Explosives - An Impossible Task
An unsolvable problem - terrorists with
C-4 and other plastic explosives are like putty, and
This piece would be more than enough to destroy your
entire multi-storey house.
There is nothing new about
plastic explosive. In one form or another, it has been
around since 1875, and most common plastic explosives in use
today date back to the 1960s.
Evolving types of terrorist
activity seem to suggest that terrorists are now more focused on
blowing planes up with plastic explosive, rather than simply
hijacking them. Accordingly, our airport security seeks to
detect not just guns and knives but also explosives as well.
Unfortunately, the amount of
explosive needed to destroy a plane is very small, and due to
its plastic nature, it can easily be discreetly hidden on,
around, or in one's body.
Detecting artfully concealed
plastic explosive is impossible by all normal and socially
The Truth No-one Wants to Admit
There has been a conspiracy
of silence when it comes to rational discussion of current
airport security measures.
The unstated truth that
no-one wishes to admit is that there are some very simple and
easy ways for terrorists to hide explosives and smuggle them
onto planes. Even the newest and nastiest security
measures are powerless to prevent these simple methods of
smuggling explosives onto planes.
If that is so, why are we
bothering with the increasingly elaborate, expensive,
inconvenient, and uncomfortable charade that is airport
I can't answer that
question. But by boldly telling the truth of the current
complete inadequacy of airport security, maybe I can at least
encourage a rational discussion followed by rational security
Please read on to understand
exactly what plastic explosives are, how much is needed to
destroy a plane, how much space this would take, and how a
terrorist could smuggle it onto a plane.
But first, let's put our
desire to make planes 100% safe into awkward context by looking
at a relevant example from another part of our modern world.
Lessons From Our Prisons
Where is the easiest place
on the planet to buy drugs? In a prison.
No matter how strictly the
guards search prison visitors and restrict their contact with
inmates; drugs and other contraband (even cell phones) are
abundantly present in most prisons.
Prisons have vastly more
controls, monitoring, and restrictions, both on the inmates and
the people who visit them; controls and restrictions that
eclipse anything in place for air travel security.
But if they are so
spectacularly unsuccessful in their attempts to keep illegal
drugs and other banned items out of prisons, how can we ever
realistically expect less stringent controls on airports,
airplanes, and their passengers to provide any type of realistic
barrier to terrorists?
Are All Plastic Explosives the
Yes and no. If you're
wanting to be very scientific and exact, then there are
differences between different types of plastic explosive.
Some are more powerful than others. Some are easier to
detonate. Some create a faster explosion. Some are
heavier than others.
But for the purpose of this
discussion, it is reasonably acceptable to consider all plastic
explosives as being generically similar.
They have similar
characteristics, because most of them have similar ingredients -
primarily RDX and PETN, and less commonly these days,
Within broad parameters, all
are similarly powerful, and all share one of the key
characteristics that give them appeal to terrorists - their
amorphous moldable form.
The most common forms of
plastic explosive are probably Semtex and C-4. Much less
common these days is gelignite, a product invented by Alfred
Nobel (who is perhaps best known for also inventing dynamite).
By definition, plastic
explosives are, well, plastic in form. They have a room
temperature consistency similar to Play-doh, plasticine or
putty, and can be shaped and squeezed and rolled into all sorts
This has a dual advantage -
it makes it easy to position the explosive at a point where it
can cause maximum harm, and it makes it very easy to secrete it
in or around some other thing for purposes of smuggling the
explosive through screening processes.
How Much Explosive is Needed to
Blow Up a Plane
Opinions differ as to how
much explosive is needed to blow up a plane. It depends on
where the explosive is located, and how it is shaped.
An explosive device placed
in the middle of a large plane, and creating an unfocused blast
expanding equally out in all directions will be much less
damaging than an explosive device with a focused blast in one
direction, fixed directly to the side of the plane.
test by the BBC on an old 747 suggested that it could
survive an explosion from a 3 ounce piece of PETN, but this test
was conducted in a 'best case' scenario (in the sense of being
least damaging to the plane) and may have been designed as much
to reassure us as to truly accurately test the effects of
explosives in planes.
It was done in an empty
fuselage shell, at ground level, and apparently with the front
of the shell open to the outside air.
