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August 17, 2006

Nothing to hope for but fear itself
Posted by Teresa at 11:28 AM * 56 comments

I’m a fan of The Register (motto: Biting the hand that feeds IT), a tough, cynical, technologically savvy news site that does a lot of original reporting. If you haven’t seen it already, allow me to recommend their article, Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible? (Short version: “No, and we laugh derisively at your stupidity.”)

Binary liquid explosives are a sexy staple of Hollywood thrillers. It would be tedious to enumerate the movie terrorists who’ve employed relatively harmless liquids that, when mixed, immediately rain destruction upon an innocent populace, like the seven angels of God’s wrath pouring out their bowls full of pestilence and pain.

The funny thing about these movies is, we never learn just which two chemicals can be handled safely when separate, yet instantly blow us all to kingdom come when combined. Nevertheless, we maintain a great eagerness to believe in these substances, chiefly because action movies wouldn’t be as much fun if we didn’t.

Now we have news of the recent, supposedly real-world, terrorist plot to destroy commercial airplanes by smuggling onboard the benign precursors to a deadly explosive, and mixing up a batch of liquid death in the lavatories. So, The Register has got to ask, were these guys for real, or have they, and the counterterrorist officials supposedly protecting us, been watching too many action movies?

We’re told that the suspects were planning to use TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, a high explosive that supposedly can be made from common household chemicals unlikely to be caught by airport screeners. A little hair dye, drain cleaner, and paint thinner—all easily concealed in drinks bottles—and the forces of evil have effectively smuggled a deadly bomb onboard your plane.

Or at least that’s what we’re hearing, and loudly, through the mainstream media and its legions of so-called “terrorism experts.” But what do these experts know about chemistry? Less than they know about lobbying for Homeland Security pork, which is what most of them do for a living. But they’ve seen the same movies that you and I have seen, and so the myth of binary liquid explosives dies hard.

Better killing through chemistry

Making a quantity of TATP sufficient to bring down an airplane is not quite as simple as ducking into the toilet and mixing two harmless liquids together. …

A long, knowledgeable, pungent description of the technical difficulties follows. For further commentary on this same problem, see the recent comment thread on “I got your cold equations right here.”

As The Register goes on to summarize their analysis:

So the fabled binary liquid explosive—that is, the sudden mixing of hydrogen peroxide and acetone with sulfuric acid to create a plane-killing explosion, is out of the question. Meanwhile, making TATP ahead of time carries a risk that the mission will fail due to premature detonation, although it is the only plausible approach.

Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we’ve passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy.

It should be small comfort that the security establishments of the UK and the USA—and the “terrorism experts” who inform them and wheedle billions of dollars out of them for bomb puffers and face recognition gizmos and remote gait analyzers and similar hi-tech phrenology gear—have bought the Hollywood binary liquid explosive myth, and have even acted upon it.

We’ve given extraordinary credit to a collection of jihadist wannabes with an exceptionally poor grasp of the mechanics of attacking a plane, whose only hope of success would have been a pure accident. They would have had to succeed in spite of their own ignorance and incompetence, and in spite of being under police surveillance for a year.

But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security). Nearly everything must now go into the hold, where adequate amounts of explosives can easily be detonated from the cabin with cell phones, which are generally not banned.

Action heroes

The al-Qaeda franchise will pour forth its bowl of pestilence and death. We know this because we’ve watched it countless times on TV and in the movies, just as our officials have done. Based on their behavior, it’s reasonable to suspect that everything John Reid and Michael Chertoff know about counterterrorism, they learned watching the likes of Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Vin Diesel, and The Rock …

For some real terror, picture twenty guys who understand op-sec, who are patient, realistic, clever, and willing to die, and who know what can be accomplished with a modest stash of dimethylmercury.

You won’t hear about those fellows until it’s too late.

The Register has been covering this beat for a while now. See their earlier articles on Homebrew chemical terror bombs, hype or horror?, and Amazing terror weapons: the imaginary suitcase nuke.


From The Nation: Fear and Smear, on the symbiosis between Muslim terrorists and American politicians, and Bush & Co.’s increasingly desperate reliance on scaring American voters into supporting them.

The nexus of politics and terror from MSBNC’s Keith Olbermann. Same subject, only he traces specific correlations between terrorism scares and the advantages Bush & Co. have derived from them.

