We've discussed the printer ink cartridge bombs used by a group of terrorists about a month ago and we've pondered just how evildoers hide their bombs, but now we're discovering exactly how terrifyingly well those explosives avoid detection.
Ever since al-Qaeda's Yemen branch snuck two bomb-packed printers onto cargo aircraft in October, it's been widely suspected that the bombs were chosen to evade airport detection capabilities. And yesterday, a senior Department of Homeland Security official confirmed it.
"They were anticipating our x-ray devices," Tara O'Toole, the department's undersecretary for science and technology told a National Defense Industrial Association luncheon. "They were anticipating the possibility of trace [explosives] detection."
That's an alarming admission. Twice in 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula used bombs using PETN, a cousin of nitroglycerin: first in a failed assassination of a Saudi Arabian official and then in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's Christmastime attempt to blow up a passenger plane headed for Detroit. Before that, as National Defense notes, both the Lockerbie bomber in 1988 and would-be-shoebomber Richard Reid employed the odorless substance.
That's how al-Qaeda stays economically a step ahead of security detection. Air travelers have to take off their shoes, post-Reid, and stow their carry- liquids after a 2006 plot. Abdulmutallab's PETN attempt led to the re-introduction of the infamous backscatter "porno-scanners" at airports, looking for minimal-metal bombs hidden in bodily crevices.
Explosive detection systems that can pick up PETN and similar compounds are in place for checked passenger baggage. But as the Guardian reported, it's way expensive to put them into use for checking cargo. That's especially germane after the latest issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-language magazine, Inspire, gloats that its cargo-bomb plot, "Operation Hemorrhage," cost the terrorist group merely $4200 to pull off.
That kind of economic discrepancy is a terrorist hallmark: 9/11 cost $500,000, and the U.S.'s ten-year long response to it - two wars, huge security-agency budget increases, etc. - costs over a trillion dollars. And that's partly why Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has urged the public to stop panicking about terrorist attacks.
Still, though: Inspire vows more attacks on commercial aviation. Can the U.S. really not be able to get a cost-effective early-detection system in place?