A sealed plane flying at
35,000 ft would already have about a 8 lb/sq inch pressure
tensioning the fuselage (that might not sound like much, but it
means a force of half a ton is pressing on every sq ft of
fuselage). And because it was sealed, and with lots of
extra things - seats, people, equipment, etc - all in the same
space, an explosion would not have as many places to go, thereby
focusing its force more on the fuselage, which would be already
under pressure with less margin to absorb extra pressure.
Plus a 747 such as used in the BBC test is the biggest of all
planes (other than the A380); the smaller the plane, again the
less volume to absorb the pressure from an explosion and the
more concentrated the explosive effect would become.
In contrast, some experts
suggest that very much smaller quantities of plastic explosive
are all that is needed to destroy a plane. Professor Hans
Michels from University College in London is
quoted in this article as suggesting that only 6 grams
(1/5th of an ounce) of PETN would be sufficient to blow a hole
in a metal plate twice the thickness of an airplane fuselage.
This claim represents the
other end of the spectrum from the BBC experiment, and assumes
an optimized placement and shape of the explosive charge such as
probably could not be achieved by most terrorists on most
planes, and it is unclear how large a hole would be created.
You need a fairly big hole to imperil a plane and assure its
So, how much explosive is
needed? Less than a fifth of an ounce, or more than 3
ounces? Actually, the answer to this question probably
doesn't matter, because it is not really any more difficult for
a terrorist to smuggle 3 ounces or 6 ounces of explosive onto a
plane as it is for them to smuggle less than one ounce.
Which leads to the next point.
How Physically Big a Piece of
Explosive is Dangerous
It seems that a piece of
explosive weighing as little as 1 oz can sometimes be dangerous
if carefully shaped and positioned at a vulnerable point.
But most terrorists are likely to want to use a larger quantity
(for example, the 'crotch bomber' in December 2009 had a 3 oz
quantity of PETN hidden in his underwear).
Let's think about how large
a volume/size a 3 oz piece of plastic explosive would take up.
Plastic explosive is heavier than water. Semtex is about
45% heavier, C-4 is about 65% heavier, PETN is 70% heavier.
By comparison, butter is lighter than water, at about 10% less
So, think of a 4 ounce stick
of butter, or an entire 1 lb packet. A piece of plastic
explosive the same size as the 4 oz stick will weigh up to 7.5
ounces - more than sufficient to probably destroy a plane.
A full 1 lb packet of butter could contain nearly 2 lbs of
plastic explosive - enough to damage an airport terminal
In other words, a terrorist
only needs to be able to smuggle a piece of explosive less than
the size of a stick of butter onto a plane in order to be able
to blow it up.
It gets worse. Two
terrorists could collude, and each could bring a piece of
explosive the size of a half of a stick of butter with them,
then mix it together after getting through security. Or
four terrorists each need to bring little more than a spoonful
of explosive, and so on.
How to Smuggle Explosives Onto
First of all, a quick
statement of the obvious. I'm not revealing anything super
secret or super clever here, and I'm not saying anything that a
terrorist won't have already thought about.
The terrorists have a head
start because plastic explosive can't be detected by a metal
detector. It can show up if going through an x-ray machine
(although artful concealment can usually make it unlikely to be
noticed), so generally terrorists have preferred to simply stick
the explosive in their pocket (or in their shoe or in their
Indeed, think about the
challenge yourself. You have a piece of play-doh about the
same size as a 4oz stick of butter - in other words, you're
planning on making a huge explosion that will be sure to take
the plane down. Where/how would you secrete it? If
you want to, you can break it into lots of smaller pieces.
Now imagine you'll go
through a whole body imaging machine (WBI) that will see under
your clothes. So you need to be a bit more discreet about
where it is located. Where would you put it now?
Here is one possible answer
- on the soles of your feet, between your foot and the sock.
Spread it into two thin flat pieces, one for each foot. It
won't be seen by the WBI device, because - ooops - it doesn't
look up at the soles of your feet.
If you're not that creative,
you could instead decide you'll opt out of the WBI scan and ask
for a pat-down instead. Any thoughts about where to hide
it in such a case?
If you are a man, how about
a prosthetic enhancement to your, umm, manhood? Especially
if you are under-endowed to start with, who would notice or
comment on a generously sized male member?
If you are a woman, how
about replacing the gel padding in your bra?
And, one last suggestion
that sounds rather yucky, but if you're a suicide bomber, who
cares about a little bit of yuck factor. Put the material
in a condom and insert it like a suppository (and/or like a
tampon, if a woman). Either which way, it can easily be
taken out again once you're through security.
