Monday, May 19, 2008

The Science Behind 3-1-1

Over the weekend, Fox News published a story about the UK liquids plot. Here’s an excerpt:

“Far-fetched as it sounds, bombs made from hydrogen peroxide and the breakfast powder drink Tang could have taken down seven planes bound for the U.S. and Canada - using flash cameras to trigger the explosions.

…The alleged plot, and the excellent police work that went into busting it, resulted in the tough carry-on restrictions passengers face before boarding an airplane. Knowing the dangers of liquid explosives should make the hassle of tossing your bottles when traveling a lot easier to bear.”

A recent BBC article described the liquid explosive:

“The alleged bombs would involve 500ml plastic bottles of the Oasis and Lucozade soft drinks. A sugary drink powder, Tang, would be mixed with hydrogen peroxide, used as a hair bleach, and other organic materials.

Hydrogen peroxide and the other ingredients can become explosive if mixed to a specific strength. Mr Wright said hydrogen peroxide had been used in "previous terrorist incidents".

The mixture would be injected into a bottle with the help of a syringe. The bottle's cap would not have been removed and the hole would have been resealed, said Mr Wright.

A second substance, a type of high explosive, would be hidden within an AA battery to form the small charge required to detonate the main bomb.

The charge would be detonated, said Mr Wright, by linking the bottle of explosives to a lightbulb and a disposable camera. The charge from the camera's flash unit would be enough to trigger the explosion, he said. The BBC has not comprehensively detailed the alleged bombs' composition.”

Since the 3-1-1 rule is a hot topic on the blog, I met with the head of TSA's Explosives Operations Division, Ed Kittel, to chat with him about the science behind 3-1-1. Before coming to TSA, Ed worked at the FAA Explosives Unit and Navy Explosives Ordnace Division. Ed was part of the team that investigated the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and numerous other actual and suspected airplane bombings worldwide. Ed and his staff, in conjunction with other federal and international explosives experts, analyzed the UK explosives mixture, tactics, techniques, and procedures and tested its capabilities.

Lynn: One of the most frequent questions we get is: Is the UK mix a binary explosive?

Ed: While there were two primary ingredients, this composition is not a binary explosive; it is a “solution,” as one ingredient was to be dissolved into the other – making it possible to inject into a container using a syringe. The explosive was going to be pre-mixed, in a predetermined ratio, and carried onto the airplanes with an intact security seal. The remaining components of the bomb would have been separated during screening and hooked together later. All of the pieces were artfully concealed to attempt to “beat the system.” That’s why Transportation Security Officers are trained to detect individual components of improvised explosive devices, not just a fully assembled device.

Lynn: So with this UK liquid explosive, would the men be mixing the components at the airport or on the plane?

Ed: The liquid explosives solution was to be prepared at their safe house and injected into the sports drink bottles prior to coming to the airport. Additionally, we have seen no indication that they intended to combine the contents of multiple smaller bottles after screening.

Lynn: How did explosives testing play a part in creating the 3-1-1 rule?

Ed: As part of our analysis, we looked at some of the more likely liquid explosives recipes and compared them to descriptions contained in the intelligence reporting. Following a series of explosives tests of these materials performed by the federal government, we recommended the 3-1-1 protocol to senior TSA leadership as a viable alternative to the total liquids, gels and aerosols ban. Understandably, I cannot comment on the specifics of intelligence, formulations or the testing, nor would you want me to. By understanding and managing the risks associated with this threat, TSA was able to permit some exceptions for small quantities of liquids, aerosols and gels to be carried by the flying public. We also consulted with a number of our international partners to harmonize 3-1-1 countermeasures across the European Union and North America. TSA didn’t go this alone. In fact, this is the first time that the flying public has had the exact same security measures consistently applied across most of the world’s airports. It’s a model that we want to follow in the future.

TSA also introduced a number of other measures both at and beyond the screening checkpoints to minimize the risk of explosives getting onboard. The 3-1-1 protocol is only one of the multiple layers of security; many of which are invisible to the public. Passengers who need to have some small quantities of liquids, gels and aerosols may now do so, and 3-1-1 accommodates those needs while adding a significant level of security designed to protect the flights. Without 3-1-1, we would have had to maintain the total liquids ban, which was virtually unenforceable in the long-term, as it had a serious impact on checked baggage screening and cargo operations. Remember, the liquids, gels, and aerosols ban is all about the container and its ability to hold an explosive; it’s not about the original contents. Sometimes, people may not understand that and they become frustrated by the protocol as a result. You can be sure that we put our very best people on this, as did our Federal and international partners. 3-1-1 was the result of some excellent research by some of the best people our country has to offer.

Lynn: Is there anything else coming out of the UK trial that you find interesting or important to note?

Ed: The conspirators were very determined to beat airport screening systems by disguising all of their bomb components in common carry-on articles. Their goal was to destroy seven aircraft on the same day in nearly simultaneous attacks. This is very similar to Ramzi Yousef’s “Bojinka Plot” back in January 1995 in Asia. This case shows us that terrorists still consider airplanes to be major targets. As a result, TSA is continually looking at homemade and new explosives as well as artful concealment techniques to train our Transportation Security Officers. Our new Bomb Appraisal Officer (BAO) Program is placing hundreds of seasoned bomb technicians at airports nationwide to coordinate those efforts and improve screening to thwart these kinds of plots.

Lynn: Many say that the liquid threat is not scientifically possible. What do you have to say about that?

Ed: The U.S., UK, and other European security partners have all tested the liquid explosive that was planned to be used in that plot and we have all found that it is a viable liquid explosive. In fact, we have posted a video clip of one of these tests that was conducted by one of the National Labs out west. Make no mistake about it, this is the “real deal.”

We have also seen liquid explosives attacks before. For example, on November 29, 1987, Korean Airlines Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea killing all 115 on board. North Korean agents conducted that attack using a liquid explosive concealed in a duty free whisky bottle. That attack used a different homemade liquid explosive but there are quite a few of them out there that are very powerful explosives.


EoS Blog Team