Thursday, August 10, 2006


Read the newsmedia today and ask the questions: Is it easy to make a bomb aboard an airplane with smuggled on liquids? Or isn't it? There's no way of knowing because there has been no substantive information released by British authorities on the materials and methods found among the arrested terrorists.

This didn't stop the newsmedia from engaging in wild speculation and the digging up of a handful of experts, some OK, some worthless, willing to add their two cents.

Reuters was one of the most irresponsible. "Liquid explosives sit on bathroom shelves" was the title of an article written by Maggie Fox. Republished many times, it was most notable at the Washington Post, where editors should have held out for better.

"Chemicals sitting in anyone's bathroom at home could be used to make a bomb that would badly damage a passenger jet, and experts have been warning about this danger for years," wrote Fox. At this point, someone higher up should have driven a spike through the piece.

"An explosive chemical called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, can be put together with sulfuric acid, found in some drain cleaners, hydrogen peroxide, a medical disinfectant and hair bleach, and acetone, found in nail polish remover," Fox rattled on.

With GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow hat on, it can be said there is no bomb sitting in your bathroom. It's exaggeration for the sake of story-telling. If your ingredients are a bottle of nail polish remover, and a bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, you have two parts for a poor man's explosive called triacetone peroxide. But only as a dilute chemistry set exercise.

If you can identify an inorganic acid in your household, you can, maybe, cobble a synthesis together if you know what you're doing. With the quantities and concentrations available in
households, though, you will never have a jet-liner killer. And other factors involved in the synthesis, which Dick Destiny blog won't go into, make it an awkward choice for synthesis during an airplane flight.

"Why Liquid Explosives May be al-Qaeda's Secret Weapon: Nukes and gases may be on Bin Laden's wish-list, but explosives that can be easily smuggled on board airliners are accessible and potentially devastating," was TIME's chowder-headed contribution. It's title was the best part about a sensational and empty story, so DD blog won't excerpt from it here.

"How terrorists could have made a 'liquid bomb'" wrote The Telegraph. Then it dug up someone who didn't know, except in very broad terms, Andy Oppenheimer, "editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Directory." "There are a lot of homemade mixtures you can concoct from some very common materials that are innocent in themselves."

"Liquid explosives - easily concealed and deadly," wrote the Independent. The article
fixed on nitroglycerine,
which was more rational.

"A primer on liquid explosives," claimed Newsday. "Terrorists have a broad smorgasbord from which to choose, ranging from home-brew formulas that can be mixed in flight, to touchy but widely available nitroglycerin, to exotic blends, the use of which could suggest the involvement of a nation-state," the newspaper added.

"'The possibilities are endless if they have a good engineer, a mad scientist," said military affairs historian Jim Dunnigan.'" Ding ding ding ding! Jim Dunnigan is many things. Creator of "1914" and "Jutland," two very old Avalon Hill strategy games in Dick Destiny blog's closet. Leading light behind the defunct Strategy & Tactic wargaming magazine, many back issues of which also reside in Dick Destiny's closet. And Dunnigan is the author of books, including "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War" and follow ons, some of which are on DD bookshelves.

Dunnigan, however, is nowhere close to be a chemist on homebrew or improvised explosive compounds. One of the worst sources of the day.

By afternoon, a few more details were delivered through the Associated Press. "One official said the suicide attackers planned to use a peroxide-based solution that could ignite when sparked by a camera flash or another electronic device," was the quote of interest, furnished by someone anonymous within government.

"[A] test run was designed to see whether the plotters would be able to smuggle the needed materials aboard the planes, [officials] said. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter."

To get at the truth of the threat, the newsmedia will have to dig for good information on the materials and methods revealed in the operation. If news of it is to be informative, rather than sensational, it will have to get beyond simple proclamations by the British anti-terror forces or anonymous U.S. government sources about a plot which could have caused "unimaginable" death. There will be a need for scrutiny of what, if anything, has been seized in the way of bomb-making materials.

If you need to understand the need for this, consider the AP sentence: "In the days and weeks ahead, security officials in both countries hope to learn more - about the extent of the alleged conspiracy, its financing, its innovations in the black arts of mass killing."

Bluntly stated, the newsmedia must get beyond official interpretations of what constitutes any "black art of mass killing" to understand the nature and actual feasibility of the threat.

Such reporting, if done right, will provide genuine understanding of the terror capability, rather than just adding to the pile of stories which link desire of terrorists to capabilities filled-in by experts speculating on-the-fly.

It is a very good thing if British anti-terror forces disrupted a plot and got the bad men off the street. It will not be so good if nothing more substantial emerges other than the standard cant about a dangerous plot being nipped in the bud.

In this, neither the British or U.S. governments have a good record.

To understand the war on terror and the abilities of those waging it, it is essential to know what constitutes their tools, materials and training -- or the lack of the same during operations.

Explosive made from the reaction of acetone and peroxide was the weapon in last summer's bombing assault in England. Therefore, bombs can be made from the material produced by reaction of the two.