In general I don’t approve of weblogs duplicating entire articles, but it’s useful for keeping the complete text available. the Tennessee Guerrilla Women site has Paul Krugman’s “Uses of Fear” (originally in the NYTimes) on Bush & Co.’s history of fearmongering, and their neglect of real security issues. I love the last two paragraphs:

Above all, many Americans now understand the extent to which Mr. Bush abused the trust the nation placed in him after 9/11. Americans no longer believe that he is someone who will keep them safe, as many did even in 2004; the pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in Iraq have seen to that.

All Mr. Bush and his party can do at this point is demonize their opposition. And my guess is that the public won’t go for it, that Americans are fed up with leadership that has nothing to hope for but fear itself.

Available in Richard White’s weblog, “My 2 Cents,” is the full text of Dan Froomkin’s piece in the Washington Post on how the White House timed their attacks on Democrats as being “weak on security” to coincide with announcements they knew were coming about the supposed terrorist plot.

Ned Lamont has been a major target of Bush & Co.’s latest piece of terror-opportunism. From ABC News:

Democratic Senate nominee Ned Lamont, the anti-war candidate who toppled Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary, says he was surprised by Lieberman and Vice President Dick Cheney’s claims that his victory could embolden terrorists.

“My God, here we have a terrorist threat against hearth and home and the very first thing that comes out of their mind is how can we turn this to partisan advantage. I find that offensive,” Lamont said in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press.

After British officials disclosed they had thwarted a terrorist airline bombing plot on Thursday, Lieberman warned that Lamont’s call for a phased-withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be “taken as a tremendous victory” by terrorists.

Cheney on Wednesday had suggested that Lamont’s victory might encourage “the al-Qaida types” who want to “break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task.”

Lamont said Lieberman’s swipe at his candidacy “sounded an awful lot” like Cheney. “It surprised me,” he said. “It seemed almost orchestrated.”

No kidding. The amount of energy and gratuitous nastiness the administration has expended on Ned Lamont, and the matching Carolrovian tone of their and Lieberman’s rhetoric, has convinced me of one thing: Lieberman wasn’t just suborned, he was turned. It seems almost unfair that someone who looks so much like Senator Palpatine should be acting like a cardboard villain. I haven’t seen the like since the days of “Nixon can’t possibly be as shifty as he looks.”

More on the non-believability of British reports:

Bellatrys has contributed links to three superior articles on this subject. One’s from Bloggerheads, and makes the Exploding Shampoo Plot sound even thinner and more contrived.

The other two links are to essays by Craig Murray: writer, broadcaster, former British Ambassador to the Cenetral Asian Repuublic of Uzbekistan. He really knows his stuff. His essays are attempts to reconstruct the true story. Here’s the first, The UK Terror plot: what’s really going on?, 14 August; and the second, Hitting a Nerve, 17 August.

Counterpunch is definitely not my favorite news source, but Christopher Reed’s article about the contradictions and improbabilities in the official stories about the Walthamstow terrorist plot, and the convenience of its timing, sounds plausible to me.

Monsters and Critics is likewise dubious about the story.

Here’s another underrated news source: the World Socialist Web Site. They do solid news analysis that doesn’t assume you’re stupid, but also isn’t opaque if you haven’t been following eight or ten newspapers a day. Personally, I don’t care whether their site has “Socialist” in its name. They give good explanation. Anyway, they’ve run long chewy articles on The politics of the latest terror scare (15 August) and Contradictions, anomalies, questions mount in UK terror scare (17 August).

Just to make the whole situation smell a little riper, here’s AmericaBlog pointing out that the extremely credible Seymour Hersh, in his latest article in The New Yorker, says the Bush administration gave Israel the green light to attack Lebanon earlier this summer. That is: before the Hezbollah kidnappings that supposedly prompted the attack. These idiots haven’t learned a thing. They’re still exploiting supposed terrorist threats as a cover for cooking up insanely ill-conceived wars in the Middle East.

Here’s the Seymour Hersh article itself.

And, finally, the Washington Post discusses the increasing—no, breathtaking—extent to which Bush, and even more so Cheney, have been contriving to shake off the press corps that would normally accompany them. Instead, they’re flying around the country unscrutinized, on taxpayer money, in order to speak to closed-door gatherings of their contributors and other staunch supporters.

Previous administrations brought the press along. If you’ve been running on memories, augmented by TV shows like The West Wing, you’ve probably been assuming they still do. Not so. As in so many other areas, Bush and Cheney have stealthily rewritten the rules.

