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Sunday, August 13, 2006
Liquid with peroxide similar to failed 1995 nitroglycerin plot.

The sort of liquid explosive that authorities suspect was to be used in the alleged airliner terror plot in Britain is easy for anyonw with a working knowledge of chemistry to make -- and difficult for ordinary airport checkpoints to detect, experts say.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a memo to law enforcement agencies on Thursday saying the explosive would have been "peroxide-based", with otherwise safe ingredients mixed onboard the targeted airplances during flight to make a bomb.

A Favorite of Terrorists
The information, reported Thursday by the New York Times suggests the bombers planned to use a well known explosive that can be made fromingredients found in ordinary household items, including nail polish remover.

That explosive has been around for more than 100 years, is based on a widelay available formula and isa favorite of terrorists bomb-makers. It was used in the July 2005 suicide bombings in London and numerous Palestinian bombings in Israel. It is also extremely unstable and highly dnagerous even for trained chemists to make -- qualities that caused bombmakers to nickname it "Mother of Satan".

Although many would be terrorists have been killed while trying to make the mixture, its instability might not be a drawback for suicide bomber intent on destroying an airplane. The easy availability of the ingredients make it especially attractive to terrorists, experts said.

"You don't really need to go to a chemical facotry to find these things -- it's just common household stuff" said SonBinh Nguyen, a professor of chemisty at Northwestern University.

Prior to mixing the individual ingreidents of such an explosive would be difficult for ordinary airport security measures to detect. In the U.S., powerful scanning machines inspect every items checked as luggage at major airports -- a step that should catch most explosives, experts said. Carry on bags go thorugh a much less effective -- and less expensive X-ray machine.

Nitroglycerin, the primary ingredient in many terrorist bombs, could be detected during inspection of carry on bags, but only if a passenger is a "selectee" designated for a more thorough search by bomb sniffing dogs and equipment. Even those added measures might not detect the unmixed ingredients for a perocide-based weapon.

"As things stand now, you can't find these explosives if they're carried on someone's person", without any close exam, said aviation security consultant Douglas Laird.

Flames easily sparked
Both peroxide-based explosives and nitroglycerin are highly sensitive to physical shocks and sparks from elecrical sources.

The FBI and Homeland Security memo noted that all a peroxide explosive would need to detonate is "fire or an electrical charge", which could come from a cell phone, laptop battery, flashbulb or numerous other ordinary electric devices.

Any such item could supply "a lot of heat generated very quickly," said Phil Eaton, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Chicago, including potent explosives.

"The fact is that most common explosives are fairly simple to make", Eaton said.

Eaton and many other experts noted that although recipes for making such explosives are widely available through the Internet, they often contain chemical errors or misleading directions -- and gravely understate the risks of mixing together volatile compounds.

High Security concern

Liquid based explosives are at the top of many security experts lists of concerns, in part because they are relatively easy to make. Bomber Ramzi Yousef was prepairing to use nitroglycerin in a narrowly aerted plot to down as many as 12 airlines over the Pacific in 1995. Yousef, since convicted for the plot and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, actually carried out a trail run for the Pacific airliner bombing, authorities believe.

Using nitroglycerin he concealed in a contact lens solution bottle, he assembled a bomb in the lavatory of a Philippine Airliner, That bomb, timed to go off after Yousef left the plane, killed a Japanese businessman after the aircraft toof off again.

"When Yousef tested his bomb, he found it wasnt' big enough to take down an airliner",said aviation security expert Glen Winn, who was manager of corporate security for United Airlines in Chicago when Yousef's plot came out.

Yousef's case illustrates the danger inherent in such liquid explosives. His conspiracy unraveled when a fire started at his group's bomb making lab in the Philippines, alerting police to the scheme. Even so, Winn said " we came within a hair's breadth of something awful happening".

It's still unclear precisley how a bomber or group of bombers would have used a peroxide based weapon. It tkaes a large amopunt of such explosives to cause catastrophic damage; the bombers who struck London's public transportation system last year carried backpacks full of it.

Peroxide-based explpsives were one component of the device that shoe bomber Richard Reid tride to ignite on a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. But Laird, the security expert, said he's not sure such a small amount of explosive could have broguth down Reid's plane.

"There's a real question about whetehr he had the right quantity to have a catastrophic result", Laird said.

Some experts speculated that the mixture might have been meant to create a large fire rather than an explosion. Laird said the risk of a bomber carrying liquids that could be mixed to make a peroxide-based bomb is great enough to warrant upgrading security at American airports.

Better screening is more costly
One measure that might help would be replacing the X-ray machines now used for carry on bags with the same powerful CT scanners used to checked luggage at major airports -- an alternative that could costs up to $1 million extra for each checkpoint.

Short of such a major step, experts said it may be nearly impossible to catch a terrorist determined to bring elements of a liquid explosive on a flight.

"It's very difficult", said Billie Vincent, former security director for the Federal Aviation Administration. To be sure of preventing such an attack, he said, "Basically, you can't let anyliquids go on the airplane in the passenger cabin".

(Source:CHICTRIB by: Jeremy Manier/jmanier@tribune.com)
posted by infraternam meam @ 3:40 PM  
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