There are complications associated with this poor man's explosive, a compound that is popular because the ingredients are not difficult to secure.

Two recipes place high within Google. They immediately suggest problems to the trained, limitations which indicate the compound a puzzling candidate to synthesize on the fly during a trans-Atlantic flight in an airplane cabin. However, these may not be apparent to the casual reader or reporter.

So Dick Destiny blog is going to briefly touch upon it.

If you inspect the linked recipes at the end of the text, the production of triacetone peroxide is not as elementary as pouring acetone from one bottle into hydrogen peroxide in another and adding a little acid. The formation of the end product takes time.

(Keep in mind, the smuggling of prepared explosive compound onto an airplane is another matter.)

One onf Wikipedia. This is a retarded entry, using "2-propanone" to refer to the common solvent, acetone. The individuals who wrote or contributed to this are incompetent in a variety of interesting ways not worth examining in detail.

This recipe is high on Google's list. Or go nuts.

Major blogs tend to be not so hot on terrorism articles. Kevin Drum immediately reached for the "it's easy" meme right down to the "expert" quote, provided through the BBC.

To wit: Are the [bomb] components difficult to get hold of?
Answer: No, it is very easy. Ordinary household substances could be used.


But astonishingly imbecilic was Daniel Engbar's "Explainer" at Slate. Engbar began imagining the results if one could drink the components of a liquid bomb to pass through security checkpoints. This appears to have come from the idea that making a passenger takea sip of a chemical or liquid in front of screeners either is, was or might be a good way to screen for "liquid bombs."

Engbar first makes the mistake of thinking you can mix peroxide, acetone and an acid catalyst and instantly have a bomb. Next, he starts theorizing absurdly about diluting the chemicals with "milk or juice" to get them past screeners. Since he doesn't know chemistry, he doesn't understand why this makes him appear silly. (Hint: It reduces concentration, makes recovery of yields more difficult, adds impurity, and so on -- mass action chemistry stuff which can't be escaped by dint of being an Islamic terrorist.)

"These are all nasty chemicals that you wouldn't want to drink under normal circumstances. But if you could somehow disguise your liquid bomb ingredients as milk or juice, you could probably get away with a little gulp in front of the airport screeners," writes Engbar. Amusingly, he appears to want readers to take him seriously.

"In very large doses, acetone also has a narcotic effect, and hydrogen peroxide can cause your bowels to rupture," he writes.

If this is the work of an "Explainer," Dick Destiny blog would never hope to see a Slate blog called "The Obscurer."

And, from The Daily Kos, these howlers:

" . . . it's generally worth noting that the British are a hell of a lot more competent in wrapping potential terrorism up than we seem to be . . . "

"That seems to be one big difference between U.S. and U.K. efforts in the War on Terror. Despite the obvious political and strategic bungles of the Blair government, the U.K. is beginning to show a history of wrapping up terror plots and arresting those involved, and seems even to have managed to have done so within the context of law."

It's impossible to tell if the British are more competent or better at anything in the war on terror. If they are, the ledger sheet isn't in yet. They missed the TATP homegrown bombers of July 7, 2005. And the story of the the alleged London ricin ring argues for an opposite conclusion, too. As do the recent cases of the Red Mercury Gang and the terrorist who wouldn't poison a rabbit.


Anonymous Clare said...


Interesting to read your post. You point out how shady the claims are about building a liquid bomb aboard an airplane.

Would you explain how possible it really is? Since you have expertise, I'd like to know. Thanks.

5:25 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

The rubbish the press published years ago on the bombers' formulation was just that -- rubbish. I doubt they see that even now.

However, a much much better write-up was made by The Register a year ago here.

You'll note the government experts had a hard time getting it right. Sidney Alford is mentioned doing a demo for Channel 4. He's an exceptional example. If he can't make a bomb out of something, it's not doable, so that he needed a few tries is a bit telling.

You'll notice the plotters planned to use hexamine tablets in their detonators, or at least that was the plan.

The US press glommed onto that one, too, and got the details wrong, as usual. It wasn't the primary.

See here.

Originally they were all focused on TATP synthesis and variations on it. Presumably, so was Homeland Security in the US.

See here.

Lewis Page writes this, from 2008: "There was no intention, as was first suggested, to mix up big charges of TATP in airliner lavatories, which would indeed have been impractical and foolish."

They were interested in concentrating further hydrogen peroxide at salon strength, that is to take it from 20 percent to a higher concentration.

"It'd take you a few tries to get the proportions right - just as it did the government boffins working for the prosecution, and Dr Sidney Alford working for Channel 4 - but once you know the recipe you can get reliable results."

The other ingredient you have with them is Tang powder. Powders, in this case citric acid, make explosives if you can detonate them properly. Very concentrated hydrogen peroxide would be an oxidizer.

See here on the citric acid data sheet, second item.

Could they have actually done it? Maybe. Maybe not. Would have required some rehearsal testing to get things right, I think.

5:59 PM  

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