governments are behaving the same way as software companies used to behave with security vulnerabilities.

The solution back then was to publish the exploit details untill the companies concerned woke up and smelled the coffee and started behaving responsably instead of "off loading" onto their PR and legal depts.

The argument against was a typical "think of the children" response and claims of "irresponsable behaviour" by the companies against those publishing the details.

Well as time has shown the companies cleaning up their game is the only effective security response that works.

And I think it is also time that people woke up and "worked the numbers" I think you will find that the number of colateral, losses, injuries, deaths etc to poor software security are a lot lot larger than you would think and on par with many other "accidental death" causes...

It has been shown that "security by obscurity" is a myth for intangables like information, and there have been enough high profile robberies to show it is a myth in most cases for tangable or physical good security, I think on sober thought and enough facts most would agree it is also a myth for dealing with terrorism.

Oh and please can people stop holding Israel's flag carrier up as an example of good security practice. It is nothing of the sort it works for a couple of simple reasons "myth" and "low hanging fruit". The minute other organisations carry out similar tactics the Israel flag carrier will either have to "up it's game" (which it cannot realisticaly afford to do) or see an increase in incidents it has already seen but managed to keep out of the "general public view".

Also from a terrorists point of view attacking the Israel flag carrier is a "low value" option as it will have little or no effect on the Government of Israel or the press of Israel so it is not going to have as much value as attacking other nations flag carriers etc (especialy those countries the terrorists and many many others world wide see as proping up the Government of Israel via money and UN veto etc etc, and especially as these same Governments are seen to be scared of their own press / public image). Thus if you want to live the life the average person of Israel has which is not that good (and judging by the considerable increasing % of their passport holders who chose to go live in other countries not improving) then go ahead and follow the Government and flag carrier of Israels lead...

Clive RobinsonJanuary 5, 2010 12:55 AM

@ B. Real,

"Double-D implants..."

Get real, for Jordan anything less than Quadruple G is suspicious these days 8)

(For those that don't know Katie Price AKA Jordan is a "glam model" of dubious attractions (who was married to a supposed pop star) and has a fondness of riding/jumping stalions. She supposadly auctioned of a pair of her implants not so long ago on e-bay. And before anybody asks, no I don't know any more than that thank god...)

AndrewJanuary 5, 2010 3:21 AM

@sceptic

>> what's the cost of a couple bomb-sniffing dogs at the security checkpoints versus the cost of one of these machines?

There are strong parallels between dogs and lookouts. Both get tired and bored. The machine does not get bored. Even if the machine is (say) 30% effective, that coverage spread over the entire checkpoint day is better than a 100% effective dog whose time is both expensive and limited.

Graham BlandJanuary 5, 2010 4:29 AM

An interesting point you make is that the security checks make the use of detonator more difficult. However in this instance a syringe seems to have been used, I have no idea if this had a needle attached, if it did then these are specifically banned under the existing rules and show up under metal detectors. However as a Diabetic I always travel with 20+ needles in my hand luggage an have NEVER been challenged as to why they are there, even when saying to the screeners "there are needles in there" as I pass my bag over.

Major Variola (ret)January 5, 2010 11:16 AM

@Clive

"Why go to the hassel of sugar+chlorate+ sulphuric acid in a syringe?"

Only the sulphuric is in the syringe,
which needn't have a needle.

The powders are separate. The "condom" has
petn at bottom, and a hypergolic mix
(I'm suggesting chlorate + sugar
as classics) at top. This would be chemically
stable. Don't know if the chlorate and sugar
will separate mechanically over a day
in a crotch. You could put a layer of
paper between petn and initiator mix,
it won't matter.

Clive, I didn't know your Pb-goldschmidt
reaction would be water triggered,
which simplifies (no syringe) but
may I suggest that its better NOT to
have moisture-activated explosives
in your crotch? Better to risk the
syringe of sulphuric. Who knows,
maybe he had the sulphuric in a
separate (under 3oz) container and
sucked it into an empty syringe
in the loo. Or maybe there are
lockable syringes you can carry
filled.

