USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

By: Joe Schwarcz PhD
Author, USASEF Expo Performer and AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program Speaker

i-a2e1dd9aba10ed79522bbfa16dbed276-Joe_Schwarcz2.jpg“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.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    September 30, 2011

    Because someone hellbent on making a bomb will answer truthfully?

  2. #2 Mu
    September 30, 2011

    No, because now they need four guys to carry 3x3oz through security instead of one guy carrying a liter bottle. We all know that they never can get four guys together in one conspiracy.

  3. #3 mxh
    September 30, 2011

    Let’s just say that the next time you are asked if you have liquids or gels, be glad they’re asking.

    So, by your logic, since it’s possible that a terrorist could swallow potentially explosive chemicals, if airport security starts requiring CT scans or colonoscopies, I should be glad?

    Airport security is an insult to personal freedoms and breaks the “unwarranted search and seizure” rule of the 4th amendment. Sorry, Dr. Schwarcz I would never be glad to lose my constitutional rights.

  4. #4 Scote
    September 30, 2011

    Yes, “Be Glad They’re Asking About Liquids and Gels”…well, unless they are contact solution, of course. You can take as much of that as you want. Or anything with a prescription. Or…

    Yup, I’m so glad I can’t take a PB&J on a plane because gels not in a 3 oz bottle inside a quart bag aren’t allowed on a plane–I’m just sooooo much safer.

    You may have a handle on the chemistry but I don’t think you’ve really got a handle on the whole security/security theater issues involved with the TSA.

  5. #5 Daen de Leon
    September 30, 2011

    Seriously? No. I am not “glad they’re asking”.

  6. #6 wintermute
    September 30, 2011

    What we have to remember is that terrorists never innovate, so that we know the next plot will be exactly like the one we just foiled. This means we know that keeping bottled water off the plane and inspecting everyone’s shoes is boung to foil all future terrorist attacks.

    There is no chance that terrorists will take advantage of the fact that it now takes so long to pass each individual through the security checkpoint that we have created large crowds of people in an area that it is trivial to get explosives / automatic weapons to; their goal is to destroy aircraft, not people.

    Or, we could just do what foiled *this* attack, and investigate specific, suspicious individuals using good, old-fashioned police work. But that means being “soft on terror”, I suppose.

  7. #7 Stevarious
    September 30, 2011

    The question would only (possibly) be justified if they had actually caught the terrorists with that particular question. They didn’t. They caught the terrorists with old-fashioned ‘searching the bags of people we already know to have threatened us’ and ‘investigating suspicious activity’.

    This whole ‘give up our liberties to protect ourselves from vague threats’ thing? That’s the terrorists winning.

  8. #8 P Smith
    September 30, 2011

    I’m of two minds on this paranoia about containers.

    (1) Several years ago (2003? 2004?), I was working in Seoul, Korea, and was at Incheon airport to leave for a vacation. I had a 500ml coffee in my hand (purchased in the airport) and was planning to finish it before I went through security so I would have only my carry-on in hand. I was standing and drinking it about 30 metres from the security entrance.

    The guards at the doorway started waving me over, seeming to suggest that I could go through. There was no line and they had nothing to do, so maybe that’s why, but I was incredulous. I was even more mortified when they passed the cup around the metal detector, not letting me carry it through.

    If I were a fanatical nutbag, I could have hidden a hand grenade in the cup, and possibly gotten it onto a plane. That was the only metal detector I passed along the way, and it could have been circumvented. I kept my mouth shut at the time but upon my return I sent a short anonymous note to the airport management about the lax security.

    (2) I recently went through Hong Kong between two connecting flights. I got held up for nearly 20 minutes and their security flipped out because I had a 60ml bottle of contact lens solution. I packed that bottle deliberately because of its small size (within the rules of most countries) and its manufacturer’s seal. Other airports had never made an issue of such items before, but the Chinese freaked and I nearly missed my connecting flight. They wouldn’t even let me throw it in the garbage, and they also rifled through my entire carry-on because of it, again flipping out as if my headphones and MP3 player were a bomb. It didn’t happen to any other people while I was there.

    I am not suggesting that white people shouldn’t face serious scrutiny (re: Chechen terrorists) but I’ve never experienced that sort of overreaction in ten years of flying – I thought at one point they were going to take me away. I had been through that airport six times before that without incident and dozens of times elsewhere, so it’s not as if I’m the sort who poses a threat or is belligerent with security. I’ll be avoiding that airport in the future if I can, as well as wearing only glasses from now on when I travel.

    .

  9. #9 mr
    September 30, 2011

    I still don’t understand people who cry 4th amendment violations at airport security. The term used by the DHS is “administrative search” which has been implemented since the 1970s. No one is being unreasonably searched. Everyone is given the proper advisements prior to entering the security checkpoint, what is and isn’t allowed. And there is no seizure of anyone’s belongings, because everyone is given the option to step back out of the line and either check their belongings under the plane, or do what ever they want with them. Not to mention all the signs posted practically everywhere prior to entering the checkpoint. “You are entering an area where all persons and their belongings may be subject to search”. Everyone who walks through agrees to these terms and conditions. It is unfortunate that this is what it has to be like, but no one can argue that nothing should be done.

  10. #10 wintermute
    September 30, 2011

    mr: Are you arguing that, if the TSA were to institute mandatory nudity in the airport and on aircraft, with no carry-on luggage, and invasive body cavity searches, you’d be OK with this so long as they put up signs advising you of this? Why not just put signs at the exits of all border points / ports / airports advising that “adminstrative searches” may be performed at any time while you’re in the US? Would you feel that that poses a challenge to the 4th Amendment, given that you can opt-out of such searches just by not being in the US, and that everyone is clearly informed that possessing anti-government literature is forbidden?

