Airport Security, Terrorism, and Liquid TATP Explosives

(Posted 8/18/2006) - You'd have to live on the dark side of the moon not to be aware of the mass arrest of a group identified in the media as an Al-Qaeda terror cell operating in London's suburbs. The media have been told that these individuals were plotting to bring liquid precursors for making explosive TATP (TriAcetone TriPeroxide) on board several US bound flights. The story goes that they were going to mix semi-stable liquid ingredients onboard the flights to make the actual explosive device(s).

There's a fundamental flaw with that story -- it takes hours to mix the ingredients effectively and requires care and controlled temperatures. Chemists can't imagine how it would be possible to carry out the operation on a passenger filled flight.

While true that TATP explosives have been used against airplanes, in the documented cases the explosives were put aboard in (volatile) final form. The current binary agent story lead is cause to question the veracity of the official story.

Perry E. Metzger writes a rather scathing article on the implausibility of the TATP binary-mix theory. The article reference is here. Thomas Greene raises similar questions about the use of binary explosive agents (focusing on TATP). The reference is here.

Recent reports seem to indicate that the entire group of 'terror cell' members were pretty inept at planning their imminent attack. These individuals lacked plane tickets, passports, and any known bomb making experience. What they apparantly didn't lack was a strong sympathy for jihadism (which in the current incarnation includes supporting murder of non-combatents). Within this group, and their community of friends and acquaintances there are likely people who seek opportunities to do real harm.

It is a crime to fraudulently shout "fire" in a theatre, but is it equally a crime to say you'd like to shout fire in a theatre (presumably because you hate your fellow theatre goers)? Many folks who hate never move on to taking violent action; but some do, and so the police, and intelligence agencies in every country try to keep tabs on the malcontents that come to their attention.

It was reported that the Brit's MI5 had been surveilling this particular group of folks for a year. But it was US intelligence intercepts, backed by the Bush Administration's call to roll up the terror cell that pushed the UK government to take action. Is this another instance of the application of Dick Cheney's 1% Doctrine on Terror? In case you are unfamiliar with the doctrine it is described here. It will be interesting to see how this case evolves. The Brits have 28 days from arrest to file charges against these folks, or let them go.

One cannot help but wonder why our news media have jumped onto the liquid binary TATP explosive scenario without questioning whether it is realistically possible to mix this stuff on an airplane. Many self-serving security experts that have been interviewed by the media have a vested interest in inflating the public's fear-level (with the potential for generating more demand for their services).

I would posit that many of the more time consuming airport screening protocols are reactions to political necessity rather than well thought out systemic, coordinated efforts to detect terrorists and their contraband. There are several arguments that support the proposition that anti-terrorism monies are best spent on intelligence gathering, suspect tracking, and forged ID detection rather than on exotic sniffers and body scanners.

Here's a thought: Maybe we should let insurance companies design and administer the operational security at all US embarcation points. They would dispassionately compute the cost-benefit and come up with a per traveller premium that reflects the cost to protect us from terrorist threats while we travel. We'd likely get a more even handed, functional security system than the 'fad induced' methods now used.

Till sanity returns we must all throw out our water bottles before we board our next flight -- don't wanna be mistook for a terrorist!