Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nothing to Sell But Fear Itself..................

A couple of days ago I was reading up on the binary liquid explosive that the British bombers were going to mix up after they boarded flights to the United States. The explosive, TATP (triacetone triperoxide) is melodramatically called "the mother of Satan" by at least some explosive experts. Here's the problem I had with TATP: It is at it's most explosive in crystal form, not liquid. So, after mixing the liquid precursors, the TATP would have to be allowed to dry before detonation.
TCAP generally burns when ignited, unconfined, in quantities less than about 2 grams. More than 2 grams will usually detonate when ignited; smaller quantities might detonate when even slightly confined. Completely dry TCAP is much more prone to detonation than the fresh product still wetted with water or acetone.
So, the proper chemicals need to be mixed with reasonable care and the resulting liquid, although dangerous, needs to be reduced through drying to its highly unstable crystalline form to be an effective explosive. Imagine this process being accomplished in the spacious confines of an aircraft lavatory as the plane bounces along on a transoceanic flight. That's why this analysis of the liquid bomb plot suggests that the British Bombers were somewhat wishful in their thinking regarding actually running their chemical labs in the coach class toilets on full trans-Atlantic flights.

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.

We may have a dangerous group rounded up in Britian, or we may have a slightly more sophisticated than the Florida group that spent its time conspiring with undercover federal agents, who had to suggest virtually every move to the group in order to get them to even consider hatching an "aspirational" terror plot.

Remember the 2006 Republican campaign motto: "We have nothing to sell but fear itself."