    The problem is that many people need to travel long distances, and there is no feasable way of doing that, other than by commerical airliner. When you have a choice between being searched without cause, and being fired because you refuse to go on a business trip, is there any reasonably way to argue that you can opt out of that search.

    And no. You do not have the option to check your belongings under the plane at this point. By the time you get into the security line, your bags have already been checked, and going to buy a new bag to put your bottles in, going back to the check in desk, paying the excess luggage fee and going to the back of the security line is likely to make you miss your plane. Not to mention that if you only remember / discover that you have contraband on you when you get to the security checkpoint, then you have no options at all.

    Two anecdotes:
    1)I used to have, on my keyring, a seatbelt cutter. The blade is an eighth of an inch long, and flanked by two plastic guards over an inch long; there’s no way it could be used as a weaon, and I didn’t think of it as being contraband. It was taken from we with no appeal, and no chance to put it in checked luggage, or have it returned at a later date.
    2) I was flying transatlantic with my infant daughter, who was unwell at the time, and could only keep down Pedialite. We had rather more than the 3-ounce limit in our carry-on, because it was either that or she would be seriously dehydrated by the end of the journey. We were not allowed to bring it on the plane (and could not, at this stage, go back out of security to put it in checked luggage), which resulted in lots of baby vomit and a significantly more unpleasant flight for us, and for the people around us. But at least we didn’t smuggle juice on the flight, right?

  11. #11 oldebabe
    September 30, 2011

    I don’t understand your type of acquiescence to physical and emotional control. The whole security thing is going out of any reasonable bounds. Paranoia and control run rampant, and administered by lower level employees, and in some places to a weirdly high degree.

    Previous restrictions were time consuming and irritating to have to package things just so, not take or carry certain things, certain restrictions on how and what to pack, or wear certain clothes, just because, and take off shoes… or else… the backed up lines… At Buenos Aires, certain persons and their carryons were screened when getting OFF the American airplane… even intercountry flights were just as security over-concious as here… and yet on one occasion (coming back thru Houston of all places) I was just waved through with a smile… (I’m an old and skinny woman, was that it?)… That was then; and now, however, on top of it all, there are the new body inspections, feel ups and searches, which they say are only (ONLY!) on an intermittent basis added on, and no one, not old people, not disabled, not babies, not children, no one is exempt, so, no way will I plan to fly.

    Kindly recall that airline pilots refused to participate, and won. Sensible.

    Until this sort of practice is ameliorated I’ll drive, or train or boat instead – luckily I have that option. I feel sorry for those who don’t, and are forced to endure it.

  12. #12 Kandy Collins
    September 30, 2011

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  13. #13 Kandy Collins
    September 30, 2011

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  14. #14 William
    October 1, 2011

    “I’ve looked into the chemistry”? Wow, that just sounds so convincing.

  15. #15 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  16. #16 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  17. #17 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  18. #18 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  19. #19 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  20. #20 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  21. #21 Kandy Collins
    October 1, 2011

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  22. #22 VL
    October 1, 2011

    Wow just wow!
    “I am not suggesting that white people shouldn’t face serious scrutiny (re: Chechen terrorists) but I’ve never experienced that sort of overreaction in ten years of flying”

    This pretty much says it all! That Psmith chose to bring up race (the weak “I am not suggesting” because of Chechens!! defense notwithstanding) sums up the attitude of the majority in the US. Fell free to throw the constitution out … as long as it’s just those brown guys. If you have never seen that sort of overreaction you just need to talk to a few non-white folks. Do you think those outrage inducing reports of the poor white grandmas being picked on by TSA is because they just pick on them or because similar par for the course treatment of a “suspiciously” colored granny is considered acceptable and par for the course?

  23. #23 Tony P
    October 2, 2011

    But here’s something that always amazed me. We’re so focused on the aircraft that we almost ignore the non-sterile parts of the airport.

    But detonating something there would be just as bad. Just try to imagine what you could pack into a standard suitcase. If you’re willing to die for your cause you could cause a rather large crater to occur where once there was once an airport concourse. And even the best profilers would miss it entirely.

    What we have is security theater.

  24. #24 Maggie D
    October 3, 2011

    This story makes me more thankful for the airport security because I have not yet heard a story of them actually catching someone that was dangerous. It makes me rethink the stereotype that is going around about airport security and how everyone thinks they invade privacy without a cause. I never really believed that stereotype but I heard about some people who very strongly did.

  25. #25 wintermute
    October 4, 2011

    Maggie: You’re thankful for airport security because there’s no evidence it does any good?

    Can you clarify that?

  26. #26 Emily
    October 4, 2011

    It is interesting to note that all of the materials to create such an explosion can be bought over the counter and by anyone. It would be all to easy for someone to create something that should be complex chemistry by mixing simple household materials, yet with a devastating effect. With some powdered juice, a battery, peroxide and nail polish remover, people have figured out how to create a bomb. That is amazing, yet not something to be proud of.

  27. #27 Pyronius
    October 5, 2011

    I’m just fine with airport security. Know what I take with me for carry on? Wallet and a book, problem solved.

    Airport security is almost negligible if you’re not so needy that you have to have 40 lbs of crap to get you through even a half day flight, let alone the short domestic ones.

    I don’t feel my rights are being violated at all…Especially since the founding fathers had no concept of airplanes.

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