I swear, this feels like summer reruns. Bush and Cheney are off pursuing other activities, while we’re getting treated to the same old episodes of Terrorist Threat Tonight. I feel slighted. We’re Americans, dammit. We’re supposed to be worth the trouble it takes to generate a few first-rate new deceptions.

Comments on Nothing to hope for but fear itself:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:38 PM:

The Register? Really? I haven't been able to take them seriously since they ran Andrew Orlowsky's crazy anti-Google rants as straight reportage.

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:40 PM:

If one takes the War On Terror to date as a precedent, Bush's next move should be to order the carpet-bombing of Walthamstow.

Also Venezuela.

#3 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:42 PM:

Well, speaking as an organic chemist whose hands-on expeience with explosives stopped with his high-school basement lab (I scared myself often enough there), I know that there are lots of substances that you can make explode, some of them quite unintentionally. We had numerous explosions in the lab I worked in for my PhD, none of them intended, and some of them involving materials that were supposedly safe.

As for me, I was always leery of anything that involved peroxides; some of them are treacherous and extremely sensitive to heat, shock, or even mild scratching. To make them deliberately on a scale large enough to bring down an airliner requires someone not only suicidal but also willing to take the large chance that his suicide will be waaay premature. The reagents to manufacture these substances on the spot in an airliner are corrosive, volatile and/or highly inflammable, hardly the "benign" liquids so casually spoken of in the first news reports.

This is not to say that explosive liquids can't be brought onto a plane; that's what the "Bojinka" plot involved -- nitroglygerine in a contact-lens-solution bottle. But those liquids could also be caught by a bomb-sniffing dog, by quadrupole magnetic resonance detectors, or by other currently available technology.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:44 PM:

I acknowledge Andrew Orlowsky as The Register's biggest soft spot. I keep telling myself they're just keeping him as a pet.

#5 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:51 PM:

Hmmm, just don't believe anything 'The Register' tells you about upcoming unreleased video cards...

...and yeah, Marxists often come up with interesting analysis because, well, they seem to have a tradition of actually bothering to *do* analysis and also have a framework for it, however much you may agree of or disagree with that framework. Interesting, right up until the point where they suddenly make the bewildering leap over the logical grand canyon and conclude that given all this the inevitable working class revolution of the proleteriat is at hand. You just have to hope they limit to a few vestigal reflex 'Cathage must be Destroyed' sentences at the end, rather than starting a quarter of the way in and taking up most of the article.

I testify to WSWS as having been in my past experience -- tho' I haven't read them recently -- pretty good at keeping that sort of stuff down to the concluding paragraph.

#6 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 02:58 PM:

And let's not forget that the response to the mythical threat of binary explosives is to pour the contents of all "threatening" bottles into, let's not mince words, a big vat at security.

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 03:08 PM:

James Macdonald: I anticipate the bombing of High Wycombe, together the mispronunciation of the same.

(Anyone who says 'nuclear' correctly helps terrorism, pass it on.)

#8 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 03:39 PM:

The description of how to make TATP on your (presumably long) flight had me just about ROFLMAO. At work.

(I would bet that few, if any, of the people talking up binary liquid explosives have even had high-school-equivalent chemistry, let alone anything more advanced. Journalism lets you get a good job with essentially no background in anything, including English.)

#9 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 04:17 PM:

More skepticism from Craig Murray, who has some insight into British security theatre, and subsequently points out how it did change the Media Narrative via Bloggerheads.

#10 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 04:30 PM:

As someone who flunked their college intro chemistry lab (I had a good grasp of the concepts and math, but I'm a klutz), I was immediately suspicious of the liquid explosives story.

At least Mohammed Atta was a professionally trained architect and the WTC bombers did attend flight school.

(stands back from possible sub-thread about WTC as conspiracy)

#11 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 04:42 PM:

sara, I'm standing back too, but one thing no one denies about 9/11 is that Bad Things Happened. With the Liquid Sky Delusion, nothing did, and probably nothing would have.

#12 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 04:51 PM:

I have a pretty solid background in chemistry (up through second-year organic at a major university), and I wouldn't try to mix up a liquid explosive in an aircraft lavatory -- not because I'd be worried about dying, because that'd be about the only likely result -- but because the only way someone else would die would be if the old guy in seat 14A had a heart attack when he heard there was a terrorist on board.

It's like Teresa keeps saying: the Bushites hold us in complete contempt.

