The Explosive from the Latest Foiled Al Qaeda Underwear Bomb Plot

Interesting:

Although the plot was disrupted before a particular airline was targeted and tickets were purchased, al Qaeda's continued attempts to attack the U.S. speak to the organization's persistence and willingness to refine specific approaches to killing. Unlike Abdulmutallab's bomb, the new device contained lead azide, an explosive often used as a detonator. If the new underwear bomb had been used, the bomber would have ignited the lead azide, which would have triggered a more powerful explosive, possibly military-grade explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN).

Lead azide and PETN were key components in a 2010 plan to detonate two bombs sent from Yemen and bound for Chicago—one in a cargo aircraft and the other in the cargo hold of a passenger aircraft. In that plot, al-Qaeda hid bombs in printer cartridges, allowing them to slip past cargo handlers and airport screeners. Both bombs contained far more explosive material than the 80 grams of PETN that Abdulmutallab smuggled onto his Northwest Airlines flight.

With the latest device, al Asiri appears to have been able to improve on the underwear bomb supplied to Abdulmutallab, says Joan Neuhaus Schaan, a fellow in homeland security and terrorism for Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

The interview is also interesting, and I am especially pleased to see this last answer:

What has been the most effective means of disrupting terrorism attacks?
As with bombs that were being sent from Yemen to Chicago as cargo, this latest plot was discovered using human intelligence rather than screening procedures and technologies. These plans were disrupted because of proactive mechanisms put in place to stop terrorism rather than defensive approaches such as screening.

Posted on May 25, 2012 at 6:43 AM • 20 Comments

Comments

PeterMay 25, 2012 7:18 AM

"Discovered using human intelligence"? Isn't this the plot which was run by the CIA, MI5, and the Saudi security services to try to find the location of the bombmaker and drop a bomb on him?

LenMay 25, 2012 8:06 AM

It was already admitted that this "underwear-bomber" was a CIA asset. It wasn't admitted (that I noticed) whether the "bomber" was a provocateur, but it would be consistent with the fact that every "attack" publicly known to have been "foiled" so far, was planned by government agents provocateurs.

But this in turn suggests that if AQAP really is using better technology, it's because the US government is supplying them with better materials.

claudioMay 25, 2012 8:10 AM

"al Qaeda's continued attempts to attack the U.S. speak to the organization's persistence and willingness to refine specific approaches to killing". We often say that working on a specific scenario is useless, since terrorists can just take any of the other possible ways to cause terror. But it seems that al Qaeda keeps being mostly focused on airplanes. This remembers me of a book written by an officer in WW I on the Italian-Austrian front. I'm taking it from my memory and translating at the same time:
"We were ordered to defend the mountain at any cost.The manuals said that this way the enemy could not use the nearby valley to outflank our defenses. However, the valley was very wide, and the Austrians could have passed on the opposite side of the valley, our cannons were unable to shoot that far. Luckily, the Austrian generals read the manuals too, and attacked the mountain".

Frank Ch. EiglerMay 25, 2012 8:31 AM

"These plans were disrupted because of proactive mechanisms put in place to stop terrorism rather than defensive approaches such as screening."

One should avoid reading too much into the "rather than" wording. If one believes that means "the former is sufficient; the latter is unnecessary", one would have to show that the absence of screening would not simply invite the bad guys to go to that direct undefended route.

JimMay 25, 2012 12:14 PM

The informant was a genuine al Quaeda recruit who turned of his own volition, not an agent provocateur.

CharlesMay 25, 2012 12:50 PM

It always amazes me how everyone is an "expert" when it comes to air security. The system in place is not perfect, but one cannot quantify the deterent factor. If anyone believes otherwise they are not educated sufficiently in the theories of criminal justice. Intel only goes so far, are you to suggest that we should do away with airline security or go back to pre-9/11 screening, when private security contractors and the airlines were working the customer service angle. Stop the hysterics and wake up to reality!

Brandioch ConnerMay 25, 2012 1:18 PM

@Charles
"The system in place is not perfect, but one cannot quantify the deterent factor."

Of course one can.
Unless one supposes that any would-be airplane bomber simply gives up his terrorist ways upon seeing how hard it is to smuggle a movie-style bomb through TSA security at the airport.

And not, say, switch to bombing a mall or a school or a city hall or a federal building. Or simply purchasing some guns and shooting people at one of the above.

"If anyone believes otherwise they are not educated sufficiently in the theories of criminal justice"

I don't think you grasp the "suicide" portion of "suicide bomber".

