C Greene in Washington
Published Thursday 17th August 2006 09:42 GMT
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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.
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.
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
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
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. ®