#13 ::: Berni ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 05:00 PM:

I've worked with those chemicals on a daily basis for over 25 years. You'd trash your bathroom if you mixed them together, but I don't know how much the damage would extend beyond that.

Sulfuric peroxide is a great way to take metal and organic contamination off silicon wafers, but it cools down and loses its effectiveness in less than half an hour. I've been in labs where people have mixed the wrong chemicals. Boom, yes, but not enough to knock out a wall.

#14 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 05:21 PM:

Deal is, the Cheneyites are pushing the meme of the Sinister Dr. Fu Manchu, and the American people, heaven help us all, are buying it.

In one of the articles Teresa links to, we read:

The al-Qaeda franchise will pour forth its bowl of pestilence and death. We know this because we've watched it countless times on TV and in the movies, just as our officials have done. Based on their behavior, it's reasonable to suspect that everything John Reid and Michael Chertoff know about counterterrorism, they learned watching the likes of Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (whose palpable homoerotic appeal it would be discourteous to emphasize).

And by thunder, it's true. I think I can even name the movies they saw. (The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, is one of them. Executive Decision, with Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell, is another.)

Michael Chertoff is a complete incompetent. He fits in perfectly on Team Bush.

#15 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 05:56 PM:

Also, Die Hard With A Vengeance. Certainly that's where I first heard of binary liquid explosives.

#16 ::: Connie H ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 06:40 PM:

Not that I want to give terrorists any great ideas, but wouldn't it be much easier to cause an airline crash by bringing aboard some liquid sarin, which would outgas easily enough once opened, and in the closed air circulation system of the plane get a high death toll -- it's probable the pilots would be just as affected, IIRC the cockpit is on the same air system.

#17 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 07:31 PM:

I'm a big fan of The Reg too - it, Making Light, and about a half dozen other blogs constitute my "morning newspaper" - but that liquid explosives article bothered me a bit:

Wasn't the bomb that blew a hole in a Philipine Airlines plane and killed one passenger in 1994 using just this sort of technology?

If so, an article that talks about the impractibility of this sort of attack should nevertheless acknowledge that it has been tried once and it *worked*.

But I don't know heaps about this stuff - if anyone can tell me I'm wrong, and why, I'd be glad to hear it.

#18 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 07:51 PM:

Connie H --

There's a dump valve; airliners aren't closed systems. (They'd have to be much more strongly built = heavy = expensive to operate if they were.)

Steve --

That was a nitroglycerin bomb. The timer was assembled and attached on board, but the explosive was pre-existing when the bomber boarded.

So, no, no binary compound liquid explosives, just a good old fashioned smuggled bomb that happened to use liquid nitroglycerin.

#19 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 07:59 PM:

I thought the Philipine Airlines bomb was straight nitro glycerin? Frozen, a faint memory tells me, but maybe that's something else....

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 08:07 PM:

Following links from above: This would make a dandy new template for phishing letters:

#21 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 09:22 PM:

I suppose one "benefit" of this is that sizable quantities of acetone or peroxide on the plane are bad enough.

#22 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 10:14 PM:

The reagents to manufacture these substances on the spot in an airliner are corrosive, volatile and/or highly inflammable, hardly the "benign" liquids so casually spoken of in the first news report

What do we use to make TATP? Acetone, Hydrogen Peroxide, Sulfuric Acid.

What do we use to make nitroglycerine? Nitric Acid, Sulfuric Acid, Glycerine.

What are the sinks made of in most planes? Stainless steel, aluminum, or polycarbonate (with a stainless or alloy stopper, no less.)

You want to dump what into what? As my mailserver would put it, 550 O RLY?

(Oh, and on most sinks, it is a damp sink. Not that water would do anything to sulfuric acid...)

#23 ::: CaseyL ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 10:22 PM:

Hollywoodism is just a symptom; the disease is magical thinking, untethered to any actual expertise in the relevant subject matter.

This is what you get when you not only have a profoundly anti-knowledge Administration, but a profoundly anti-knowledge population. The Bushies can spin their magical thinking fantasies because not enough people know even the basics of the sciences/technologies involved.

It's a source of constant astonishment to me that America is, after Japan, the most tech-gadget obsessed culture on the planet while at the same time so ignorant not only about science but about how science works. It's all magic, from cell phones to "binary liquid bombs." Doesn't auger at all well for our chances in the long term, I'm thinking.

