Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/08/pants_bomber/

Pants bombs vs America: The infernal conflict

Why the nether regions are not a good place to pack explosives

By George Smith

Posted in Law, 8th January 2010 13:53 GMT

Comment The underwear bomber almost perfectly illustrated the hard place the US has found itself in since 9/11.

For all Washington's efforts to wall off the US, it is still unable to prevent the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs from walking in off the street, volunteering for service at the local al-Qaeda affiliate in the impoverished Muslim nation of the moment, Yemen, and throwing themselves at airplane security.

The only upside is that such volunteers are generally of low quality, perhaps guaranteeing that their jerry-built experiments in explosive chemistry will fail.

While there's been no definitive explanation of the mechanics of the underwear bomb - media confusion, the usual American authority desire to suppress information, and the nature of the thing itself - the pictures that have been released indicate Abdulmutallab succeeded only in charring his device and parts of himself.

What may have been thought to be workable in a vacant lot somewhere in Yemen was hardly a plan that was sophisticated or foolproof in the hands of a 'warrior' like Abdulmutallab. He had to get the device onto an aeroplane where it had to be yanked out of the trousers in the bathroom after being sat and sweat and farted upon for hours, then squirted with a syringe of acid, the syringe partly destroyed by the corrosive effect.

It was desperate and flailing, too constrained by its design and the requirements needed to make it work to make it a game-changing formula.

However, as the subsequent national stir made clear, it was still a success. The media became hysterical and the nation's political leadership overreacted, with the usual result. We got more vows of increased punishment to be meted out in the faraway place - Yemen - and were promised more technology and watch lists promised to keep the childlike populace safe.

Previously, on 30 December, the Los Angeles Times had informed its readers of a rectum bomb.

"In an elaborate ruse, a bomber posing as a repentant extremist tried to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's security chief," it reported. "[An al Qaeda] operative prepared an explosive device that was inserted into the rectum of the Saudi militant, who flew from Yemen to Jidda, Saudi Arabia to meet with the prince... He got through airport and palace security before the explosive was triggered by a call from Yemen, killing him but only wounding the prince.

"The explosive was PETN..."

This was flabbergasting - and wrong. But in the US, and for the mob journalism which accompanies every domestic terror story, careful thought has no place.

In fact, other media outlets had bitten on the rectum bomb story back in September, notably the Murdoch-owned New York Post, whose editors thought it was mighty funny, calling it the "butt-bomb" and dubbing the perpetrator an "ass-assin".

"A suicide bomber recently put himself next to a member of the Saudi royal family, having outwitted bomb-detection machines in the palace, to set off an explosion using a charge that had been hidden in his rectum," reported the Post claimed.

However, other stories at the time were more reasonable, indicating it was an underwear bomb, hidden there because Islamic mores would preclude a search. The Saudi government pooh-poohed the rectum bomb because it exploded with a flash of light, indicating exterior placement, and the explosives were thought too toxic to have been inside the rectal mucosa for hours. It also detonated poorly, killing its wearer but only injuring the target.

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.