Just How Easy Is It To Mix a Bomb Onboard a Plane?

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Reader dead_elvis directs us to a skeptical account of on-air bombmaking from The Register:

The fabled binary liquid explosive—that is, the sudden mixing of hydrogen peroxide and acetone with sulfuric acid to create a plane-killing explosion, is out of the question. Meanwhile, making TATP [triacetone triperoxide] ahead of time carries a risk that the mission will fail due to premature detonation, although it is the only plausible approach.

Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we've passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy.

It should be small comfort that the security establishments of the UK and the USA—and the "terrorism experts" who inform them and wheedle billions of dollars out of them for bomb puffers and face recognition gizmos and remote gait analyzers and similar hi-tech phrenology gear—have bought the Hollywood binary liquid explosive myth, and have even acted upon it.

Whole thing here.

NEXT: The JonBenet Perplex

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  1. EOD guy I know says the Register is full of it, that there a plenty of different binary explosives. My hazmat training leads me to believe him.

    Astrolite comes immediately to mind.

  2. Are the remote gait analyzers designed by the Ministry of Silly Walks?

    Kevin

  3. It’s especially difficult to mix the ingredients when you have snakes swarming you.

  4. kevrob wins, hands down.

  5. Nope, SR wins.

    Should we really be surprised that the Security-Industrial Complex wants us to be scared so that the feds will spend more on security gizmos?

  6. “fail due to premature detonation?” I think they have pills for that now.

  7. Wingnutx,
    There may be other types of explosives, but the authorities say TATP was the one that the alleged bombers were going to use.

  8. Uh wouldn’t a premature explosion still have the desired effect? A premature explosion in a garage is bad because the mixer dies and the target lives. A premature explosion in the airplane still has the desired explosion inside the target.

  9. bomb puffers and face recognition gizmos and remote gait analyzers and similar hi-tech phrenology gear

    That line kind of makes me distrust the entire article. Bomb detectors and face recognition software aren’t pseudoscience like phrenology was — they really do work, and really do have legitimate uses as security measures.

    So if the author suffers from such an excess of cynicism that he dismisses even proven tools like face recognition, I’m inclined to think that he didn’t give an accurate or thoughtful analysis of liquid explosives, either; he was obviously more concerned with making a rhetorical point than with being accurate or objective.

  10. Mo-

    I think the point was that if there’s a premature detonation during synthesis, it will be too weak to destroy the plane but strong enough to alert people that something is going on, ending his plan.

  11. bill – they may say TATP in a lame attempt to convince any would-be copycats to try that. There are a lot of easier to synthesize compounds–in that sense, all explosives are binary compounds. Someone else mentioned astrolite (and from a quick lookup it looks easy.) Our HS chem teacher synthesized flash paper (nitrocellulose, not quite explosive) and picric acid (WWI artillery charge) in lab. The synthesis is dead easy, though it requires conc nitric and sulfuric acids. Look it up online.

    So, I remain skeptical of all claims, both for and against. What I do note is that the most effective part of the war on terror continues to be police investigation, and contact with the muslim community. It’s hardly an original observation; I believe John Kerry made the same one in the presidential debates.

  12. Two successful (?) examples…KAL 858 and PAL 434

    http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/003672.html

  13. On September 10, 2001 what would you have given as the odds for a handful of terrorists highjacking 4 planes and managing to crash 3 of them into buildings?

    Extremely unlikely doesn’t equal impossible. Nor does it mean that terrorists wouldn’t try it.

  14. Mr Greene says “very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention.”

    Oh yeah, going to the lavatory several times on a plane flight is not going to draw attention to you. He forgot to say – “Be sure to have a doctor’s note confirming you have a weak bladder.”

  15. Maybe I’m not reading this right, but just because terrorists are stupid doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t spend money to thwart their perhaps stupid plans. I’d bet people who rob convenience stores aren’t in the upper quintile of standard IQ tests either. …that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend money on a security system if you operate a convenience store.

    …and these terrorists were apparently getting ready to do a trial run, right? That doesn’t seem so idiotic to me.

    Anyway, I don’ think government waste, in the minds of most people, is good enough to assuage people’s fear–especially when the government’s busting terrorists before the bastards can act. I’m still clinging to the argument that our principles and our liberties are worth more than whatever the terrorists can take from us. …and that people who argue to the contrary are either un-American or cowards.

  16. I would like to encourage terrorists to do a lot of chemistry experiments. And I encourage them to do lots of practice runs with those explosives. Carry the explosives in your pockets. Maybe put them in your shoes and try running. Put them in a bag and bounce the bag around a lot, to simulate conditions at the airport. Do vibration tests on your explosives. See how much heat they can endure.

