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Airport Security

2001-12-27 16:04:21+00 by Dan Lyke 14 comments

Rafe Colburn points out some obvious fuzzy thinking in the changes in airport security following the "explosives in shoes" incident:

If you could choose to focus your investigation on finding people who met any of those criteria, where would you start? With people who have strange passports, people who check no luggage on long flights, people who travel on one-way tickets, or people wearing shoes?

Something else I find puzzling that I haven't seen addressed is that the rumours are that it was a C4 like substance. It'd have to be a high explosive to make shoe-sized quantities able to do any real damage. So what sort of blasting caps was he firing off that'd go better from a match than from the battery pack from a portable CD player?

[ related topics: Aviation WTC/Pentagon attacks ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:58+00 by: TheSHAD0W

I read that it was composed of two different types of plastic explosive. I also read that the bomb had "wires coming out of it"...

My guess is the bomb was meant to be detonated using an electric charge, and somewhere in getting kicked off one flight and onto another, he'd misplaced the battery. I suspect he was also short the knowledge that plastique won't go off if you set it on fire.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: petronius

The CNN piece mentions a "Safety Fuse". Safe for whom? Do they mean a backup in case the battery pack fails?. As for causing damage, howzabout placing the exploding shoe against the bulkhead. A relatively small hole would decompress the plane and most likely kill most of the passengers, even if somehow the flight crew survived, got their oxygen masks on, and managed to land the plane. Or place it next to an important wiring harness. Reid, who by all accounts ins an ignorant street thug turned zealot, might not know where such a spot was, but his handlers might.

I flew yesterday from St. Louis to Chicago, and my wife had her shoes xrayed. The checks seemed random, although perhaps with long observation a pattern might appear. I did see people of many races and apparent social status checked. The National Guardsmen at the barriers also seemed a lot more observant than the fat cops who used to back up the screeners.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: Dan Lyke

Safety fuse: Generic term for a hemp cord impregnated with black powder and a water resistant cover.

If you light C4 (or any high explosive that I know of) without a blasting cap, it just burns. It needs a concussion, usually from a low explosive, to set it off with any force. Sometimes the necessary concussion is really small (ie: old dynamite), but it ain't the heat.

Damage: I'd imagine that you could bring down an airplane with black powder if you got the placement right. However, massive[Wiki] depressurization has happened without catastrophic airframe failure (remember the Hawaiian Airlines 737 that had its top peeled back like a sardine can? Three deaths.). Obviously there's stuff we're not being told, but this sure seems to me like it was set up by a couple of Al Qaeda wannabes, and not by the folks competent enough to engineer the earlier attacks.

Shoe selection: if we all flew naked, this wouldn't be a problem. But realistically there are so[Wiki] many ways to get explosives on the airplane that this is just playing with radio buttons, and, as with most security measures, mainly intended to make the passengers feel safe, not to actually solve potential breaches.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: anser

if we all flew naked, you could reach under the seat and take the boxcutter that the food cart guy left there for you. remember the blades found under seats and in the overhead after the 9/11 grounding.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: Dylan

You're absolutely right, Dan...C4 or any other plastique-type explosive won't detonate without a precursor explosive. Matter of fact, you can dispose of C4 by burning it if you really need to. It'll just melt and the volatiles evaporate. I wouldn't want to stand next to that fire but it'd be because of the fumes.

Now...sure, you could bring a plane down with black powder if you wanted to, but if you wanted to use anything less than a barrel you'd have to put it *inside* a very small confined space. The weakest wall of that very small space would have to lead to the outdoors.

When you light black powder, there is *no* explosion in the classic sense of the word...just a lot of smoke and gas. Put that expanding smoke and gas in a small enough space (gun barrel, tiny compartment in a 747) and you'll get overpressure and explosion.

However, I don't think there is any terrorist organization in the world so poorly trained and so out of touch with technology that they'd actually try black powder.

My personal guess as to what happened on that flight:

Moron boards plane with C4 in shoes. (never mind what the volatiles that doubtless absorbed through his skin are going to do to him). Moron has small electrical det device designed to trigger a blasting cap most likely embedded dead-center in the charge to prevent a shaped-charge effect (a unidirectional blast). Moron presses button, nothing happens (sweat in a cheap circuit anyone?). Moron has foreseen this circumstance and included a safety fuse as a backup...not knowing that he can't detonate plastique that way.

