By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006
Many easily obtained liquid chemicals can be used to produce an explosive capable of causing a devastating fire or blast aboard an airplane, experts said yesterday.
While hesitant to provide a specific recipe that would aid terrorists, several experts said it would not be difficult to obtain a liquid explosive or chemical mixture that could be smuggled in.
"From available commercial material, and with the right basic knowledge, it doesn't take too much expertise," said Tal Hanan, a security expert at Demoman International Ltd. in Israel. "Any second-year chemical engineering student, probably with the right guidance and some handbook they pull off the Internet, could probably compose such an explosive."
Nitroglycerin may be the best-known liquid explosive. Though terrorists tested the explosive in the mid-1990s as part of a plot to bomb 11 airliners over the Pacific, several experts said it is relatively hard to get and very difficult to handle.
"If it freezes, it detonates. If it falls just two or three feet, it will detonate. It's so sensitive that it's not practical," Hanan said.
One of the explosives most commonly used by Middle East terrorists is triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a highly potent explosive used by would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. Usually found in the form of a crystalline powder, experts said TATP could be dissolved into a liquid that could be carried aboard a plane.
"Some terrorists have actually held TATP in water in order to reduce its sensitivity," Hanan said.
But terrorists could simply carry aboard a plane the two chemicals used to make TATP.
When the chemicals are mixed together, "chances are it will instantaneously and violently react," said Neal Langerman, a chemical industry consultant who acts as a spokesman for the American Chemical Society. "If it didn't, you can stick in a detonator, hook it up to the battery in your iPod, and you're dead."
Even if the chemicals fail to create an explosion, a major fire will probably be sufficient, Langerman said.
"Fire aboard an aircraft is a very bad thing," Langerman said. "If you create a hot, energetic fire, the aircraft is in very big trouble."
Many other substances could potentially be used to create a fire or an explosion, such as oxidizers used to clean pools or a combination of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.
"When you bring them together, you have the most common commercial explosive," said Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives expert at the University of Rhode Island.
Whatever might be attempted, current airport security measures would easily miss such substances.
"They don't have the ability to detect liquid explosives generally," said Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security shifted $61 million of its $110 million research budget to meet operational needs, such as to pay for passenger screeners, delaying the development of a device for detecting liquid explosives and other things, the Government Accountability Office reported in February 2005.
Members of Congress also say that the department's focus on improving nuclear detection technology has disrupted efforts to integrate government-wide research on a range of biological, chemical and explosives threats.
Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson acknowledged that DHS research budgets have "fluctuated over the years" and that refocusing research priorities on short- and medium-term projects is "among our core priorities." But, he added, developing "detection tools of all types" for explosives of all types is a top goal.
"We are doing some testing of machines that test liquids," Jackson said. "There's nothing that's currently suitable for mass deployment, but there are some promising technologies that we're looking at."
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Karen DeYoung and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.