    Guys, the only way to get this right is to keep experimenting with explosives. Don’t be like the amateurs who make their first batch and then run to the airport. Keep practicing. See what the upper limits are. Do lots of tests that involve handling the explosives under trying conditions.

    Put explosives in your pockets and then practice martial arts, to simulate a situation where the passengers try to restrain you. And do the martial arts drill with another member of your cell, to maintain operational security. Oh, and don’t go half-ass and only keep a small quantity in your pocket during the drill. The only way to get this right is to use the same quantity that you’d use in the field. So practice martial arts with large amounts of explosives on your person.

    Also, your chemical synthesis may produce fumes. Since operational security is of the essence, don’t do it in a ventilated area. Somebody might notice the fumes. Do all of your chemistry in an enclosed area, where the fumes won’t escape.

    Sincerely,

    A left-leaning libertarian who obviously hates America and wants the terrorists to win, and who would never, ever, ever engage in satire.

  17. Mac,
    I doubt saying TATP as a ruse would be very successful seeing as how it can be easily found on the net how difficult it is to work with. You may also notice that many of these so called “liquid” explosives are really crystalline podwers. They also require very hazardous materials like strong acids to produce. They also require a little more than a couple of minutes in an airplane bathroom to make. Can anyone on these boards name a binary explosive, that can be contained in two 20 ounce plastic bottles (I’m not quite sure but I bet any concentration of nitric or sulphuric acid strong enough to make explosives would eat through a plastic bottle), that can be mixed easily in 5 minutes in an airline bathroom, capable of bringing that plane down? Then I might start to worry.

  18. That line kind of makes me distrust the entire article. Bomb detectors and face recognition software aren’t pseudoscience like phrenology was — they really do work, and really do have legitimate uses as security measures.
    So if the author suffers from such an excess of cynicism that he dismisses even proven tools like face recognition,

    The Register has long been covering facial recognition technology, and generally finds it wanting. Security agencies and the companies that make the stuff both want it to work so badly that they seem to be in denial about how effective it really is for actually making us safer. Calling it phrenology is just their snarky sense of humor.

    disclaimer: I haven’t seen anything on it in a while, so maybe in the last year facial recognition has improved tremendously? Even if it worked very well, I would still question its usefulness.

  19. Facial recognition may very well work for all I know. But it is only useful if you know who the terrorists are.

    And if you know who they are, facial recognition at the airport should be the last line of defense, not the primary line of defense.

  20. I want this motherfucking bomb off this motherfucking plane

  21. I thought it was amusing when the scare was happening. Photos were showing passengers being forced to pour the contents of their liquid containers onto one big plastic bin. Binary yucky stuff-do your thing! By command of the TSA!

  22. “What I do note is that the most effective part of the war on terror continues to be police investigation, and contact with the muslim community.”

    Why does Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, hate America?

  23. Why bother with explosives? There are lots of things that generate deadly gasses when combined – heck we even put some in artillery shells, to mix on the way to the target. The net effect is little different between releasing Sarin or phosgene in a plane and exploding a small bomb.

  24. I think thoreau has the best anti-terrorist plan we’ve got. I would add the recommendation that they do all this stuff in some place really hot and without air conditioning.

    Also, while I agree with the general premise of the article, that this stuff is really hard to make and requires behavior that would tip anyone off, my confidence is weakened by the knowledge that my husband was able to board planes in Austin, Tx. and San Jose, Cal, on August 4 of this year with two Bic cigarette lighters in his shirt pocket. We went through security twice and neither group noticed.

  25. There are lots of things that generate deadly gasses when combined

    Like ammonia and bleach? Wouldn’t have to set up a lab in the john, either.

  26. Why bother with explosives? There are lots of things that generate deadly gasses when combined –

    Soy nuts and green Jell-O do it to me every time.

  27. If you want to blow up ain airliner, all you need is one of tens of thousands of heat seaking AA missiles given to murderous thugs during the 80’s & 90’s under the cover of “freedom fighting” in the hands of a “freedom fighter”at the end on an airstrip. TaDAAAA!

  28. Karen-

    A friend suggested this evening that we write a terrorist training manual and put it on the internet. Include detailed bomb-making instructions that, if followed, would result in the aspiring terrorist’s premature death.

    To appeal to religious terrorists we could call it The Book of Armaments. Or maybe the Sura of Armaments.

    “First shalt thou pull the pin. Then shalt thou count to thirty. Thirty shall be the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be thirty.”

  29. thoreau wrote: “Include detailed bomb-making instructions that, if followed, would result in the aspiring terrorist’s premature death.”

