Saturday, December 26, 2009


Details are slim. Speculation reigns, even in update.

DD suspects it will literally boil down to the inability of al Qaeda or people inspired by them to get enough materials onto a flight.

With chemist's hat on, it's difficult to think up of any mixture of terrorist-available chemicals that would cause an explosion large enough to bring down an airplane, given limitations imposed after break-up of the London airline bomb plot.

While powders may also be attractive part of the mix because of their capacity for explosive ignition, one needs something to set them off, a sufficient amount and a device which scatters and starts the rapid oxidation of the charge efficiently enough so that it doesn't fizzle.

The broken up Brit airline bomber plan from years ago relied on a mix of powdered sport drink -- a citric acid/sugar mix material. DD can think of a number of powders, a few compounds and elements that will burn or explode but not how one could easily smuggle them onto airlines in sufficient amount -- absent screw-up at check in (which can always happen) -- now. Smoke -- sometimes choking, if the right compound or element is used -- and fire are possible.

That the individual involved merely succeeded in burning himself severely perhaps exposes the limit of what was doable -- a limited capability to either set oneself on fire or attempt to set oneself on fire, in order to cause panic and confusion.

Whether screening failure contributed may be offset by the limiting conditions imposed on bomb-maker beliefs on what actually can be put through screening. If one views the plot as some kind of ways and mean 'test,' which is certainly not certain but implied by some news stories, its still an unscientific and random proposition with relatively poor and weak choices in instruments.

The good news comes with the bad news: al Qaeda-imitating or directed terrorists resort to ever more desperate attempts even as most such attempts fail or are broken up before execution. This accelerated in 2009 in the US, most obviously as a simple and direct response to continued bombings, assassinations, and occupations carried out by the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and other Muslim countries. It is a strategy of some small success because of the good potential for prompting overreactions from the US government, the consequences of which usually include more civlian deaths in the Muslim world.


Condom and/or underwear bomb FAIL. Not ingenious, but desparate

"Bomb materials had apparently been sewn into his underwear ..."


"According to a preliminary analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a highly explosive substance."

And here.

A high-ranking law enforcement official told CBS News that the suspect apparently used a syringe to inject a chemical into the powder, which was located near his groin. It is a technique not seen in previous attempted attacks and it's possible that this incident was a test of whether the materials could pass screening and how effective they might be at causing damage, the source said.

Here, too.

From a Nigerian newspaper, the Guardian:

"The would-be bomber reportedly started his journey from Nigeria . It doesn't matter that he was not detected at the Amsterdam Airport and that nobody suspected him while he was airborne in the Western airspace: more questions are likely to be raised about all flights emanating from Nigeria. For, at the heart of the Abdul Mutallab incident is both home and international security. We need not quibble over the Nigerian side of it: security at Nigerian airports is lax. Oftentimes the screening machines do not work. Airport security would go through your luggage with their dirty hands. Many of them don't even bother to wear gloves. I saw one guy inspecting one passenger's (I guess dirty) underwear, and then he was to go through my own bag, I quickly moved to another security personnel. Instead of using metal detectors, on many occasions, the officials frisk you with bare hands, pressing your pockets, with some of the mischievous ones trying to touch what they should not. An allegedly privileged child like Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab may not even need to go through security screening. Big men and their wives and children are often piloted through security; they could go straight to the tarmac to board the aircraft, depending on the scope of their influence. With the power of cash, anything can be taken onto an aircraft in Nigeria.

"The story is also not good for Islam. The would-be bomber being a Muslim further strengthens a growing suspicion and stereotype, and an established profile of the terrorist in the mind of the West: the terrorist as Al-Qaeda, the terrorist as

A country that loses its head or overreacts when something like a 'condom bomb' is deployed, successfully or not, is a country which has lost whatever war it is fighting.

On the flip side of the coin, when you're down to 'condom bombs' or related materials, you're just about out of resources and/or resourcefulness.

Contrary to what you'll probably read in opinion pieces in the coming days -- on the brilliant enterprise and adaptability of terror efforts.

Updated Monday

Too complicated for the jihadist, too prone to failure

If accurate, this news describes something that seems more complex than the carrier was capable of handling reliably. And that there was a decent likelihood of fizzle.

Many years ago, DD taught grads and undergrads in a variety of chemistry classes. When asked to slap some reaction demonstration together in the lab, even one reliably tested -- a standard to which this bomb-maker perhaps did not adhere -- they often were incapable of doing things correctly without over-the-shoulder guidance. And some not even then.

This is not a knock on such students but, rather, a comment on basic human capabilities when operating from inexperience.

"[Law enforcement men] say he tucked below his waist a small bag holding his potentially deadly concoction of liquid and powder explosive material.

"Law enforcement officials believed the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation.

