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Mixing a deadly brew in flight wouldn't be hard, experts say
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — 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 Thursday.
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 aboard a plane.
"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 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 probably is the most well-known liquid explosive. While terrorists tested the explosive in the mid-1990s as part of a plot to bomb 11 airliners over the Pacific Ocean, several experts said it is relatively difficult to obtain 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.
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One of the most commonly used explosives by Middle Eastern terrorists is triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a potent explosive used by would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. TATP, usually found in a crystalline powder, could be dissolved into a liquid that could be carried aboard a plane, experts said.
"Some terrorists have actually held TATP in water in order to reduce its sensitivity," Hanan said.
But terrorists could carry aboard a plane the chemicals used to make TATP, including hydrogen peroxide, which in a very diluted form can be purchased at any drugstore as an antiseptic. The highly concentrated versions necessary to create an explosion can be obtained commercially.
"All you need to do is go into the restroom with a pint of each in a couple of water bottles and mix them," said Neal Langerman, a consultant who acts as a spokesman for the American Chemical Society.
"Chances are it will instantaneously and violently react."
Even if whatever was used failed to create an actual explosion, a major fire probably would be sufficient, Langerman said.
"Fire aboard an aircraft is a very bad thing," he said.
Many other substances potentially could be used to create a fire or an explosion, such as oxidizers used to clean pools or combining diesel fuel with other chemicals.
"When you bring them together, you have the most common commercial explosive," said Jimmie Oxley, an explosives expert at the University of Rhode Island.
Glycerin, another common household item, also can be used to create an explosive.
"Kids get killed every year trying to do this stuff," Oxley said.
Whatever might be attempted, airport-security measures easily would miss such substances.
"They don't have the ability to detect liquid explosives generally," said Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has tapped research-and-development budgets to meet operating requirements, possibly delaying research into explosives detection, critics say.
Members of Congress also say the department's focus on improving nuclear-detection technology has disrupted efforts to integrate governmentwide research on a range of biological, chemical and explosives threats.
Deputy DHS Secretary Michael Jackson acknowledged that agency research budgets have "fluctuated over the years" and that refocusing research priorities 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."
Washington Post reporters Spencer S. Hsu, Karen DeYoung and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company