Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/26/gilligan_bomb_terror_liquid_again/

Gilligan's bomb: Is it time to panic yet?

Vicious thrashing fails to stir rotting equine corpse

By Lewis Page

Posted in Law, 26th February 2008 14:14 GMT

Comment Noted ex-Beeb reporter Andrew Gilligan - perhaps most famous for coming out on the wrong end of the Kelly/Hutton/Iraq dossier fracas in 2004 - has been up to a different kind of journalism recently - building bombs for Channel 4.

Operating on behalf of the Evening Standard and Channel 4, Gilligan recruited a top UK explosives expert to make a "liquid bomb" which could be taken on board a plane under current airport security regs. Unsurprisingly enough, the effort has been declared a success, with the bomb being used to blow a hole in an old scrapped airliner.

The bomb in question was made by Dr Sidney Alford, one of the UK's premier explosives and ordnance-disposal experts. "About 400ml" of liquids were mixed in a drinks bottle bought from an airside shop, and triggered using a commercial detonator.

Gilligan quotes Alford as saying: "Terrorists could easily make this device. They could obtain access to the chemicals without too much difficulty. They're not particularly tightly-controlled liquids."

Gilligan goes on to say that "the revelation raises concerns over how effectively air passengers are being protected... two or three terrorists could carry it through security in the permitted quantities without raising suspicion... The test exposes potentially disastrous loopholes in the security regime".

Well, kind of. Actually, US government boffins carried out a very similar test more than six months ago to wide press coverage, so this is a rather old and niffy exposé. Indeed, our own Thomas C Greene revealed the full details of how to make such a device a year before that, scooping Gilligan by quite some distance.

However, not being interested in bigging up a marginal threat, he also pointed out the many practical difficulties involved in mixing up viable, deadly TATP from (fairly) easily purchased peroxide and acetone - and correctly laughed to scorn the idea that it's feasible to do this in an airliner lavatory.

That's not to say that four or five terrorists couldn't pass through security carrying their precursors and patiently mix up a viable batch of TATP in some secluded airside spot - and anyway, gaining access to airside doesn't necessarily mean passing through passenger security. Once the charge is done, the actual suicide bomber takes it aboard the plane. Bingo.

Dr Alford, being a professional, may not have chosen to mix up something as volatile and dangerous as TATP - or if he did he may have taken steps to desensitise it somewhat, not wishing to foolishly blow himself up.

(Your correspondent once spoke to a forensic-explosives boffin from the UK gov lab at Fort Halstead, who described his reaction on being nonchalantly handed several pounds of a similar compound by a blissfully unaware copper back in the pre-9/11 era. He said it had taken years off his life.)

Dr Alford's mix apparently required a proper detonator, whereas proper mad-bomber TATP can be made to detonate using no more than heat or electric current.

Really good terrorists, as Dr Alford points out, can build home-made detonators which could conceivably be smuggled through security buried inside an electronic device. The Provisional IRA could do this, and not being suicidal types they had reason to; but proper barmy suicide fanatics would be unlikely to bother. The whole point of having dets is that most of your charge can be comparatively safe to handle and move about, and the det - which will go off if shown any disrespect - can be kept separate until the last moment and babied.

As of 2005 there were indeed several murderous jihadi scumbags resident in the UK who could actually mix up viable explosives in deadly amounts and who weren't under surveillance. Sensibly, rather than go for a risky caper like trying to penetrate airport security they simply walked onto the Tube, where confined spaces magnified the devices' effect - if not as much as a total structural failure in flight might have. Those men are all now dead, of course, which is what happens to competent suicide bombers - it's a self-correcting problem to some degree. The follow-on 21/7 series of damp squibs indicated that there were several more unknowns willing to die, but that these didn't have the necessary knowhow.

London is still here. Nothing has changed. You can still, any day you want, buy acetone and peroxide, keep trying carefully with small amounts until you learn how to make viable TATP. Then you can make a bomb and take it onto the Tube. If you are willing to die, you can certainly set it off amid dense rush-hour crowds. If you aren't ready to die, you can probably still manage it, to be honest; and if you fail you can try again and again, still being alive - though you'll need to plan carefully to deal with the CCTV.

Hell - as someone who actually can make good TATP, you shouldn't be involved in the operation on the ground at all. Dumb expendable footsoldiers who know nothing should be doing that. But more people means more risk of an informer - which is probably why the average size of terror networks in the UK is just 10 people, according to MI5.

Things in the UK are far from perfect, but in fact it seems that once you get a decent-size group of UK Muslims - even ones who appear to be solid extremists - you probably have someone who isn't happy with mindless mass murder and who will inform the authorities of any such plot.

So you need to stick with your small group of homicidal nutters, keeping your plans totally secret from your community and family. But - as long as you do - you can almost for sure cause a 7/7. You might, with a lot of planning and effort, manage to damage an airliner in flight; but airliners do tend to come through decompressions and structural failures with less trouble than one might think.

Given the many risks around airline security, it probably isn't worth it. The Tube's probably a better bet - or a truck bomb, if you have money and resources. Or do your research and learn how to do fuel-air. Or just steal a petrol/hazmat tanker and drive it into a crowded building at high speed - though that could well get filed under "accident" by the media, and even though you kill loads of people you won't get any of the crucial "terror" hysteria.

But one day, if you get it right, you'll be splattered all over the landscape with dead and injured Londoners all around you. The other 99.999 per cent of us will all be back at work next day, as will all the other Brits, and the wheels of the UK will keep on turning. The basic fairness, decency, and wealth of the place will keep on looking pretty good to people from tough places, meaning that a real, more dangerous, more numerous, unknown terrorist cell will keep on being unlikely.

Even if one does form, competent and hundreds strong like PIRA, it will tend to be riddled with informers and in the end old Blighty will grind it down.

Provided, of course, that nobody panics. Provided nobody starts locking people up for long periods without charge, or giving them hassle at airports because they've been "profiled" - as Andrew Gilligan's chum Philip Baum apparently advocates. Provided that the secret state operates under proper oversight. Provided that racism and religious discrimination don't get out of control.

And always provided, of course, that us media tarts stop whipping up spurious fear. An old sardonic bomb-disposal instructor's turn of phrase might well be adopted by journalism schools, or indeed by Mr Gilligan's new editors.

"We have become the terrorist, haven't we sir?" ®

The writer was once a Royal Navy mineclearance diving officer. He spent the years 2001-2004 on a shorebased diving team, which like most UK military ordnance disposal units acted as bomb squad to the local police forces much of the time. Plain-spoken men who had done tours in Northern Ireland used to put him through difficult re-licencing tests every six months, often saying rude things like the quote above. After all that, the lazy bloody Enemy Within that's supposed to be all over the place totally failed to materialise and only the most rubbish of bombers ever operated on his patch. Frustrated, he left in search of immense wealth and adulation from swarms of nubile women, which is the common lot of every Reg hack. Apparently.