"An apparent malfunction in a device designed to detonate the PETN may have been all that saved the 278 passengers and the crew aboard Northwest Flight 253. No undercover air marshal was on board and passengers and crew subdued the suspect when he tried to set off the explosion. He succeeded only in starting a fire on himself.

"Security experts said airport 'puffer' machines that blow air on a passenger to collect and analyze residues would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab. Most passengers in airports only go through magnetometers, which detect metal rather than explosives.

"Abdulmutallab was treated for burns and was released Sunday to a prison 50 miles outside of Detroit."

Note appearance in stock story from AP of the pooting machine, pictured below, the one that blows little farts of air into your cracks so that a quick mass spec can be done on the bomb hidden in your cleft.

The pooting machine.

Or, where was the zNose? Also much hyped around 2006.

Or the machine that looks through your clothes at your ugly buck-naked self that was always on the news a year ago?

The point that seems obvious, to me anyway, is that you can have the biggest industry in the world devoted to inventing all manner of rubbish and there's no way to eliminate human error and frailty from daily practice.

Of course, you do get a system which is designed to yell ever more loudly that technology and more stringent practices are the answers whenever the most ridiculous examples of humanity inevitably crawl through screens successfully, usually by lucky accident, less commonly through talent.

Of potential interest, from where I originally posted the image of the 'pooting machine' -- which was distributed by McClatchy and most have run in hundreds of newspapers back in 2006.


“The raw materials to make this compound are available anywhere, in hardware stores, agricultural stores, pharmacies, supermarkets,” he said. “And they're really cheap. I have calculated that to bring down an airplane it will cost you, at retail prices, $35.”

"This is going to take funding,” said Sean Moore, vice president for sales and marketing at Irvine, Calif.-based HiEnergy Technologies, Inc.," wrote the St. Petersburg Times in its story, "Technology rushing to catch up with liquid bomb threat."

"Moore’s company has developed a scanner that bombards packages with neutrons to determine the molecular structure of the contents within. It reportedly can locate explosives in both solid and liquid form, but so far hasn’t been sold to any airports . . . 'We already have the capabilities. It’s just a matter of getting aligned with the right partners,' Moore said."

"A process called Nuclear Quadrupole Resonance scans people or objects with low-frequency radio waves to identify the molecular structure of a substance. The waves produce an echo that gives a signal for each chemical element . . . A suspicious target also can be bombarded with subatomic particles called neutrons. When a neutron strikes an atom, it gives off a distinctive gamma ray that identifies the atom," wrote McClatchy reporter. Just the thing for the barely high-school-educated airport workers cum nuclear resonance chemists to operate!

If you can make a bomb [and stuff it up your crotch and give the giant but weak-in-leadership nation a fainting spell], the defense, sophisticated in its elegance and simplicity, is furnished by Dick Destiny. Everyone has to take off their clothes and don a [smock] made of thin paper (or perhaps a bath robe), distributed before boarding, and which can be disposed of upon exiting the plane.

From here.

Keywords: Amsterdam, al Qaeda, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, Detroit, Nigeria, Yemen


Blogger Irvine Engineer said...

1. The Saudi rectal bomber would
have taken down the plane.

2. Win: stuff got aboard and initiated. Win: publicity
and reminding of vulnerability.

3. Speculation: PETN primary with
sugar + chlorate initiator,
sulphuric acid in the syringe.

A filled condom in your crotch will
be hard to detect.

There's also the demonstrated Chechnyan plan with explosive bras or bellies.

12:49 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

Yeah, I was going to make a ref re stuffing it up one's ass but you've beaten me to it.

Re the use of acid as part of a detonation sequence. This is a bit rhetorical but I'd like to see someone apply con sulphuric acid to PETN molded to their skin. I'd be willing to bet it would burn any bomber so painfully and so quickly he'd never be able to keep it together long enough for the detonation to occur.

The other thing that comes to mind is why not recruit really fat guys and hide stuff in the folds of their gut?

And I'm not being tongue in cheek, just musing that whoever the so-called master bombers are, they're not showing much in the way of winning hands.

Having said that, if there are enough tries, blind luck might ensure a success now and then.

And you're right -- in the country where the leadership and media have glass jaws, its a win even when a FAIL.

Myself, I'm gonna have a Pabst this afternoon. The Eagles are on.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the "problem" is trivial. How? I will not say, but it's trivial. (Of course it does require a fair chemist.) That said, I am reminded of Burroughs - every time there's a shooting spree they blame the people that did not do it. It's logical that this little escapade was an inside what else's new, eh?

9:37 AM  
Blogger George Smith said...

More of the same from the last few years, sadly. Everything terrorists are proposed to be able to do, has at one time or another, been labelled easy.

We have a small nation economy-dwarfing industry devoted to figuring out the many ways of easy-ness.

So what's the limiting factor and why do we still have airlines, cities, anything?