#24 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 10:29 PM:

A friend of mine, when explaining why an international graduate student in her department was delayed in arriving, referred to "the exploding shampoo plot."

I have decided this phrase aptly summarizes everything about the situation.

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 10:54 PM:

The Exploding Shampoo Plot. I like it.

#26 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 11:22 PM:

Graydon, NelC -

thanks. Who would ever have dreamed that journalists could have got their facts wrong?

#27 ::: Dave Klecha ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 11:30 PM:


It's not so much "magical thinking" but a rather robust reliance on the Almighty Specialist. Most of us lack the aptitude (and willigness) to be deeply initiated in every field of human endeavor and inquiry. So, at some point, most of us are going to be able to be led by the nose by a smooth-talking specialist when it comes to something that is outside our own personal realm of knowledge and training.

Which is what makes Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds' Army of Davids such a useful starting point in this discussion; I, for one, am perversely proud to say that I am incapable of differentiating truth from baloney on the question of liquid binary explosives. BUT, I am more than happy to listen to the horde of experts that have come out with their suspicions on the practicality of the plot, from a lab-tested chemist's point of view. It does help me make up my own mind on the question and define the scope of my ignorance.

Being an expert at everything is rather impractical, and it's the nature of the limitations of the individual human experience that we will be unable, in a given instance, to differentiate the banalities, the half-truths, and the outright lies. But then again, I could be wrong, and if you like, I'd be delighted to have in depth discussion with you about the practicalities of machine gun use and maintenance, or perhaps the nuances of information technology in dental practices.

Just because individuals do not know how hard it is to make TATP, does not make them starry-eyed, mouth-breathing morons.

#28 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 11:52 PM:

I feel slighted. We're Americans, dammit. We're supposed to be worth the trouble it takes to generate a few first-rate new deceptions.

Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from a TV show, ever, from the very first episode of the superb, like-Buffy-level-good Homicide: Life on the Street:

"You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop, is that it? I'm just a doughnut in the on-deck circle. Wait until the real guy gets here. Wait until that big guy comes back. I'm probably just his secretary. I'm just Montel Williams. You want to talk to Larry King... I've been a murder police for ten years. If you're going to lie to me, you lie to me with respect."

#29 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2006, 11:53 PM:

It does help me make up my own mind on the question and define the scope of my ignorance.

Well said. It seems to me that a non-reliance on experts has been a major problem with this administration.

#30 ::: Marna ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 01:18 AM:

Dave, we've been fighting like cat and dog for nigh on a decade.

And every so often, you remind me why I plan to hang about and fight with you for at least another decade.

#31 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 01:25 AM:

Starry-eyed mouth breathing moron here. But at least I know what I don't know. Also, I'm not in charge of any country's security. I think I deserve a little slack for not knowing how to make TATP -- do you really want me to know? -- but that doesn't excuse the people in charge who are trying to scare us.

I'm with CaseyL that this is all about magical thinking. We are engaged in a collective mass exorcism of the liquids, because some liquids almost threatened us.

#32 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 02:21 AM:

In other words: Just because some liquids almost threatened us is no reason for us to expel the liquids from our bodies into our pants.

#33 ::: Edward Oleander ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 03:00 AM:

mouth-breathing morons

... God, I love that one... Excellent point BTW...

John:And by thunder, it's true. I think I can even name the movies they saw. (The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, is one of them. Executive Decision, with Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell, is another.)

John, I think you missed the one that has perhaps had the most influence on the Bush Administration... The Joker's acid-squirting lapel flower in Batman... Maybe in the remake we can cast a shotgun-weilding Cheney as the Joker ("Bob? Gun!")...

#34 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 07:06 AM:

Does anybody know where this binary explosive meme originated from? Certainly none of the major news sources I've looked at have said anything like it. The plan, as reported by the BBC, the Guardian, and even Wikipedia, was to bring pre-made explosives onto the flight in a drink bottle with a false bottom, then assemble a bomb during the flight with an improvised detonator (probably made from a flash tube).

In the words of Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson (as reported by the BBC):

"We believe that the terrorists' aim was to smuggle explosives on to aeroplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight."

No mention of manufacturing them in-flight. From another BBC article:

"One theory is that the attack may have involved liquid explosive being carried on to a plane in either drink bottles or cans."

This is what the more reliable news sources have been reporting from the beginning. Why is everyone now talking about something entirely different?

#35 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 07:29 AM:

Jules, binary explosive liquids actually exist. It's just that the Hollywoodized version of how they work is like using a teakettle as a steam engine.