    That already exists. It’s called “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”.

  30. thoreau, I like that idea. How about “The Prophecy of Armaments?” That gets the apocalyptic fruitcakes.

    “Thou shalt not count to thirty-one, neither shalt thou count to twenty-nine, neither shalt thou count to twenty-eight . . . .”

  31. On September 10, 2001 what would you have given as the odds for a handful of terrorists highjacking 4 planes and managing to crash 3 of them into buildings?

    Why, I would’ve never considered it possible for a moment!

  32. So ten stupid terror teams mix TATP on ten transatlantic flights and get ten premature explosions. Maybe only one or two planes crash? Isn’t that bad enough?

    Or say no planes crash; just bulging lavatory doors, jihadi guts and acid fumes all over the aircraft. The incident is still going to lead to enormous economic damage: grounding of all air traffic for a period, impacts to airline, travel, hospitality, tourist industries; passenger lawsuits against everybody on Earth; anger of the Western Street inflamed again (which is likely to result in military retaliation, against whatever enemy country currently has the best target inventory.)

    We know suiciders have successfully synthesized and used TATP explosives. They have real-world experience in this crap. How many of these chemist/skeptic critics have actually made the stuff themselves?

    Some chemists may disagree, but I’m glad the plot got shut down. Christ, can’t we enjoy even _one_ success in the WOT without cynics and skeptics trying to snipe and second-guess the people who are trying to protect us?

  33. Christ, can’t we enjoy even _one_ success in the WOT without cynics and skeptics trying to snipe and second-guess the people who are trying to protect us?

    Not when “trying to protect us” immediately becomes “confiscating theoretically dangerous toiletries at the airport and then donating them to the homeless” (as was done in Phoenix).

  34. That already exists. It’s called “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”.

    Beat me to it.

  35. Can anyone on these boards name a binary explosive, that can be contained in two 20 ounce plastic bottles (I’m not quite sure but I bet any concentration of nitric or sulphuric acid strong enough to make explosives would eat through a plastic bottle), that can be mixed easily in 5 minutes in an airline bathroom, capable of bringing that plane down?

    ta-daaa:

    To make Astrolite G, add 200 g of ammonium nitrate to a large beaker and stir in 100 mL of hydrazine, mix well. For Astrolite A add 40 g of aluminum powder to the Astrolite G mixture. It is best to make the mixture immediately before use because the ammonium nitrate becomes sensitive to detonation once hydrazine is added. Professional blasters make their mixtures in the field at the blast site for greater safety. Each component is measured out in separate containers, transported to the site, mixed, allowed to sit for 20 minutes, and detonated. As separate components they are very safe (well as safe as hydrazine can get) and the mixing is easy. Astrolite can be detonated even when it has been poured out on the ground and left for 4 days.

    http://www.roguesci.org/megalomania/explo/astrolite.html

    hydrazine is toxic as hell, but if you’re a suicide bomber anyway then who cares.

  36. Ammonium nitrate is not a liquid.

  37. Ammonium nitrate is not a liquid.

  38. Shecky’s account of the TSA-supplied binary liquid combining bin reminds me of something that happened to a friend coming back into the US from Canada. He’d bought some eggs and was told at the border that they weren’t allowed in. His options were to either drive back and return them or toss them in the dumpster, which he did.

    Inquiring minds want to know: Where does the dumpster, full of broken eggs and rotten beef and chicken, get dumped?

    That’s not the end of the story. A week and four or five crossings later my friend (whose girlfriend lives in Canada) was directed to the search area immediately after his licence plate number was entered into the computer. His truck was throughly searched because there’s now a database entry in Washington DC identifying him as someone who once attempted to import illicit groceries.

  39. just carry some solid sodium or potassium under a thin layer of oil to keep water vapor in the air from prematurely igniting it (it’s humid here in Florida), then once on board, wash it down the sink with lots of water – you only have to carry one component on board when the other is water.

  40. we’ve passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy

    Har har, funny indeed until it’s your plane breaking in half before your eyes at 30,000 feet.

  41. People of sense typically disregard anything in The Register. It’s a real rag.

  42. Sorry folks, face recognition technology is so profoundly easy to spoof, that it’s nearly useless.

    The systems merely produce nearly random false positives and false negatives when used in real environments. And in this case, it’s not the false negatives which should worry us, it’s the false positives.

  43. People of sense typically disregard anything in The Register. It’s a real rag.

    People of sense typically disregard ad hominem fallacies too. …and appeals to authority.

