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Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible?

Let's whip up some TATP and find out

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Mrs. Satan

By now you'll be asking why these jihadist wannabes didn't conspire simply to bring TATP onto planes, colored with a bit of vegetable dye, and disguised as, say, a powdered fruit-flavored drink. The reason is that they would be afraid of failing: TATP is notoriously sensitive and unstable. Mainstream journalists like to tell us that terrorists like to call it "the mother of Satan." (Whether this reputation is deserved, or is a consequence of homebrewing by unqualified hacks, remains open to debate.)

It's been claimed that the 7/7 bombers used it, but this has not been positively confirmed. Some sources claim that they used C-4, and others that they used RDX. Nevertheless, the belief that they used TATP has stuck with the media, although going about in a crowded city at rush hour with an unstable homebrew explosive in a backpack is not the brightest of all possible moves. It's surprising that none of the attackers enjoyed an unscheduled launch into Paradise.

So, assuming that the homebrew variety of TATP is highly sensitive and unstable - or at least that our inept jihadists would believe that - to avoid getting blown up in the taxi on the way to the airport, one might, if one were educated in terror tactics primarily by hollywood movies, prefer simply to dump the precursors into an airplane toilet bowl and let the mother of Satan work her magic. Indeed, the mixture will heat rapidly as TATP begins to form, and it will soon explode. But this won't happen with much force, because little TATP will have formed by the time the explosion occurs.

We asked University of Rhode Island Chemistry Professor Jimmie C. Oxley, who has actual, practical experience with TATP, if this is a reasonable assumption, and she tolds us that merely dumping the precursors together would create "a violent reaction," but not a detonation.

To release the energy needed to bring down a plane (far more difficult to do than many imagine, as Aloha Airlines Flight 243 neatly illustrates), it's necessary to synthesize a good amount of TATP with care.

Jack Bauer sense

So 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 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.

We've given extraordinary credit to a collection of jihadist wannabes with an exceptionally poor grasp of the mechanics of attacking a plane, whose only hope of success would have been a pure accident. They would have had to succeed in spite of their own ignorance and incompetence, and in spite of being under police surveillance for a year.

But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security). Nearly everything must now go into the hold, where adequate amounts of explosives can easily be detonated from the cabin with cell phones, which are generally not banned.

Action heroes

The al-Qaeda franchise will pour forth its bowl of pestilence and death. We know this because we've watched it countless times on TV and in the movies, just as our officials have done. Based on their behavior, it's reasonable to suspect that everything John Reid and Michael Chertoff know about counterterrorism, they learned watching the likes of Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (whose palpable homoerotic appeal it would be discourteous to emphasize).

It's a pity that our security rests in the hands of government officials who understand as little about terrorism as the Florida clowns who needed their informant to suggest attack scenarios, as the 21/7 London bombers who injured no one, as lunatic "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, as the Forest Gate nerve gas attackers who had no nerve gas, as the British nitwits who tried to acquire "red mercury," and as the recent binary liquid bomb attackers who had no binary liquid bombs.

For some real terror, picture twenty guys who understand op-sec, who are patient, realistic, clever, and willing to die, and who know what can be accomplished with a modest stash of dimethylmercury.

You won't hear about those fellows until it's too late. Our official protectors and deciders trumpet the fools they catch because they haven't got a handle on the people we should really be afraid of. They make policy based on foibles and follies, and Hollywood plots.

Meanwhile, the real thing draws ever closer. ®

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