By: Joe Schwarcz PhD
Author, USASEF Expo Performer and AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program Speaker
“Do you have any liquids, gels or powdered fruit drinks?” Except for the powdered fruit drinks, such questions have become routine at airports. But back on July 10, 2006 I had no idea why I was being asked this bizarre question. Why would the agent be concerned about my toiletry and dietary habits? I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The only connection with flight that sprang to mind was with Tang, the orange-flavoured crystals that John Glenn took along on his orbital mission in 1962. But we were traveling from London to Budapest and that trip was presumably not going to take us through outer space.
Having just spent a harrowing day at Heathrow queuing for bathrooms and fighting for food after the cancellation of all flights, I gave a curt “no” for liquids or gels, and muttered something about powdered fruit drinks not being my cup of tea. At the time all I knew was that the massive disruption was caused by some sort of terrorist threat. Only when we got to Budapest did I hear that the threat had something to do with a “liquid bomb.” And amazingly, with Tang! My chemical curiosity was of course aroused, but the matter took on a personal touch when I learned that Air Canada’s London-Montreal flight, the one we were going to take back home a week later, was one of the ones targeted. Which specific day the terrorists had chosen to try to blast seven planes out of the sky was not clear, but the attacks were apparently imminent, judging by the fact that the terrorists who had been under extensive surveillance for a month were suddenly arrested on the eve of July 6.
The whole caper began when British security secretly opened the baggage of Ahmed Ali Khan as he returned from Pakistan. Khan had raised some red flags because of his hard-line anti-Britain political stance and when his suitcase was found to contain a large number of batteries and a supply of Tang, officials decided to mount a surveillance operation. It seemed unlikely that Khan was into battery-powered gizmos or that he was bent on cleaning his automatic dishwasher (yes..Tang because of its citric acid content is great for that) or that he had developed such a fondness for orange-flavoured coloured water that he had to take a supply of Tang on foreign trips.
After one of Khan’s associates was seen disposing of empty bottles of hydrogen peroxide, a video camera was secretly planted and caught the men constructing some sort of device out of beverage bottles. When Khan was seen checking out flight schedules at an Internet café, the decision was made to arrest him and his bunch. Of course details of this operation were not released but somehow reporters got wind of hydrogen peroxide and Tang being involved.
And then the speculation started. Newspaper accounts proposed that the terrorists were actually going to make a bomb from chemicals smuggled through security disguised as beverages by coloring with Tang. Acetone, hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid would be used to make triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a powerful explosive. The necessary materials would not be hard to acquire. Acetone is readily available as nail polish remover, sulphuric acid is the acid in car batteries, and the concentrated hydrogen peroxide needed can be made by boiling off the water from the 3% peroxide sold in pharmacies. Indeed TATP can be made quite easily by a competent chemist, and it has been used in many a suicide bombing. But synthesis requires careful temperature control, mixing, filtering and drying, hardly the operations that could be carried out in an airport or airplane toilet.
As more information came to light during the trial of the terrorists, other possible scenarios emerged. Apparently one of the videos taken at the “bomb factory,” as the house where the gang met was dubbed, had shown Khan drilling a hole in the bottom of a bottle with syringes and battery casings nearby. The exact details of what the men were doing and the various chemicals found after the arrest were described to the jury but were not made public.
Speculation was that the fruit crystals dissolved in concentrated hydrogen peroxide were to be introduced by means of a syringe through the bottom of a bottle that had been emptied by the same means. Hydrogen peroxide is an excellent source of oxygen and the sugar in the powdered beverage can serve as a fuel, setting the stage for an explosion. All that is needed is a detonator which can be made by filling a hollowed out battery with hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD). Sounds like a complicated task, but HMTD can be made from hydrogen peroxide ammonia and formaldehyde. Khan and his fellow terrorists could have done this.
Supposedly the idea was to fill a bottle with the explosive mixture, seal the hole at the bottom with Krazy Glue, and take it aboard the plane as a beverage. At the appropriate time the cap would be removed and the detonator-filled battery shell dropped into the bottle. The explosion would then be triggered with a jolt of electricity from a camera. The jury was in fact shown a video of an explosives expert carrying an orange-colored drink into the mock up of an airplane fuselage and causing a devastating explosion. What exactly was in the bottle we do not know because the technical details were only for the eyes and ears of the jury.
The accused admitted to making explosives but claimed that they were just going to set them off in a public place to make a political statement without causing harm. Defense lawyers pointed out that in fact no flight reservations had been made. But they couldn’t explain away the suicide videos found after the arrests and threats of jihad uttered. The jury was convinced of the men’s guilt and the major players were sentenced to life in prison.
So, could they have pulled it off? I’ve looked into the chemistry in much greater detail than I described here, for obvious reasons. Let’s just say that the next time you are asked if you have liquids or gels, be glad they’re asking.