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"Making a Liquid Bomb Is Not Hard, Experts Say"
Friday, August 11, 2006
Making a Liquid Bomb Is Not Hard, Experts Say
By Rob Stein
The Washington (DC) Post
Many easily obtained liquid chemicals can be used to produce an explosive
capable of causing a devastating fire or blast aboard an airplane, experts
While hesitant to provide a specific recipe that would aid terrorists,
several experts said it would not be difficult to obtain a liquid explosive
or chemical mixture that could be smuggled in.
"From available commercial material, and with the right basic knowledge, it
doesn't take too much expertise," said Tal Hanan, a security expert at
Demoman International Ltd. in Israel. "Any second-year chemical engineering
student, probably with the right guidance and some handbook they pull off
the Internet, could probably compose such an explosive."
Nitroglycerin may be the best-known liquid explosive. Though terrorists
tested the explosive in the mid-1990s as part of a plot to bomb 11 airliners
over the Pacific, several experts said it is relatively hard to get and very
difficult to handle.
"If it freezes, it detonates. If it falls just two or three feet, it will
detonate. It's so sensitive that it's not practical," Hanan said.
One of the explosives most commonly used by Middle East terrorists is
triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a highly potent explosive used by would-be
"shoe bomber" Richard Reid. Usually found in the form of a crystalline
powder, experts said TATP could be dissolved into a liquid that could be
carried aboard a plane.
"Some terrorists have actually held TATP in water in order to reduce its
sensitivity," Hanan said.
But terrorists could simply carry aboard a plane the two chemicals used to
make TATP -- acetone and hydrogen peroxide. Acetone is the same substance
found in most nail polish remover. Hydrogen peroxide in a very diluted form
can be purchased at any drugstore as an antiseptic. The highly concentrated
versions necessary to create an explosion can be obtained commercially.
When the chemicals are mixed together, "chances are it will instantaneously
and violently react," said Neal Langerman, a chemical industry consultant
who acts as a spokesman for the American Chemical Society. "If it didn't,
you can stick in a detonator, hook it up to the battery in your iPod, and
Even if the chemicals fail to create an explosion, a major fire will
probably be sufficient, Langerman said.
"Fire aboard an aircraft is a very bad thing," Langerman said. "If you
create a hot, energetic fire, the aircraft is in very big trouble."
Many other substances could potentially be used to create a fire or an
explosion, such as oxidizers used to clean pools or a combination of
ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.
"When you bring them together, you have the most common commercial
explosive," said Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives expert at the University of
Whatever might be attempted, current airport security measures would easily
miss such substances.
"They don't have the ability to detect liquid explosives generally," said
Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security shifted $61 million of its $110
million research budget to meet operational needs, such as to pay for
passenger screeners, delaying the development of a device for detecting
liquid explosives and other things, the Government Accountability Office
reported in February 2005.
Members of Congress also say that the department's focus on improving
nuclear detection technology has disrupted efforts to integrate
government-wide research on a range of biological, chemical and explosives
Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson acknowledged that DHS research budgets
have "fluctuated over the years" and that refocusing research priorities on
short- and medium-term projects is "among our core priorities." But, he
added, developing "detection tools of all types" for explosives of all types
is a top goal.
"We are doing some testing of machines that test liquids," Jackson said.
"There's nothing that's currently suitable for mass deployment, but there
are some promising technologies that we're looking at."
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