The ironic/scary/funny (all depends on perspective) part of it is that this guy would most likely have gotten away with it if he had just known that once his electric det failed he would just have to scrub his 'mission'.

You're dead right though, Dan...there is NO way to detect every possible place a person could be concealing explosives unless airport security were to begin including full bag searches and full cavity searches for each and every passenger. Hate to tell you, but a guy who has no qualms about blowing himself and a few hundred others out of the sky also has no qualms about sticking the bomb up his ass.

I'd rather live with a little risk than be completely safe considering what complete safety entails. (Funny how well this ties in with the Ashcroft series of threads)

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: Dan Lyke

Damn, Dylan, all the ways I was thinking about smuggling stuff onto the airplane were external. It'd take a bit of poking about, but a portable audio device with enough power to drive some real speakers (you could probably get more than enough current draw from a laptop battery, although I'm not familiar with what characteristics electric blasting caps use), and a block of C4 with a blasting cap carried rectally...

(Anyone with questions about potential quantities might check out http://www.goatse.cx ... Only for the strong of stomach)

What really weirds me out is that I've been singled out for the sniffer test before (My love/hate relationship with OAK), and based on that I'd thought that they were actually doing tests for your aforementioned volatiles.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: Larry Burton

The way I read this is that this moron was a loser that fellow al-Qaida members were trying to dispose of anyway possible. They set him up on a "mission" just to get rid of him. If he happened to bring down a jet in the process, then so much the better for them but at any rate they wouldn't have to deal with this loser any more.

The facts coming out is that this fellow was just a street thug who found "Allah" while in prison. Most likely the fellow was just a sociopath who thought it would be neat to be a terrorist.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: DaveP

Matter of fact, you can dispose of C4 by burning it if you really need to.

The stories may be apocryphal, but I've talked to folks who claim to have used C4 as improvised sterno during the Vietnam war. It was handy, and once lit, stayed burning well, and was relatively safe.

The understanding I got from them was that it becomes a little less stable when burning, but you'd have to drop something like a 50 lb frying-pan from 6 ft up in order to make it go bang. Or have someone chuck a grenade into your stew-pot, at which point you're probably going to have bigger worries than a bit of uncontained C4 going off.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:33:59+00 by: petronius

Is it my imagination, are have there been more comments here on the relative merits of various plastiques than on most other topics? Will I have to turn you all in to Homeland Security?

As to the moronicity of effendi Reid, I have seen recent looks at the different kinds of suicide terrorists. The Palestinian bus bombers tend to be jobless, uneducated mopes with no future who get caught up in the local groups and are convinced to do some terrible deed. Once they make the committement their handlers keep them in isolation, show them how to set off the bomb, have them pray and write a final letter to Mother, and get them to the bus stop within 48 hours before they think it over. On the other hand, the 9/11 men were middle class, educated, and carried out a plan that took months to carry out, mostly out of communications with headquarters and immersed in the fleshy pleasures of the West. Osamas quip on the tape that some didn't know what was going on doesn't ring true to me. Such men are very hard to stop.

#Comment made: 2001-12-27 21:02:06+00 by: anser [edit history]

I can't lay my hands on the article but I read somewhere that the C4 in Reid's shoes was doped with a second chemical that explodes more easily, so that the det cord would indeed have done the job if he'd gotten it properly lit. Reid was expendable "muscle" who didn't understand the tech he carried, but his masters do, and they now know more about what they can get away with.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:00+00 by: TC

Apparently it was 11 ounces of PETN-based material, a version of the plastic explosive C4 that is sensitive enough to be detonated by the safety fuse

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:00+00 by: Dan Lyke

petronius: say nothing, act casual.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:00+00 by: sethg

One of the news reports (I forget which) on The Shoe Terrorist showed a map of the plane he was on, and pointed out that his seat was conveniently located near the fuel tank.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:14+00 by: anser

I don't know whether anyone reads these comments later on, but here is confirmation of my earlier comment that this guy was NOT a moron, there IS a danger, and more bad stuff MAY happen: