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.”)
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.”
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 chemistryMaking 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. …
As The Register goes on to summarize their analysis:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Ned Lamont has been a major target of Bush & Co.’s latest piece of terror-opportunism. From ABC News:
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.”
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.”
More on the non-believability of British reports:
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.