Neil in ChicagoMay 25, 2012 2:13 PM

With the abundance and diversity of potential targets in the U.S., why do they seem so fixated on airplanes?

kingsnakeMay 25, 2012 2:21 PM

Before they blew up the WTC, and attempted to do likewise (but fell short) to the White House, I always felt if one was prone to such things, the best way to go about it was an airplane. I was not surprised when it came to pass. Now that the powers-that-be are fixated on planes, what does that leave? Well, your average train car can hold tons of cargo, or thousands of gallons of liquid, and there are train tracks right through the middle of cities, so it does not take a great leap of "what if?" to figure out what the best option is. (Or, for some serious Halifax-type fun, a ship.)

Clive RobinsonMay 25, 2012 3:08 PM

... why do they seem so fixated on airplanes?

I'm not sure people actualy realise who the "they" in that question are...

As various other attacks have shown AQ are quite happy to go for Hotels full of tourists, and coaches with visiting sports men etc with machine guns etc.

Thus the "they" in that question is not the terrorists but the people in the country being attacked. The terrorists are mearly "realising the populouses nightmares".

So you should ask,

"why are Americans so fixated about attacks on aircraft?"

And the simple answer is "machismo" the Americans believe they invented the aeroplane, they believe aeroplanes give the world freedom and thus democracy, they believe the aeroplane is representative of the "brightest and best" Americans have to offer, and many believe America makes the beast aeroplanes in the world...

Other countries believe in the prowess of their sportsmen and others believe in the fact that they are a major tourist destination.

That is it forms part of the national psyche which is what the terrorists attack.

pfoggMay 25, 2012 8:08 PM

"...al Qaeda's continued attempts to attack the U.S. speak to the organization's persistence and willingness to refine specific approaches to killing."

It does seem curious that there have been such prominent failures against airplanes, but and few (no?) attempts against anything else in U.S. since the 1993 World Trade Center bomb, and even that suggests a kind of fixation (truck didn't work, so send a plane). Wider variation, and more imaginative plotting, would obviously result in more successful plans. I've seen models where al Qaeda/"islamic extremists" are mostly just bonding over the plotting and terrorism, and the actual death toll and socio-political repercussions are of secondary importance. Perhaps these are true?

@Clive Robinson: "And the simple answer is "machismo" the Americans believe they invented the aeroplane..."

Well, I certainly hope "they" think so, if that means they'll be preferentially picking machismo-related targets....

DaveMay 26, 2012 1:54 AM

If they're playing with lead azide then the best way to deal with them would be to leave them to it. To locate them, just look for anyone with their fingers/hands missing.

mooMay 27, 2012 10:07 AM

@Charles:

And how much is it worth paying for that deterrent factor? Over $8 billion per year in TSA funding? Uncounted billions in lost tourism dollars, lost hours for millions of travellers, etc?

Just think of how much investigation and infiltration we could do with *$8 billion per year*.

I don't think anyone is seriously arguing that we should have no security screening at all before boarding an airplane. We are arguing however, that the current screening is far too expensive and disruptive for the very limited security benefits it provides.

I think the U.S. government should completely dissolve the TSA and make airline security the responsibility of the individual airlines. The airlines would then have a strong economic incentive to minimize the hassle and disruption for their passengers, as well as to keep the overall cost of the screening measures low. Right now the TSA has only perverse politically-motivated incentives (CYA) which is why its such an expensive and useless clusterfuck.

RajeshMay 27, 2012 10:54 AM

Dreams are what we hope for; reality is what we
plan for.

Nice comments.

andyMay 27, 2012 11:18 AM

The terrorists have achieved measurable success in terms of TSA's budget, millions of hours wasted each year at airports by travelers, not to mention the daily harassment of travelers by TSA. Pushing in the same direction is just reasonable.

Dirk PraetMay 27, 2012 1:58 PM

@Charles

Intel only goes so far

You certainly got that right. More than anything else, 9/11 was a massive intelligence failure.

But unless I am very badly informed, all plots foiled ater 9/11 were either the result of intelligence work or passengers fighting back. The TSA is yet to capture its first terrorist, and with daily reports on failures coming in there is a growing consensus among security analysts that the expensive security theatre they've been putting in place is capable of stopping the dumbest of terrorists only and at best can be called scareware.

Clive RobinsonMay 27, 2012 5:05 PM

@ Dave,

If they're playing with lead azide then the best way to deal with them would be to leave them to it. To locate them, just look for anyone with their fingers/hands missing.