The syringe needs no needle, just a plug
in the tip.

BTW chlorate is not sold as weed
killer in the states, but you can make
it from Ca hypochlorate and salt.
Pyros also make it with electricity.

I was astounded (after reviewing some
pyro lit) to realize that chlorate
*is* used in certain friction or percussion
sensitive (yet "safe 'n sane") 'fireworks'
and kids pistol caps. Those wacky chinese.

I've seen homemade black powder start
homemade thermite (from beachsand
magnetite!) so I also appreciate that its
not hard to get high temps. And that
Al powder is a lot of fun :-)

@Xmas Flyer
Absolutely correct, they won. All the
publicity and exposed vulnerability.
Aboard + triggered = win. Plus we
learn about insufficient Marshalls,
and various other opsec leaks.

...
Glass empires shouldn't fly drones.

Dosco JonesJanuary 5, 2010 3:03 PM

I have often wondered why a PETN device hasn't been built into a laptop computer. Some creative internal surgery would allow an internal USB channel to be used to trigger the customized detonator circuit. The detonator and explosive would likely be small enough to fit into the space normally used by the DVD drive and/or main battery pack.

Designing such a device would require a bit of electrical engineering talent, but there must be at least one or two bad folks out there with the skills to make it work. And if a normal guy like me can think of this then there have got to be a whole lot of really bad people out there that have already had the same thought.

So why haven't we seen something like this yet?

AndrewJanuary 6, 2010 5:50 PM

Dosco writes: "So why haven't we seen something like this yet?"

Because the terrorist threat is overblown by at least two orders of magnitude.

I'm a lot more worried about crossing the street than some loser terrorists.

Major VariolaJanuary 6, 2010 9:45 PM

Dosco writes: >>"So why haven't we seen something like this yet?"
Because the terrorist threat is overblown by at least two orders of magnitude.

The threat is overblown but terrorism
is working pretty well. (Although
americans remember dead, not just
almost-dead, americans better.)

But TSA helps memories endure;
who'd remember Reid if they didn't
have to remove shoes? Most
americans couldn't remember
Lebanon and the Cole is fading.
(Mil targets are less memorable
to citizensheeple.)

As for why no laptops yet, they're too obvious. Shoes, underwear, more
covert. Shoes and underwear both
used non-electric detonator, again
more covert and unexpected.
(And may be Al Q overestimating
metal detection)

Negro transport, also unexpected,
despite the Arabic name, is novel.
Somalis next. Eventually light
women.

In fact, the intel failure (coupled
with CIA fail same week) to detect the bomber
given what was in hindsight known
makes the 'vulnerability' point very
well. As does of course the successful transport to ignition completion of the plan.

"I'm a lot more worried about crossing the street than some loser terrorists."
As statistically you should. That does
not change the utility of terrorism.
Worked for the IRA, for instance. Got
the US out of Lebanon, etc. Got
UNABOMB NY Times publication.

Terrorism works. It eventually succeeds.
Best to avoid being a target. Give the
micks their damn island; get the
US out of foreign involvement.
It ceases to be worth it to the populace
eventually.

...........

All the dogs and sniffers look for
doped commercial/mil explosives.
Real terrorists brew their own
and purify the hell out of them.
Who knows, maybe they can
run headspace analyses themselves.
PETN untagged is parts per million
million volatiles. Solvents are cheap.

...........

Used to be you couldn't bomb
civilians. Then the civilians started
working in weapons factories.
And the civilians lived in democracies,
so they were 'responsible' for their
leaders' misbehavior. So starting
in WWII civilians became targets.
(See Total War)
UBL clearly believes in democracies'
ability to affect 'leaders', which is
mostly fallacious, and will cost many civilian lives. Eventually the leaders
will change. Or not; perpetual war
is peace.

Glass empires shouldn't fly drones.

ralph137January 10, 2010 9:12 AM

Is it not an important part of an explosive device the packing and placement? Something to contain the explosion to allow the pressure to build up. Would that explosive material have built up pressure to destroy the aircraft or would a weaker point have failed and allowed a decompression? The interior of an international range aircraft is large.

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