Doing this ensures it won't
be detected by anything or anyone.
It is Impossible to Detect
Artfully Concealed Explosives
Let's focus on these last
two hiding places. Unless the TSA are now going to conduct
careful internal searches of all our cavities (you can hide
things in your mouth too, of course), any adult can assuredly
hide a deadly piece of explosive less than the size of a regular
stick of butter on - well, actually, in - their person.
No whole body imaging device
will see it. No pat-down search will reveal it. And,
if properly packaged, no explosive trace detector swab will
detect it either.
So there you have it - the
100% guaranteed method of concealing/smuggling explosives
through airport 'security'.
While there have been jokes
about terrorists detonating devices secreted internally inside
themselves, this is not what they should do in real life (and
the one known time they tried it, the device failed to kill its
intended victim), because the body would act as a huge explosion
absorber. This would be exactly like what happens in the
movies (and in real life) when a hero throws himself on top of
an about-to-explode grenade, absorbing the force of the
explosion and saving his friends.
Instead, either in the
terminal building or once on the plane, they will go to the
bathroom, remove the explosive, and then probably detonate it
against the side of the plane (probably in the peace and privacy
of an onboard toilet that has one wall as the plane's fuselage).
This is not complicated.
It is very low tech and very easy for a terrorist to do.
So why are we bothering with
whole body imaging and intrusive pat-downs - sure, they make
other ways of smuggling explosives onto a plane more difficult,
but when there is a truly simple and failproof way of getting
the explosives on board, who cares if there are other additional
ways to do this or not?
But Wait - There's More
What about everyone else who
has access to planes? Couldn't a ground staff member
smuggle something onto a plane and leave it hidden somewhere for
a terrorist to reclaim after boarding the plane.
Many of these people can
flit back and forth, in and out of the secure part of the
airport, never needing to go through security. They just
need the access code to one of the locked doors.
Indeed, it doesn't even have
to be someone with access to the plane. How about someone
else who works at an airport and who has access to the other
side of security. Perhaps an employee in a store, or a
janitor, or anyone else.
And, wait, it doesn't even
need to be anyone with access to the secure side of the airport.
Maybe it just needs to be a person who can smuggle something
into a box of stuff that is being delivered to one of the stores
on the secure side of the terminal.
And you know that ban on
liquids? Why not put your liquid explosive into a bunch of
drink bottles and then watch as they are taken through security
and to a store, ostensibly to be sold to passengers.
Or the close inspection of
electronics? Ship whatever electronic detonators you might
need to a cooperating accomplice who works in one of the
electronic stores on the far side of security.
Or - as we saw in the bombs
hidden within printers, why not switch gears slightly and stop
trying to hand carry bombs onto planes. Simply ship them
in packages instead, and have them explode in the cargo hold
rather than the passenger compartment. That way you don't
even need to find volunteers for suicide bombing runs.
Do you get the picture?
Not only is the 'security' screening we are subjected to
ineffective, there are lots of other ways to circumvent it too.
The Weakest Link
Security is all about weak
links - identifying them and either exploiting or resolving
them, depending on which side of the issue you're on.
Terrorists are not generally
stupid. They'll take the easy safe way to do something.
They'll exploit a system's weaknesses rather than directly
confront its strengths.
Which leads to two sad
First, the harder we make it
for terrorists to sneak explosives through the security
checkpoints in an airport, the more likely we make it that
they'll carry out their nefarious deeds via some other path and
They have plenty of choices,
and plenty of easy and alternate ways to do this.
Second, no matter how hard
we try, unless we are to conduct internal cavity searches on
every passenger, a determined terrorist will always be able to
smuggle sufficient explosives through security to destroy a
I know this. The
terrorists know this. Our security officials know this.
And now, you know this too.
The Two Unanswered - and
Unanswerable - Questions
So we are left with two
questions. Can you answer them - I sure can't.
First, if it is as easy as
this for terrorists to get explosives onto a plane, why aren't
they doing so? Have we massively over-estimated the
Second, if the current
security measures truly can be so readily circumvented, why are
we spending so much money and making the lives of ordinary
travelers so unpleasant, when it brings us no extra safety in
To summarize, why are we
spending billions of dollars, and subjecting law abiding
citizens to inconveniences, indignities, and radiation that may
be harmful, all for nothing - measures that don't work, against
terrorists who may not even exist?
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26 November 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.