I guess it's a case of 'unstable explosives for unstable minds' ;)

I did manage to make some when quite a lot younger but it felt like you only had to stare hard at it for it to explode in its pure(ish) form... But you can stabalize it in a couple of ways to allow for shipping and storage, but even in it's pure form it's still actually not that reliable as a detonator. It also has some distinct disadvantages compared to some fulminates and chlorates used as primers in many rounds of amunition (The Russians used a perclorate for this which unfortunatly has the disadvantage of producing considerable damage to the inside of the gun barrel compared to mercury fulminate).

To give you an idea of how stable lead azide can be, it was (is?) used in the "Devastator" exploding
bullet manufactured by US company "Bingham Ltd." in the 1970' and early 80's. The bullet was (is?) made of a lacquer sealed aluminium tip with a lead azide centre designed to explode on impact. Apparently this ammunition was fairly easily available and sold openly at gun fairs etc until shortly after John Hinckley obtained some and used them in 1981 to try to assassinate then US President Ronald Reagan.

I've been told that exploding bullets are again becoming easily "retail" available in the US some consisting of thin jackets with a solid tip and lead azide or similar primer to set of an RDX or other equivalent explosive core. I know there is a company in Norway (Nammo) manufacturing exploding rounds at it's medium and large calibre division at Raufoss. The rounds are for the Barret and other 0.5 inch sniper weapons and larger caliber anti-vehicles guns and have an explosive core with magnesium flash powder. They are sold to be used to target the likes of vehical engines and tracks and provide a visual feed back of "targeting". They are made to forfill NATO specs including surviving being dropped 15meters verticaly and arguably meet the St Petersburg Declaration (as anti-vehicle not anti-personnel)...

One down side of lead azide is leaching when incontact with other metals. A friend tried to convert it to copper azide this way but it would just spontaniously go up so that experiment got canned as it were.

A more reliable compound for detonators which is also relitivly easy to make is lead styphnate as it does not leach other metals, however it is very very static sensitive (you can set it of with only a small fraction of the static potential many people carry in a dry atmosphere). It is also used in detonators containing lead azide as a "primer" to the lead azide, both have a burn velocity greater than 5Km/sec and this make fairly good detonators for the likes of PETN or stable commercial or military explosives.

A quick look on the Internet shows many sources of information on how to make both. Some detail commercial methods that are reasonably safe if followed with care, however many "garden shed" recipies will convert many who attempt it into "low flying objects".

@ ALL,

It should be noted by all readers that whilst it might appear to be fun to make explosives, in this day and age attempting to make any explosive of any kind at home or any other place not specificaly licenced to do so, is usually prohibited by "anti-terrorism legislation". In most western jurisdictions this usually has hefty if not unlimited punishment as a consequence (other places it may well get you executed with or without a trial).

Also as noted by somebody else on this blog a little while ago in some (but not all) jurisdictions making any kind of energy releasing chemical (friction match, flare, rocket fuel, fuel additive etc) may also be covered by restrictive legislation. And if they are in your jurisdiction then it almost certainly includes the thermites etc much beloved of science projects for making demonstrations of volcanoes, so stick with the baking soda and vinegar for that one, the same for rocket demonstrations.

JonadabMay 29, 2012 10:42 AM

> If they're playing with lead azide then
> the best way to deal with them would
> be to leave them to it. To locate them,
> just look for anyone with their
> fingers/hands missing.

No kidding. Lead azide is more explosive, and in particular more impact-sensitive, than other azides.

Azides, it may be noted, have a tendency to turn up on Derek Lowe's fascinating and sometimes hilarious chemistry blog under the "Things I Won't Work With" heading. Fun stuff. As Lowe says, "thermodynamically, there aren't many gently sloping paths down to nitrogen gas... put on the armor, insert the earplugs, and get ready to watch the free energy equation do its thing right in front of your eyes. Your heavily shielded eyes, that is, if you have any sense at all." He is, of course, talking about working in a carefully controlled laboratory environment, under a proper fume hood and all that.

Wikipedia claims that lead azide, in particular, can detonate if it is dropped from a height of six inches. Anybody wearing underpants made of such stuff is rather unlikely to successfully complete the drive into the airport without blowing up, nevermind about actually walking through to the concourse and boarding an actual plane.

So yeah, leave them to it, indeed. I'll be way over here, just going about my business.

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