A recent conversation with Professor Ehud Keinan not only gave me much food for thought, but also made me look at the issue of improvised explosives in a completely different way.
First, let me tell you who Keinan is. Here's his official capsule bio:
"Professor Ehud Keinan of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, is the former Dean of the Technion's Faculty of Chemistry. He is a member of Acro's board of directors and the company's chief scientific advisor. Keinan is one of the world's foremost experts in the science of improvised explosives, winner of the Technion award for security science and technology, and consultant to U.S. and European government agencies in the area of improvised explosives."
In other words, this guy knows what he's talking about. And what he's talking about is a little homemade explosive known as "TATP" -- triacetone triperoxide.
TATP is the explosive that Richard Reid, known as the "shoe bomber," carried aboard American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami, back in 2001. A flight attendant detected the odor of a burnt match and tracked it to Reid, subsequently thwarting what was apparently an attempt to turn the flight into a suicide mission.
TAPT is the explosive of choice for many suicide bombers. It's been used countless times in attacks on Keinan's homeland, Israel, and in other fatalities such as the bombings in London's underground and the explosion aboard an airliner killing a Japanese businessman targeted at taking down the entire plane. The terrorist in that case planned to bomb many other planes as well as strike against the American government on home soil. A chance discovery during a fire call prevented his plots from succeeding.
But, Keinan says we're all on borrowed time. "What we've seen so far is the tip of the iceberg -- there's a new type of terrorism."
Professional terrorist organizations have used more conventional explosives in the past. TATP is the weapon of choice for independent killers. One look at how simple and cheap it is to make an explosive using TATP and it soon becomes obvious that this substance is going to gain ground in terrorist cells.
Basically composed of acetone, hydrogen peroxide and an acid, the ingredients for TATP can be purchased for about $17. "You can buy [the components] at Home Depot, on the Internet, have it delivered by UPS," says Keinan, "and the acid can be anything, even a can of Coke -- basically whatever you have at hand."
And here's more bad news: not only is it cheap and easy to make, but Keinan says it is virtually undetectable and easy to get past the TSA. "I went all around the country with samples," he says. At Reagan International Airport not long after 9/11, Keinan's fingernail clippers were confiscated, but not his small vial of TATP, which he characterizes as "enough to bring down the plane."
Keinan says to make no mistake, attacks using this explosive will happen. "It's not a question of 'if' -- it's a question of 'when,' " he says. Even high school students make it -- try checking out the videos of kids blowing stuff up on YouTube.com.
Keinan has recently traveled around this country promoting a gadget the size of a pen that field tests for the presence of TATP's components. It's something officers can carry in their pockets and as simple to use as drug field tests.
The Israeli citizen admits to a proprietary interest in this device. Selling it makes him money. I have no problems with that. People who make police technology, body armor and assault vehicles make money from their enterprises, too. And they keep cops alive in the process.
Law enforcement officers in general are paranoid. That's because they know what's out there. That "paranoia" can, and does, save lives. While Keinan's "pen" might not change the world, it could avert a terrible disaster -- maybe in your jurisdiction.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.