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Pants bombs vs America: The infernal conflict

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It was reckoned a chemical fuse had been used for detonation.

Another story from multiple sources told of a man in Somalia who had tried to board a plane in Mogadishu with a syringe, a bag of explosive and a liquid. Occurring in November, it had apparently been ignored in the US. But the confluence of stories points to underwear bomb plans being deployed around the Horn of Africa prior to the Detroit incident. And not only did they not work well, news of them was also around.

"PETN is the explosive core of Primacord, where it develops a velocity rate of 21,000 feet per second," reads one informal vendor paper, Analysis of Odors from Explosives using an Electronic Nose.

"Detonating cord is insensitive to friction and ordinary shock, but may be exploded by rifle fire. It also detonates sympathetically with the detonation of an adjacent high explosive."

This seems to cast some light on why underwear bomb chemical fuses aren't the select choice in improvised detonation. Having said all this, the possibility exists that it will work some day.

For example, there are pages and pages of rickety chemistry experiments in books like The Poor Man's James Bond, with variations on the use of sulphuric acid, chlorates, perchlorates and other inflammables, suitable for some time of chemical incendiary. There are still more pages on how to make a variety of improvised chemical fuses using small quantities of white phosphorus (although this would be a tricky handle), permanganate, powdered aluminium and sulphur. All this was originally taken from US Army manuals and copied around the world many times.

Where can one hide such materials now that the cat is out of the bag with regards to underwear? Folds of fat on an obese person?

In the paranoid atmosphere of oversurveillance, it doesn't take much work to imagine a classified memo at the Dept of Homeland Security or the TSA warning to be on the lookout for the bizarre-looking terrorists masquerading as ostomate patients, even though such people are generally not young men.

"A urostomy or colostomy bag and its tubing could give cover for small amounts of PETN and chemical fusing," it might go. "Such things have the additional value of being designed to prevent unseemly leaks and odors although not designed for compounds more active than those produced by the human body."

This writer remains a bit skeptical of the rectum as a good hiding place. Too damp, and making it too easy to intoxicate, fatally debilitate or cramp the mule during delivery. Money in the 'plan', a la Papillon is one thing. Incendiary compounds are quite another.

However, the dilemma is clear.

Human error being always guaranteed, on both sides, no amount of technology - whole body scanners, electric noses, bomb-sniffing machines and expanded computerized watch lists (particularly in the hands of the US, where laymen have been conditioned to view them as magic wands) - can wholly stop men with improvised chemistry experiments in their private places. Yet no public official, under risk of being fired, can speak of this obvious thing.

In fact, one might theorize there's a practical limit achieved in which the complexity inherent in the accumulation of security systems and data and the limiting human capital required to operate and sift it erases any theoretical benefits and gains beyond a certain point. And that's a place on the graph we are already past. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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