Friday, August 11, 2006

BETTER KILLING THROUGH CHEMISTRY

Dominating the news today, and very likely for many days to come, is the story of the thwarting of an alleged plot to blow up as many as ten airliners in mid-flight between the UK and the US using explosives made from ingredients smuggled onto the planes. It is speculated the bombers intended to play chemist in the bathrooms…

FoxNews doing a good job of following the story and Matt Drudge is at his best today providing links on the unfolding plot. Links I thought worthwhile include:

Washington Post.com “Tip Followed '05 Attacks on London Transit”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/10/AR2006081001654_pf.html

The article begins “It all began with a tip: In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on London's transit system, British authorities received a call from a worried member of the Muslim community, reporting general suspicions about an acquaintance.”

Remember that, Muslim bashers… But for a Muslim those planes might be falling out of the sky as you read this…

The New York Times provides some insight into the scope of the problem this tactic creates for security agencies:

“Liquid Threat Is Hard to Detect”

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/11/world/europe/11threat.html?ei=5065&en=77fb08a134ace3bf&ex=1155960000&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print

And from Time.com:

“Thwarting the Airline Plot: Inside the Investigation”

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1225453,00.html

Or if you enjoy being unnecessarily alarmed, there’s this from the UK TimesOnline:

“Science briefing: chemical mix could create deadly flight blast”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2306994,00.html


Quite the event…

We’re being told the plot is at least a year old, has operatives in at least Britain and Pakistan, was thoroughly infiltrated in both nations, may – or may not – have Al-Qaeda connections, and involved making an explosive organic peroxide, probably TATP, from hard to detect liquid components.

We’re not being told why the British moved against the plotters now, which leads to speculation of a political motive…

And I think we may be being told a few things that are just plain inaccurate. So before somebody calls for banning Miss Clairol, I’d like to offer three deep breaths and some thoughts on the practical side of this crazy endeavor…

Along with a couple of suggestions as to how this could be a hell of a lot worse.

TATP has been in the news quite a bit in the last few years. We’re told it is easy to make from “ordinary” chemicals bought in hardware stores or supermarkets, and we’re reminded it’s been used as a component – sometimes a main explosive, but usually a detonator – in suicide vests, IED’s, and Richard Reid’s shoes.

There are a lot of pages available on TATP, some of which I have found to be dangerously inaccurate. For a good basic read on just what TATP is, I’ll vouch for this Wikipedia entry:

“Acetone peroxide”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetone_peroxide

I’d like to offer a little practical chemistry you probably won’t get elsewhere. Bear with me…

In chemical kinetics, a reaction goes forward anytime entropy is favored and the reactants are present. But in a reaction system, concentration is what we call a “rate step.” In other words, if even a tiny amount of reactants are present, a reaction happens, but it happens very slowly.

There is a pertinent example anyone with lab experience knows about. Diethyl Ether, usually just called ether, forms an explosive peroxide much less stable than TATP when it combines spontaneously with oxygen. If you open a bottle of pure ether, pour half of it out, and then put the rest on a shelf for several months, the tiny bit of oxygen available in the air in the bottle will decompose the ether, forming peroxide crystal around the bottlecap. Just opening the bottle will set it off. To prevent this, stabilizer is added to ether when it is packaged.

A little oxygen… A slow reaction and a scant amount of product.

There are a lot of dangerous chemicals available “off the shelf,” so to speak. And a lot of very ordinary products have dangerous ingredients. The main difference between that nasty industrial chemical and the Mr. Clean under your sink is the industrial version is highly concentrated and the cleaning fluid isn’t…

TATP… Triacetone triperoxide is made from acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and a strong acid. Acetone is a common chemical with a zillion uses which can be purchased in pure form in a hardware store, where it is sold as a paint solvent.

The other two are a bit trickier…

Hydrogen peroxide is one of those “dose makes the poison” cases. Medicinal peroxide, the stuff you pour over cuts, is sold at 3% strength. The stuff used to bleach hair is 6%. From there you go on up through concentrations into the 70% range, which is used in industrial processes like bleaching paper. The strongest stuff easily attainable is 30%, and is used to clean pools or hydroponic equipment.

And 30% is the weakest that is really practical for making TATP. You can use weaker mixes, but you get a poor yield, it’ll take forever, and you have to remove the water – the rest of the peroxide solution is water – at the end of the process. You can also concentrate the peroxide by careful boiling.

Then there is the acid. You can use either hydrochloric or sulfuric, the latter being the best choice. Moderately strong hydrochloric acid is sold as muriatic acid in hardware stores; you use it to clean brick. Battery electrolyte is 50% sulfuric acid. Neither of these is really strong enough to do a good job. Weak acid gives a slow reaction and creates a lot of DADP - diacetone diperoxide – which is less explosive but way less stable, having the unhappy habit of exploding spontaneously. Practically, you need the purest sulfuric acid you can steal – you can’t buy the “good stuff” in Wal-Mart…

So the assertion you could just pick the stuff up on the way to the airport is incorrect. Ordinarily available chemicals either won’t make the right stuff or make so little of it so slowly you could never accomplish the synthesis in an airliner bathroom…

The TimesOnline article claims the components were to be smuggled in two containers. That’s possible – you could mix the acetone and the peroxide, and then drizzle in the acid. So imagine trying to do this…

