You're looking at a bomb. In 1986, Discover magazine reported on the hypothetical risks of PETN, an explosive that could be used as a covert bomb. Now, explosives are stuffed in dogs. Below, a history of improvised destruction.
Twenty four years ago, my father, a technology reporter, wrote that article for Discover, highlighting a nascent technological trend that has continued, with billowing fear and media hype, to threaten. Bombs can be anywhere. The Hollywood archetype of the giant shiny cylinder with the LED countdown timer is an absurdity—bombers of today are clever, crude, and increasingly low tech. Easily procured, untraceable, moldable explosives, and an adamantly determined adversary mean a new era of explosive mobility.
And even over two decades ago, this was a threat we knew was coming: "The number of things a terrorist can do is far greater than can ever be defended against," said Paul Robinson of Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We'll always be in the position where deterrence presupposes a rational adversary." But what we should be presupposing instead, we're only slowly realizing now, are terrorists who are willing (and capable) of trying anything. In the 80s we knew, the article states, that terrorists had "fairly limited technical competence"—but that "whatever high tech things are used by terrorists are off the shelf." For instance, the Discover article highlights the risk of simple circuitry like that found in a pinball machine, capable of detonating massive amounts of plastic explosives. Or, more presciently (and hauntingly), an illustrated hypothetical of running shoes laced with explosive PETN laces—easily detonated with a match.
Explosive shoes—sound familiar? Fast forward 24 years, and we've yet to find a means of defending ourselves against the formidable intersection of the ridiculous and the devastating. What have we found ourselves up against in the years since this warning? And more importantly—what's next?
The Discover article's underlying dictum was that, for a would-be bomber, a sneaky explosive "Must Be Simple and Reliable." Recent history has shown an emphasis on the former, with the latter for the most part, fortuitously untested due to intervention or ineptitude on the part of the bomber. But despite continuous failure, terrorists have been slipping simple explosives into even simpler objects.
The Shoe Bomber
Sixteen years after my father speculated about the possibility of a man blowing up his shoe, Richard Reid tried it. With the exact same explosive. Rather than the laces, however, Reid's failed bomb (possibly too damp to ignite because of sweat) had stuffed undetectable PETN into a shoe's sole.
Had only a few minute factors been only slightly different, he would have taken down a plane. Anyone who has flown since 2002 is reminded of this risk as they stand in line, shoeless and annoyed.
The Energy Drink Bombers
You can thank a canny group of 2006 Al-Qaeda bombers for the hassle you face with your shampoo every time you try to fly. The plot—which never actually made it into the sky—called for the use of peroxide-based liquid explosives carried openly in sports drink bottles. The specific explosive variety—triacetone triperoxide (TATP)—is easy to make, and extremely unstable. That's bad news for those making the bomb—watch your hands!—and worse news for anyone who might have been onboard one of the plot's targeted planes. All it would have taken to turn a bottle of innocuous looking liquid into a plane-downing explosion was heat, or even simple friction. Experts believe that, after mixing the TATP with Tang (!), the mixture was to be detonated with the batteries from a disposable camera. Again, low tech, high casualty.
The Dog Bombs
Our most recent and thoroughly upsetting reminder of improvisational ingenuity was last week's report that, in 2008, Al Qaeda attempted to stuff two canines with explosives—a low tech move that ended up killing the animals before they even made it onboard their flights. If simplicity and reliability is the thinking terrorist's credo, it's clear this effort strayed far from the latter.
The Underwear Bomber
On Christmas Eve 2009, 23 year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253, his underwear filled with a cocktail of undetectable powder explosives—most notably PETN. All it took to detonate his package—possibly stuffed inside a concealed condom—was a small syringe of reactive liquid, also easily concealed. Luckily, while Umar kept it simple, he didn't keep it reliable—all he managed to damage was himself below the belt, and the wall of the plane. The idea was deviously clever, but the execution was off. Had it worked, it would have blown a hole in the plane's fuselage, likely killing all aboard.
