Was Plot To Blow Up Airplanes With Liquid Explosives Feasible? British Journalist Questions The Chemistry
In the days since the British foiled a plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes with liquid exposives, a lot of questions remain unanswered.
How close were the would-be terrorists from going forward with their plan? British officials say the plotters hadn't bought airline tickets, and some didn't have passports. Apparently, the question of how imminent the plan was led to a debate between British and U.S. officials as to the timing of the arrests.
Here in the U.S., why did the Department of Homeland Security issue new rules allowing some liquids and gels to be brought aboard airplanes, when it had no way to screen such explosives in U.S. airports? In light of the new rules, have Transportation Security Administration employees been given more training into such things as how to notice which passengers are questionably nervous?
But in spite of all those questions, the preface that terrorists want to use liquid explosives is clear. The media has told us repeatedly, via interviews with government officials and experts, that it would be easy for terrorists to make liquid explosives.
"A first-year chemistry student could do it," university professor Bob Burk told Toronto's Globe and Mail.
"You can find the recipe on the Internet if you look," David Williams, a retired FBI forensic explosives expert, told the Baltimore Sun.
Of course, that leads us to one other question: If liquid explosives pose such a threat -- at least three government agencies wrote prior to the recent terrorist threat that the U.S. should be concerned with such explosives -- why has DHS thus far failed to test technology provided by the Japanese in January that detects liquid explosives?
Could it be that the preface is wrong? Is it not feasible to bring chemicals onto a plane, mix them, and ultimately detonate them?
That's the conclusion of a report by British journalist Thomas C. Greene, based in part on a peer-reviewed 2004 study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, "Decomposition of Triacetone Triperoxide is an Entropic Explosion."
As the Washington Monthly noted: "The good news is that it will make you feel a little more confident about the safety of flying overseas. The bad news is that it will make you feel a little less confident about the terror announcements of our national governments."
Here's the nut of what Greene wrote:
GREENE: Making a quantity of TATP ( triacetone triperoxide) sufficient to bring down an airplane is not quite as simple as ducking into the toilet and mixing two harmless liquids together. ... Take your hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid, measure them very carefully, and put them into drinks bottles for convenient smuggling onto a plane. It's all right to mix the peroxide and acetone in one container, so long as it remains cool. Don't forget to bring several frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively marked "perishable foods"), a thermometer, a large beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You're going to need them. It's best to fly first class and order Champagne. The bucket full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might possibly be adequate -- especially if you have those cold gel-packs handy to supplement the ice, and the Styrofoam chiller handy for insulation -- to get you through the cookery without starting a fire in the lavvie.
Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide/acetone mixture into the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else. After a few hours - assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities - you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two. ... While it's true that a slapdash concoction will explode, it's unlikely to do more than blow out a few windows. At best, an infidel or two might be killed by the blast, and one or two others by flying debris as the cabin suddenly depressurizes, but that's about all you're likely to manage under the most favorable conditions possible.