You got your bottles by the security teams. You had to seal the acetone-peroxide mix well, because it has a powerful odor any person can detect. Likewise, if your acid had leaked, it’d have eaten most anything organic or metallic it touched and might have started a fire. Now you’re in the can… You need to keep the mix cool somehow as you mix it, if your goal is to make TATP, wash it, dry it, and then set it off with some kind of electronic device, as has been suggested… And you need to accomplish all this before someone wonders why Abdul is barricaded in the John…

Or maybe that’s been considered… It will explode prematurely if the temperature rises too fast as you add the acid or the acid is too weak and you make DADP.  You might not need a detonator if you tried to “do it wrong”… Just dump the acid straight in, glug glug… And shake the hell out of the mix… It wouldn’t be foolproof, but it might be proof enough for the fools involved. Perhaps that’s why there was to be so many attempts at once – to assure at least one success out of many efforts.

And a final issue: It has been claimed these liquids are not easily detectable. Bullcrap. Either bottle would have a suspiciously low pH; the acid alarmingly low. A simple dipstick test would reveal that. Likewise, the peroxide can be detected by a similar dipstick test. Sure, it means opening a zillion bottles… But it can be done.

But just so you don’t get any sleep for a while – at least not on a plane – consider a few other possibilities:

First, a “true confession:” I thought of this before it happened, and I’ve thought of a lot of other ways to do the same thing. I’m trained in the subject, but so are a lot of other people. If I thought of it, millions have… And they have thought of ideas like:

Turning metal hydrides into explosives. A hydride is an ionic combination of a metal and hydrogen. In most common chemical systems, hydrogen forms a positive ion – that’s what acid is. In a hydride, hydrogen takes on a negative charge. If you mix an acid – even water, which is a weak acid – with a hydride, you make hydrogen; a lot of it, very fast. So for example…

Start with sodium borohydride. It’s a common industrial chemical, hard to buy but easy to steal. You could use it as a dry powder – that would be best – but if it were hard to smuggle the powder, you could mix it with a very high pH solution of sodium hydroxide to form a very heavy, thick liquid – it would be a lot like Liquid Plumber. Put it in a stout bottle – there will be some gas pressure – and smuggle that onto a plane. In the bathroom, mix it with water. You’ll make enough hydrogen very fast to blow the plane to bits, Hindenburg style… One match and it’s history. You could also make an auto mixer that would do the same thing from the cargo hold…

Or a real nightmare scenario. We hear of suicide bombers wearing vests. What if the bomb were in the bomber?

You have a lot of “extra” organs… You could do without a kidney, a lobe of your liver, or even a couple of lobes of lung. If you’re a suicide bomber, you won’t miss them at all… Remove some of those “extra” organs… Then replace the tissue with a bag of explosive.

You could even do it with breast implants…

Fashion a detonator that looks like a pacemaker…

There are a lot more, but I’ll shut up. The point is made. We really can’t win this. The first hijackings cost the traveling public dear; 9-11 was astronomically more expensive. Even this foiled attempt will be costly, and had it succeeded… If this sort of thing keeps happening, it will destroy air travel as an available option for the general public. Eventually, only people thoroughly vetted beforehand will be able to fly, and they will pay a big price for the privilege. That will probably eliminate hundreds of flights and flight destinations – and tens of thousands of jobs.

There has to be a better way… Fighting the invisible enemy only works until it doesn’t, and then all the successes mean nothing.

New ideas, anyone?

Comments:
Well, perhaps stating that the next time a plane is blown up, Mecca will disappear. That may put some pressure internally upon Muslims to self-regulate.
Also, if hijackers knew that all of their families for three generations would be executed it might deter some or most.
Perhaps there are better ways but I can't think of them.
 
Ah, there's a great idea. You know, there's a problem with gangs in this city. And 'gangs' aare like 'gangsters', gangsters means Chicago, so the next time there's a drive-by we nuke Chicago. Problem solved. Or gangsters are the Mafia, the Mafia is Italian, and Italians are Catholics, so maybe take out Rome instead. That's what the Brits should have done with the IRA, nuked Rome; that's would have put a quick end to the problem.

Collective punishment is usually considered a tool of tyrants and criminals. If that's what anonymous thinks of the USA, the dreams of Paine and Jefferson are truly dead.

I think the idea is to have fewer people mad at you, not more. Try to figure out why most of the people who are mad at you are upset.

The Soviets stopped bombing the Afgans, the Afgans stopped shooting the Soviets. They still had prblems in Chechnya, an area where the CIA had been funding and occasionally training radical Islamists since the 1950s.

I've known people who came to the US from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan back in the `80s; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, amd what not. While they left their homelands because of the governments there, they found reasons to be upset with US policies in the region.

The US encouraged Saddam in his war with Iran, and sold weapons to both sides. The US also did its best to sweep Saddam's use of war gases under the rug.

The Iraqis I know long ago tired of pointing the mistakes made there by the US. Lebanon? Bush held off on getting a ceasefire until it was obvious to even him that Israel wasn't sweeping Hezbollah aside; now even many Lebanese Christians support Hezbollah. If they start coming after the US, what are we supposed to do - nuke Jerusalem and Bethlehem?
 
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