Even a Sidney Alford would have to spend some time on plans, not just lash something small together and tell some anile weirdo to secret it in his underwear or wrap it around his thighs and squirt it with something else when he thought the time was right.

Anyway, yes -- the newspaper opinion writer from Nigeria pointed out that everyone blames those who didn't do the shooting.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Irvine Engineer said...

Just to be clear: I doubt that
sulphuric sets off PETN directly. But
you put PETN at the bottom
of the condom, with sugar+chlorate
mix at top. The latter you ignite
with the syringe, its exothermy
sets off the PETN.

You see, this was an exercise in
non-electrical detonation.

Personally I'd add a little aluminum
powder to the transition area
between chlorate and nitrate in
the condom.

And note the PETN probably wasn't
molded to his skin; a condom down
there perhaps sewn or glued into
place is going to spoof a schlong.

a very small minimal radius
for detonation (thus its use
in primacord) which makes it
quite useful for the space-constrained
bombadier. Most explosives require
a certain diameter lump to go bang.
That esoterica is typically omitted
from press explanations.

Your comment re fat people is
apropos, I've read FBI advisories
about folks moving contraband in
folds eg in jails. I'd also note the "beer belly" prosthesis for men and again the Chechnyan women.

There are other Win besides aboard/triggered/publicity: we learned that there aren't enough air marshalls from Amsterdam during holidays, that there aren't enough scanners, etc. Poor opsec, though predicatable (and apparently guessed by Al Q). Also learned about
dual Lists and how you can report
your kid to an embassy yet he can
still fly in. Also learned that
a "clean" commando can get in.


looks like lentil flour would work
with sufficiently good perox.

Those who live in glass Empires
ought not be world bullies.

11:36 AM  
Blogger George Smith said...

Yeah, that was imprecise of me.

But the explanation reinforces my point made above in reference to students that while the chemistry may seem simple to some, having someone like this guy do it -- or anyone like him -- and hoping for a jerry-rigged explosion even if someone can demonstrate on a table in Yemen isn't particularly resourceful or a guaranteed recipe for frequent success. Which is some good news with all the bad.

And that immediately accelerating plans to wipe out another handful of people in the Pakistan tribal areas or getting toadies in Yemen to do the same thing isn't directly productive.

By now, many have noted that immediate security measures -- the removal of Muslims or anyone who looks Muslim from airlines for making noise, the forbidding of use of the airplane toilet to Muslim men, is just more of the usual flailing crap meant to look good for people who don't think about things too closely.

11:51 AM  
Blogger George Smith said...

This will leave you speechless:

HONOLULU – President Barack Obama says he has ordered a review of the nation's watchlist system and of its air safety regulations, and has asked his national security team to keep up the pressure on terrorists aiming to attack the U.S.

1:38 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

The plan -- security by harassment of passengers. The theory being if you squeeze enough people randomly, they crack prematurely. Or would-be terrorists deterred by irrationality.

I am surprised no one has made the proposal to make a separate airline for everyone who looks Muslim.

"[Three] airport security agents frisked everyone at [some] gate, including babies, prompting one to scream loudly in protest. On the plane, crew announced that the toilets would be shut down the last hour of the flight and passengers would not be able to eat, drink, or use electronic devices.

The warning that the bathrooms would be shut down led to lines 10 people deep at each lavatory. A demand by one attendant that no could read anything either elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter.

Book bombs, it was only a matter of time until someone in the government remembered they used to hide squirt guns and contraband in them in high school.

Removal of fake arms and legs ought to also be on the slate.

Colostomy and urostomy bags, too, because they have the capacity for some volume.

No using of the bathroom because you might be removing your 'plan' filled with something or other. (See Papillon.)

4:50 PM  
Blogger Ralph said...

I have noted that OHbama has stated he 'will not rest' until all the plotters are found.

Somehow I doubt that this will be allowed to disturb his vacation.

Yet another missed-truth published.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Irvine Engineer said...

Yet another comment.

EDS that use neutron activation
will run into a severe problem
---neutrons 'activate' ordinary
elements. Make them radioactive.

The sodium in your blood will
be activated. Your fillings.
Sure, its small. But its still
ionizing rad, and there is no
known safe additional dose.

(Note that I have uranium
ores etc in a personal collection, so I'm not rad phobic. Just predicting the fallout.)

X-ray scatter is probably more
harmless as the x-rays only penetrate skin depth, and you've
probably already layed down at
the beach, which may be worse.

Its amusing to design something
that works even if the transport is in hospital gowns, strapped
and sedated, surface scanned with
any of the above. Which is the endgame for air transport, it seems.

Fear surgeons who want to make
a difference. Its not just
for heroin-muling puppies anymore.

Glass Empires ought remember
even palestinians can throw stones.

7:33 PM  

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