The Ass Bomber
Nothing says dedication to a cause, no matter how dubious, like inserting a pound of PETN and cellular detonator into your rectum. Al Qaeda operative Abdullah Asieri did just that in 2009, hoping to assassinate Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief. Again—an explosive that defies detection, though this time owing more to its location than its chemical properties. The attack failed—leaving Asieri, somehow, alive—but highlighted a bomber's ability to conceal simple explosives in the unlikeliest (and least searchable) of areas. All it took to detonate the human bomb was a phone call. What would it take to prevent a similar attack? "Absolutely nothing other than to require people to strip naked at the airport," says Chris Yates, an airline security expert.
The Printer Bomb
The most recent bizarre bomb to make headlines again starred our dear friend PETN, this time hidden inside a consumer laser printer's toner cartridge. Again—dead simple. PETN, cartridge, SIM card detonator. Nothing else was required beyond an amateurish knowledge of wiring. It was a crude package, and a detonation was never attempted, but it was simple, clever, and thoroughly strange.
An acronym that's drilled itself into the head of the entire news-watching world, IEDs have caused horrendous casualties—both civilian and not—and revolutionized warfare. On battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is virtually no piece of terrain safe from a jury rigged explosive weapon—in the latter campaign, the Washington Post reports that over 60% of US deaths have been due to IEDs. Insurgents stick them wherever they can, using whatever they can—dead animals on the side of the road, soda bottles, trees, piles of trash—anything with the slightest room for a cheap chemical and a SIM card can blow off a limb. The IED of the modern battlefield is the shoe bomb taken to its logical extreme. The world is the weapon.
It appears that with the nearly quarter of a century (at least) between experts worrying about explosives in unlikely places and now, little has been done. Or at least not enough to keep bombs out of goddamn pants. So, I turned to my father, who in the time since then has followed the subject with a wearily shaking head, and asked what the upshot is. Or is there an upshot? Please tell us there's an upshot.
"There's one basic thing that hasn't changed," he informed me. "Terrorism offense is always easier than defense." That, and the fact that "a highly technological society is always vulnerable on the low end. It would have to devote mountainous parts of its treasury to defend against even rudimentary attacks."
That's our society, in case you were wondering.
And we have devoted some hefty change toward counterterrorism—efforts against explosives in particular. So has anything changed in the interim? Not really—the low tech of yesterday follow's the same fanatical DIY homicide ethos of the 80s. "Technically there's no difference between using a digital watch as a timer and a cell phone. Cell phone circuitry is obviously everywhere, just like digital watches used to be." Of course, a phone allows for remote detonation, but the point stands—improvisation persists through generations of tech.
So what do we do, short of taking off our shoes, then our shirts, then our underwear, and then eventually winding up in some near-future version of air travel in which we're all strapped naked to the walls doped up on liquid morphine? Psychology, and the purely deterrent value of tech. "If it becomes widely known that suspicious behavior can be picked out, and the tech is there, that'll have value. It's sort of like the lie detector. The lie detector is an old carnival stunt that anyone can learn how to foil, but but it has deterrent value, which is why cops still like to use them." So when terror goes low tech, you can't out tech it.
The killer mechanism in bombs in dogs and printers isn't the dog or the printer, but the mind that devised it. If we're going to stop terrorists from turning anything into a bomb, we'll need to psych them out of thinking they can pull it off. And just look up—in every case above, they didn't pull it off. Despite brilliantly simple design, pure human carelessness or idiocy spoiled the plot. If we're going to stop the next wacky plan, it might not be through the function of giant scanning puffer boxes at security screening sites—but their mere form. The appearance, the semblance even, of being singled out or flagged, "has deterrent value against the sloppy and undisciplined guys." And those kind of guys seem like the ones being tapped, for now.
The question remains, however, what we do when PETN starts getting pressed deeper and deeper. A printer, fine. A dog—cruel, but from a biological standpoint that was doomed to begin with. But what happens when—and we mean this with all seriousness—the first penis bomb shows up? As scared as the public might be of being blown up, it sure as hell won't tolerate getting jerked off by an anonymous TSA guard in the name of safety. And beyond that point, the point at which we can tolerate being checked, or count on human nature to foil its own intentions, what happens? "You'll get blown up. You'll get hurt."