Monday, October 6, 2008

Liquid Explosives

Over on the TSA blog there is a piece about liquid explosives and the agency’s effort to deploy better technology to detect these chemicals. Emotions and hyperbole run rampant on any discussions concerning liquid explosives. One camp believes the threat posed from binary liquid explosives (two chemicals carried separately when combined create a powerful explosive) is legion. This camp is made up of government officials and security experts that believe binary liquid explosives offer terrorists an effective and easy means of creating a bomb in mid-flight. The other camp tends to be scientists or skeptics who point out the principle of combining two liquids may seem simple but the actual execution cannot be easily achieved in-flight. The chemicals required are volatile and can be spilled before ever being employed.

Both sides quote various to reinforce their points. In trying to ascertain the validity of one side or the other, I was unable to find case studies of attempted smuggling of binary chemicals. The London case has not released details so we still are unaware of if binary liquids were truly used. Some would argue the lack of case studies is because of the success of chemical detection technology. I find that argument weak when you consider that most countries DON’T have bans on bringing liquids on board. Others may say the scientist and skeptics are right, liquid explosives are too difficult to mix on-board. Perhaps but I think the whole liquid explosives discussion misses a much more basic point; it isn’t the weapon that the terrorists are concerned about but the target. The target of course in all of these discussions is the aircraft. Trying to mix volatile chemicals on-board an airliner has a low probability of success. If attacking the aircraft is the ultimate aim, there are other means of attack with higher probabilities of success. Aircraft are most vulnerable to attack during take-off and landing. Different weapons could be employed against airliners under such circumstances. These weapons don’t rely on clumsy terrorists trying to mix the wrong chemicals or spilling the contents before they can be used to blow-up the aircraft.

For instance, there have been random reports since 9-11 of lasers being focused on the cockpit of airliners while in flight. The lasers would need to be aimed with some type of targeting system which in-turn implies high cost and sophistication. Such lasers are most likely vehicle-mounted making it easier to conceal and relocate for multiple attempts. The weapon would only have to temporarily blind pilots to create the potential for a crash. Certain lasers operate in a spectrum that does not emit a visible beam. Using sophisticated laser weapon may seem like something out of a novel but if previous reports are correct, certain groups may already possess the technology.

Of course this assumes the group wants to target the aircraft while in flight. Aircraft could be sabotaged while on the ground. Passengers can be attacked while still in the terminal. Chemical or biological agents could be introduced into the terminal air handling systems. Food supplies, as we now know, are extremely vulnerable to contamination. Navigation systems can be jammed or incorrect data can be sent. Navigational aids are airports could be destroyed or compromised. I’m not saying steps have not been taken to reduce these threats as well. My concern by focusing almost exclusively on one type of weapon (liquid explosives), we may be exposing ourselves to a completely different type of attack.

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