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Friday, August 11, 2006

Common chemicals combined on plane make potent bomb

OTTAWA - The liquid explosives British authorities say were at the centre of a terrorist plot aimed at trans-Atlantic flights could have been mixed aboard the aircraft using widely available chemical compounds that are difficult to detect in pre-board screening.

The air security measures announced Thursday in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. are aimed at preventing terrorists from creating these "modular bombs" of nitroglycerin or the highly volatile TATP (triacetone triperoxide), which can be made using nail polish remover and hydrogen peroxide.

Airline industry sources say the fear is that two or more benign-looking ingredients could be disguised as beverages or grooming products and smuggled onto an aircraft, then combined to create the explosive presumably in the privacy of an airplane lavatory and detonated with such an electronic device as a cell phone or camera.

ABC News on Thursday reported that the British plot featured liquid explosives hidden under false bottoms of sport drink containers, with the flashes of disposable cameras used as detonators. CNN claimed the plan involved a gel explosive in toothpaste tube.

Nitroglycerin is a colourless or yellow liquid made by combining sulphuric acid, nitric acid and a glycerin powder. When mixed, it is highly volatile and can be detonated by a small spark or vigorous shaking. But its main ingredients are stable enough before they're combined that they could be smuggled through a security checkpoint safely.

The explosive figured in a similar 1994 plot to bring down planes in Asia using the liquid hidden in bottles of contact lens fluid and juice containers, with digital watches wired up as detonators. On a test run, one of the bombs exploded in a flight from Philippines to Japan. One Japanese businessman died but others survived after the plane made an emergency landing.

Also of ongoing concern is the threat of a home-made bomb using TATP, the substance that "shoe bomber" Richard Reid smuggled in his shoes and tried to ignite on a flight from Miami to Paris in 2001.

TATP, dubbed the Mother of Satan for its volatility, is popular among suicide bombers in Gaza and the West Bank and was believed to have been used in the 2005 London Underground bombings.

Because it leaves little residue, TATP can be hard to detect using machines at airport screening points. Most bomb-detection equipment is set up to sniff for nitrogen-based explosives and the only newest machines can screen for the oxygen-based TATP.

TATP is most effective once it has dried into a powder form and would be difficult to cook up quickly in an airplane washroom. But it could be fabricated before and smuggled aboard disguised as a toothpaste or gel or cream, then combined with an electronic detonator.

There are numerous other forms of liquid explosives that can be home-brewed, including Astrolites, a family of extremely powerful explosives used for blasting, and PLX, which was developed for clearing mines in the Second World War. PLX was used along with a plastic explosive to bring down a South Korean Boeing 707 near Thailand in 1987.

The temporary ban on liquids announced by Transport Canada Thursday covers all liquids and gels, including water, soft drinks, hair gel and even toothpaste. Passengers travelling with small children are allowed to bring baby formulae, breast milk or juice aboard, and medications that have the passenger's name on the bottle are also allowed.

The measures will be in place until Sunday but government officials said Thursday they could be extended.

The officials also said they are looking at broader security issues involving carry-on baggage. Some in the airline industry have argued for tighter controls on the number of bags that can be brought aboard commercial flights. Depending on the airline, Canadian travellers can each take two carry-on bags and one "personal item," such as a purse or briefcase, into the cabin. The U.S. has stricter rules, allowing one bag and one personal item, while Australia allows only one item.

Robert Milton, CEO of Air Canada's holding company ACE Aviation, said in March that reducing the number carry-on bags would speed up passenger screening and improve security.

"The argument is that you are reducing the size of the haystack so you can find the needles," said Mike Skrobica, vice president of Air Transport Association of Canada, an industry lobby group.

Skrobica allowed, however, that the industry is divided on the issue and there are concerns that limits on carry-on would inconvenience passengers.

Ottawa Citizen

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