#36 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 07:36 AM:

There's also a strong motivation to ratchet up the fear; if there are screening mechanisms for normal explosives, the explosives have to be unusual to make the plot really scary.

The whole point is to threaten people with some abstract potential of death; the less they can imagine the specific mechanics, the less they can imagine being protected from it, and the better it serves the purposes of your lords of misrule.

#37 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 08:25 AM:

I can think of at least two binary explosives that people I know have had close personal experiences with. There's the guy I know that dropped the sodium in the high school toilet (I've always admired (in an awful sort of way) his coolness in remembering to run towards the explosion, instead of away from it).

And then there's one of the ways we entertained ourselves as kids; vinegar bombs. Take a margarine tub, put baking soda and vinegar in it, close the lid, and toss it out over the backyard. Get your timing and amounts right and it'd explode mid-air.

Of course, one of my brothers liked to experiment with kitchen sink chemistry, and being about 7 or 8, - well - it really was kitchen sink chemistry. He decided to make a vinegar bomb that exploded with more force. For some reason he concluded that mustard, pepper, salt, paprika, worcester sauce, and some other things, would do the trick.

We don't know exactly what he put in that last one; he always claimed not to remember. But where it landed the grass never grew again. It was still bare when I left for college. Mom declared a moratorium on vinegar bombs after that.

#38 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 10:52 AM:

Reichstag fire.

Though it's older than that, of course, oldest trick in the book -- think of the attack on the herms during the Peloponnesian War, or Pisistratus faking an attack on himself to make himself tyrant.


#39 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 12:32 PM:

It all comes down to our precious bodily fluids, you know.

#40 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 12:44 PM:

I'm with Jules. There are certainly binary explosives, but where does the suggestion that these guys were going to use them come from?

All the news I've seen has 'liquid explosives' in drink containers - not binary liquids or such.

I'm not saying that's not what the plan was, but I'd like to know the source of the idea we can all agree is ridiculously badly thought out.

#41 ::: RichM ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 01:22 PM:

I, for one, will be watching for a future episode of Mythbusters to settle this once and for all.

#42 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 02:34 PM:

Assuming the terrorists had a workable plot, would you explain it on the news, assuming you were someone in the British police with direct knowledge of it? Also, what if you knew their technique wouldn't work, but also knew of closely-related techniques that would? I don't think we can go from "the stuff that was explained by the BBC wouldn't work" to "there is no good reason for the new screening rules."

#43 ::: Steven Gould ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 03:41 PM:

Real honest to god, stable binary explosives.

#44 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 07:01 PM:

It's pretty hollow scientifically speaking, but I'm not sure I could produce a better plot if I was being tortured in Pakistan. Bombs made from water bottles and hair gel! They might even have hung him right way up for a while after that one.

#45 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 09:31 PM:

I should have known that a primarily fannish audience would figure out a way to turn all this into a story about how People Are Stupid.

Have none of you figured out that, when you do this, you're doing your own tormentors' work for them? No, right, of course not.

Get a fucking clue. This isn't a cozy Heinlein story about how all the people who picked on you are dopey mouth-breathers and (therefore) deserve a degraded culture and a ruined planet.

This is a story about specific people mounting a campaign of lies and fraud against you. Stop taking it philosophically. Get out of the con suite and off of your knees.

#46 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2006, 11:21 PM:

Remember, they don't want to make us actually safer. If we're safer, we might not be so scared. If we're not so scared, we might start paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

#47 ::: Mary Aileen Buss ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 11:37 AM:

I'm with Jules. There are certainly binary explosives, but where does the suggestion that these guys were going to use them come from?

All the news I've seen has 'liquid explosives' in drink containers - not binary liquids or such.

I'm not saying that's not what the plan was, but I'd like to know the source of the idea we can all agree is ridiculously badly thought out.

I think the source stems from a misconception. Consider: Innocuous liquids are being banned, and the bombs were going to be assembled on the plane. Therefore, they must have been planning to mix two otherwise innocuous liquids to make the bomb! (Missing the bit about making the bomb by adding the detonator to the explosive.)

--Mary Aileen

#48 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:47 AM:

Jules: the BBC backgrounder here quoted an expert saying "there are also explosives that are made by mixing a solid and a liquid - one being the oxidant and the other being the fuel... if someone was using a backyard laboratory it is more likely they would go for the two component approach".

