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Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible?
Let's whip up some TATP and find out
C Greene in Washington
Published Thursday 17th August 2006 09:42 GMT
Analysis The seventh angel poured out his bowl
into the air;
And a loud voice came forth out of the temple of Heaven,
From the throne, saying, "It is done!"
Binary liquid explosives are a sexy staple of Hollywood thrillers.
It would be tedious to enumerate the movie terrorists who've
employed relatively harmless liquids that, when mixed, immediately
rain destruction upon an innocent populace, like the seven
angels of God's wrath pouring out their bowls full of pestilence
Click here to find out more!
The funny thing about these movies is, we never learn just
which two chemicals can be handled safely when separate, yet
instantly blow us all to kingdom come when combined. Nevertheless,
we maintain a great eagerness to believe in these substances,
chiefly because action movies wouldn't be as much fun if we
Now we have news of the recent, supposedly real-world, terrorist
plot to destroy commercial airplanes by smuggling onboard
the benign precursors to a deadly explosive, and mixing up
a batch of liquid death in the lavatories. So, The Register
has got to ask, were these guys for real, or have they, and
the counterterrorist officials supposedly protecting us, been
watching too many action movies?
We're told that the suspects were planning to use TATP, or
triacetone triperoxide, a high explosive that supposedly can
be made from common household chemicals unlikely to be caught
by airport screeners. A little hair dye, drain cleaner, and
paint thinner - all easily concealed in drinks bottles - and
the forces of evil have effectively smuggled a deadly bomb
onboard your plane.
Or at least that's what we're hearing, and loudly, through
the mainstream media and its legions of so-called "terrorism
experts." But what do these experts know about chemistry?
Less than they know about lobbying for Homeland Security pork,
which is what most of them do for a living. But they've seen
the same movies that you and I have seen, and so the myth
of binary liquid explosives dies hard.
Making a quantity of TATP sufficient to bring down an airplane
is not quite as simple as ducking into the toilet and mixing
two harmless liquids together.
First, you've got to get adequately concentrated hydrogen
peroxide. This is hard to come by, so a large quantity of
the three per cent solution sold in pharmacies might have
to be concentrated by boiling off the water. Only this is
risky, and can lead to mission failure by means of burning
down your makeshift lab before a single infidel has been harmed.
But let's assume that you can obtain it in the required concentration,
or cook it from a dilute solution without ruining your operation.
Fine. The remaining ingredients, acetone and sulfuric acid,
are far easier to obtain, and we can assume that you've got
them on hand.
Now for the fun part. Take your hydrogen peroxide, acetone,
and sulfuric acid, measure them very carefully, and put them
into drinks bottles for convenient smuggling onto a plane.
It's all right to mix the peroxide and acetone in one container,
so long as it remains cool. Don't forget to bring several
frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively
marked "perishable foods"), a thermometer, a large
beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You're going
to need them.
It's best to fly first class and order Champagne. The bucket
full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might
possibly be adequate - especially if you have those cold gel-packs
handy to supplement the ice, and the Styrofoam chiller handy
for insulation - to get you through the cookery without starting
a fire in the lavvie.
Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all
of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several
trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place,
put a beaker containing the peroxide / acetone mixture into
the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the
acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction
temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets
too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if
it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly
sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.
After a few hours - assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes
haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew
to your activities - you'll have a quantity of TATP with which
to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it
for an hour or two.
The genius of this scheme is that TATP is relatively easy
to detonate. But you must make enough of it to crash the plane,
and you must make it with care to assure potency. One needs
quality stuff to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable
scale," as Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson
put it. While it's true that a slapdash concoction will explode,
it's unlikely to do more than blow out a few windows. At best,
an infidel or two might be killed by the blast, and one or
two others by flying debris as the cabin suddenly depressurizes,
but that's about all you're likely to manage under the most
favorable conditions possible.
We believe this because a peer-reviewed 2004
study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society
(JACS) entitled "Decomposition of Triacetone Triperoxide
is an Entropic Explosion" tells us that the explosive
force of TATP comes from the sudden decomposition of a solid
into gasses. There's no rapid oxidizing of fuel, as there
is with many other explosives: rather, the substance changes
state suddenly through an entropic process, and quickly releases
a respectable amount of energy when it does. (Thus the lack
of ingredients typically associated with explosives makes
TATP, a white crystalline powder resembling sugar, difficult
to detect with conventional bomb sniffing gear.)