  44. Biologist: Why not use cesium? It likes water less, but I imagine it’s harder to get ahold of.

    Although, I wonder, with as violently and quickly as those reactions happen, would you be able to get enough of any of those into the holding tank for the lav before it exploded.

  45. The entire “binary explosives” facet is a red herring.

    The problem isn’t one of trying to prevent people from mixing two liquids to create an explosion on the plane but one of preventing the use of any liquid explosive at all. Most explosives begin their lives as liquids (at room temperature) and are then integrated into a solid substrate to make them more stable. For example, integrating liquid nitro glycerin into diatomaceous earth creates the solid dynamite.

    Historically, terrorist have relied on solid explosives (with one possible exception) because that is the form of manufactured explosives most readily available. Most airport security, except for El-Al, didn’t bother checking for liquid explosives due to their rarity. Now that homebrew explosives are on the table, hundreds of liquids could be used as explosives, incendiaries or poisons.

    Personally, I would use nitro glycerine. It’s trivial to make and its instability has been wildly exaggerated by hollywood. (Before dynamite it was mass produced and shipped world wide). A water bottle full (it looks clear) could bring down any plane.

    Didn’t anybody on this thread take chemistry?

  46. I’m with biologist: why screw around with “binary liquids” at all when there are so many solid compounds that react violently with water?

  47. Didn’t anybody on this thread take chemistry?

    Maybe things were different when you were in school, but nobody ever taught me ANYTHING cool in college chemistry.

  48. Timothy: I didn’t know that about cesium. (imitating Deforest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy) I’m a biologist, dammit, not a chemist!

    and I might get accused of helping the terrorists here, but to address your concern about getting it down the sink before reacting: put it in a medicine container of some sort, ask for a glass or bottle of water to take your medicine with, mix and hold next to a window – explosive decompression when you blow the window out at 20,000 feet

  49. If I were a terrorist who was prepared to die smiting infidels, I wouldn’t blow up a plane. I’d blow myself up in an airport security line. In a crowded airport, that could easily kill 100 people. And the inevitable response would almost certainly mean the end of air travel as we know it.

  50. thoreau: Been done. In the 80’s, the PLO (I think) sent teams around to European airports that simply took out automatic weapons and opened fire at random. All on the same day. It didn’t end air travel.

    But that was my first thought when I saw the new security after 9/11: long lines, lot of people, no security prior to the security, a fat target. An intelligent security scheme would never allow lines or backups and that will be the next wrinkle as soon as terrorists stop obsessing over planes and get back to the basics of killing people, not things.

  51. James-

    How would you have security before security without creating a new line of juicy targets that a person could attack without first being screened?

    Also, is there any explosive that could be made by mixing snake venom with an innocuous liquid?

  52. thoreau: Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? But I think the issue is too few security ports that are trying to do too much. Checking passes, shoes, IDs, and pockets all at once leads to slow lines. A seemingly more open, layered security scheme of increasingly intrusive checkpoints as one gets closer and closer to the plane would break up the traffic and have shorter lines.

    My father tells me now you have to sign in when you visit the office of the US Forest Service in Northern Wisconsin. For a libertarian, this is a good thing. It’s hard for the government to maintain its projected image of tireless service to the common man when it treats every citizen as a suspect.

    I might see SOAP tonight if I can’t find anything good on TV. I can’t wait to hear their explanation of why an assassin that can get close enough to plane to fill it with venomous snakes doesn’t just put a bomb on the damned thing.

  53. 1 shot Yeagermeister and a half pint of Red Bull. How hard is that?

  54. I had been pondering this since first hearing the story.
    I mean on flights where every seat is taken, imagine 23-a walking back to 36-c, and saying, “Here are the dozen glycerine suppositories. You do have your vials there of nitric acid, right? Hand them over for delivery to 43-b.”
    Aren’t flight attendant call buttons going to be pulled by 36-a and b, even before 43-a and c?

  55. Put de lime in de coconut and steer it all up!

    I say, DOCTOR!

  56. I say:
    He who sleep in wet bed sleep with Osama.

  57. For a terrorist plot to succeed it is not necessary to actually destroy anything or kill anybody. All that is really necessary is to terrify people. The death and destruction are just enhancements.

    It is likely not very easy to assemble a binary liquid explosive on a plane or even to gather the components. It was probably just as unlikely that someone like Jose Padilla could aquire enough radioactive material to make a meaningful “dirty bomb”.

    What is important is that the planners of these attacks are able to recruit the number of people that they can. Even the exposure of these cells is a “success” from the planners point of view. It leaves the populace wondering where they will strike next.

    Not to mention the fact that it bogs the system down with endless security diverting people from productive pursuits.

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