In context it's obvious that he's envisaging them making the explosive groundside and then carrying it on - but it's an obvious misunderstanding to think of someone actually making the explosives on the plane.

As for the fragility of TATP, Richard Reid had PETN plastic explosive in his shoe with a TATP detonator, and was fine walking on it all the way into the aircraft.

By the way, they've charged 11 of the suspects now. Conspiracy and preparation for acts of terrorism.

#49 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 01:02 PM:

The first reference to a binary chemical based terrorist attack I can remember is the TV film "Binary" from 1972. Heroic Ben Gazzara prevents EG Marshall from doing something unpleasant to a convention of Democrats. I forget the details other than that Michael Crichton has something to do with the original plot and Joseph Wiseman was in it.

#50 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 01:34 PM:

Blowing a fully-laden 747 out of the sky -- even blowing a dozen fully-laden 747s out of the sky -- wouldn't have created more economic disruption and loss of time and productivity than the BS "everyone empty your water bottles!" response of the Bushites.

Standard, old-fashioned police work and international cooperation will do more to ease the "terror threat" (such as it is) than any number of Upskirt Sniffing Machines at embarkation points.

Is it time to retell the stories of Me vs. Greenpeace, or Me vs. the Unbreakable Password?

This is such BS. If anyone took a minute to think who wants us terrorized and why they wanted us terrorized....

#51 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 01:47 PM:

When this first became public, and all the headlines were saying things like 'murder on an unprecedented scale', my reaction was: would it be more or fewer people than those killed on 9/11? They were talking about ten jumbo jets, not a country or a continent or the whole planet.

#52 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 04:54 PM:

Ah, yes, thanks for the source ajay - though that sounds like a scientist speculating without knowing what the real attempt was based on. But if respectable scientists are talking about it, then there's a good link to the story starting.

As to the 'murder on an unprecedented scale' question, the 9/11 attacks killed 2,973 people (according to wikipedia). A standard 747 holds 416 passengers, so the ten (if fully laden) would have been a good deal more. But I have no idea how likely it is that they'd get ten full 747s whenever they tried their plan.

In any case, the scale is only unprecedented for certain values - it doesn't begin to compare to the holocaust, for example, unless we mean 'number killed in one day': even then, I wouldn't be surprised to find the holocaust was worse.

That line is just hysteria. And it just adds to the general hysteria, which is doing a huge amount of damage! I'm not sure it's worse than if the plan had worked - then we'd have all this and more. But it's certainly worse than any rational response to this threat, given that that would be "woohoo, we got them!" and on with our lives.

#53 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 12:35 PM:

Call it a mental quirk, but when the pictures came out of the liquids being dumped into the barrels at the airports did anyone else think "Eel O'Brian!"?

#54 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2006, 07:02 PM:

Hey, Wonkette finally spotted the "impossible two-liquid explosives" story. Does this mean we're retroactively cool?

#55 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2006, 03:53 PM:

Update on all this (and thanks to Skwid):

UK 'plot' terror charge dropped

A Pakistani judge has ruled there is not enough evidence to try a key suspect in an alleged airline bomb plot on terrorism charges.

He has moved the case of Rashid Rauf, a Briton, from an anti-terrorism court to a regular court, where he faces lesser charges such as forgery.

Pakistan has presented Mr Rauf as one of the ringleaders behind the alleged plan to blow up flights out of London.

The British authorities say they foiled it with Pakistan's help in August.

They say proceedings against suspects arrested in Britain will go ahead.


The arrest of Rashid Rauf in Pakistan triggered arrests in the United Kingdom of a number of suspects allegedly plotting to blow up transatlantic flights.

The Pakistani authorities described him as a key figure.

But an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi found no evidence that he had been involved in terrorist activities or that he belonged to a terrorist organisation.

As well as forgery charges, Mr Rauf has also been charged with carrying explosives.

But his lawyer says police evidence amounts only to bottles of hydrogen peroxide found in his possession.

Hydrogen peroxide is a disinfectant that can be used for bomb-making if other chemicals are added.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says the judge's decision has reinforced the already widespread scepticism there about the airliner plot.


So, it turns out that there wasn't a liquid explosive plot to start with....

#56 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2006, 04:46 PM:

The guy was carrying bottles of hydrogen peroxide -- possibly to disinfect his contact lens cases? That's why I've been known to carry it.

Excuse me while I follow that White Rabbit with the pocket watch down that attractive-looking hole...

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