A Simple Plot

Liquid explosives provide an easy means of terror. How does law enforcement detect, prevent and respond to this threat?


The plot was simple: Take 14 bottles of contact lens cleaning solution aboard 11 airliners all bound for the United States. Inside the bottles, instead of contact lens solution, there would be deadly and unstable nitroglycerin, which is completely odorless.

The terrorists planned to detonate the bombs using simple Casio watches as timers, and small flashlight bulbs as detonators, with the filament being used to ignite the lethal mixture.

The plot would have been one of the most deadly in the history of terrorism. An estimated 4,000 people might have been killed and commercial aviation would have been brought to its knees.

Of course, we all know this did not happen because on August 10th British Authorities arrested the bomb plotters, and that very same morning, travelers in the United States were already subject to discarding perfumes, toiletries and drinks. And today, we are all subject to the well-known security process of carrying on only enough liquids that fit in a clear plastic bag. Right?

Wrong. The above description is not referring to the foiled terror plot in London plot, but a scheme hatched more than a decade before and planned for January 21 and 22, 1995.

The text actually refers to Bojinka (which literally means "boom" in Afghani). The plot was conceived by Ramzi Youssef, the nephew of Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the bomber of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks respectively.

In other words, the fact that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has belatedly been made aware of liquid explosives does not mean they have not been a very important part of the terrorist arsenal for a very long time. Bringing down an airliner requires very little explosive force due to the already pressurized cabin.

Should law enforcement be concerned?
Liquid explosives have rarely been used in recent suicide bombings and certainly not in VBIEDs (vehicle-born improvised explosive device) where the quantities deployed and obvious instability of many liquid explosives mitigate against their use. So should law enforcement be concerned about liquid explosives?

The August 10 plot to bomb airlines traveling to the United States from the United Kingdom offers a partial answer and additional questions. Although the investigation is ongoing, it now appears that Lucozade bottles, with false bottoms, would be used. The Lucozade, (an English version of Gatorade) would be in the top part of the bottle, while the false bottom would contain the explosives. It has been reported by authorities the liquid would be used to make either triacetone triperoxide TATP or/and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine. These would be mixed on board presumably. Either explosive can be easily activated by friction, heat or electrical charge.

Some have questioned this: A British Army intelligence officer with decades of anti-terror and explosives experience has said these explosives could not have possibly been armed on the planes. But this intelligence officer has not studied his terror history.

The same Ramzi Youssef was able to plant a bomb on an airliner, with 1/10 the material he intended to use in the major Bojinka plot. He boarded a Philippine Airlines flight bound for Manila stopping at Cebu. He was able to arm his nitroglycerin bomb in the lavatory of the airplane and place it under a seat in the plane. Four hours later the bomb went off and killed a Japanese business man and caused many injuries but the mini-version did not bring down the plane.

Terrorists are nothing but inventive when it comes to achieving their aims. Any one knows a good size bottle of Nitro, exploded at crowded venues such as stadiums or theatres can cause fatalities, but the panic which ensues as a result contributes to many more deaths and injuries. In fact, Youssef first tested his liquid bomb prototype in a Manila theater, where it caused several injuries.

Law enforcement should definitely be concerned, even if they are not directly responsible for aviation security. Damage can be caused in many other scenarios and venues.

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