I keep harping on the fact that we, the U. S., are blindly focusing only on nuclear weapons (vide my earlier post: “70-20-10” – U.S. Security Still Needs A Focus on Technology). This is exactly what I meant, when I posted my blog “70-20-10” – U.S. Security Still Needs A Focus on Technology on June 14, 2006.
I agree with most of the observations made by Randall Larsen, Jonathan Katz, and Mark Mills. However, some of the salient points must be elucidated. For instance, gamma rays from nuclear armaments could be shielded from detectors by using certain conventional materials that are readily available on the commercial market. (I will not elaborate on those, lest my comments be exploited.) A determined adversary, who has no regard for lives – including his/her own – is very difficult to vanquish easily. There is a dire need for forward-looking, proactive research and development in detection and neutralization of chemical, biological, and nuclear threats. I am afraid that we (the U. S.) are deeply concerned only about nuclear threats. However, there is a more sinister, emerging threat from biological and chemical weapons. To make matters worse, these weapons are unimaginably even more destructive; advances in nanotechnologies could be exploited by nation-states AND individuals without access to high-tech centrifuges, advanced pieces of equipment, etc. Nanomaterials and nanotechnologies are so ubiquitous and all-encompassing that they cover all applications. For instance, anthrax spores could be nanosized to significantly increase their lethality; chemical agents could be nanosized, or adsorbed on the surface of the nanomaterials, to effectuate the same results, if not more lethal. The applications are essentially limitless. I, for one, truly believe that we should spend adequate (certainly more than what is currently being done) resources on conventional processes and technologies and derive substantial detective and protective measures. Furthermore, today’s state-of the-art mass spectrometers deployed at the airports cannot detect most biological species, much less nanosized weapons-grade materials. Even ordinary materials could be turned into conflagrant, pyrophoric explosives. These nanomaterials cannot be detected as threats by current standards. I earnestly hope that the U. S. government would foresee and perceive the need for research into such seemingly mundane and conventional materials.
What is more telling is the fact the airport-based detectors (mass spectrometers – atomic-absorption spectrometers, and inductively-coupled plasma-mass spectrometers, gas chromatographs, and gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers, etc. – and others – radiation and scintillation detectors) cannot detect all the chemical explosives that we are currently dealing with, much less those in well-sealed containers. The crux of the problem is how we are going to prevent the conversion of seemingly ordinary chemicals (read: household cleaners, fertilizers, bleach, and the like) into deadly weapons by terrorists, who are moderately skilled at chemistry. Read the following quote from a “security consultant” based in London, U. K.:
“Explosive liquids could get through airport security because security checks don't use sensors that would pick up its vapors. Furthermore, if the liquids were tightly sealed in a container, such a sensor wouldn't detect it. That would require airport security personnel to open each bottle of liquid in order to check for such chemicals. That would mean checking every single bottle of shampoo that anyone has ever taken from a hotel room,” said Bob Ayers, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and vice president for homeland security for Selex Sensors & Airborne Systems of Italy, an arm of Finmeccanica SpA. “The best and optimal way to make sure no one carries something dangerous onto a plane is to make people fly naked and with no baggage,” he added.”
Well, he forgets the power of human ingenuity and that necessity is the mother of all inventions! What about those “mules” in illicit drug trade, who carry a lot of drugs in their body cavities using latex bags (i. e., condoms and gloves)? Remember the old saying – “where there is a will, there is always a way”! It is just a cat-and-mouse game and one-upmanship, in which we are engaged. Nobody will have a clear-cut, perpetual lead at this game. If we think that we can prevent all terrorist activities, then we are only deluding ourselves! The sad truth is that we just cannot! I will be first one to admit that I am no genius; however, I can think of myriad ways to beat the current state-of-the-art detection and neutralization techniques. We must bear in mind that these detection and neutralization techniques are only devised by humans, who are immensely fallible! We must also remember that the results of these detection techniques are only as good as the individuals, who operate them! Well, I am not sure that one could expect a lowly TSA (or a TSA-contractor's) employee to be a proficient analytical chemist. Even trained analytical chemists have significant difficulty differentiating between various species of explosive components. Furthermore, there is a tremendous amount of time pressure on these screeners, and hence, numerous false-positives and negatives result!
We must be vigilant and proactive at countermeasures. However, we cannot police the entire world, nor can we afford to trample on civil liberties of innocent public, for it will only antagonize them. I believe that the primary solution to terrorism will have to be political one – politicians and bureaucrats (not just the ones in Washington) must read and understand history and learn from it; that the separation of church and state is a must; that we must not support one faction (or a country, for that matter), or the other; that our policies are even-handed, fair, and just, have a long-term view, and not for the sake of expediency.
I still very strongly advocate the following (these action items are work in progress and may be modified as further refinements are made):
Invest in the biological and chemical weapons technology development, detection, and neutralization.
Form an International Technology Working Group – ITWG – perhaps, under the U. N. umbrella. (However, I do not have much faith in the U. N's ability to police the spread of anything, much less a technology that is already widespread. This is, perhaps, because of our own doing. Responsibility without authority does not mean anything!)
The ITWG must comprise personnel from industry, academia, intelligence community, and armed services from across the globe.
Invest in nanotechnology and nanomaterials, for these would be the deadliest future weapons platform.
Screen and limit publicly available information. (This may be very difficult, if not impossible, because the proverbial cat is already out of the bag and playing gleefully.) It is instructive to remember that Ramzi Yousef (mastermind of 1993 WTC bombing) was allegedly employed at Allied-Signal – now Honeywell – in Morristown, NJ, learning all the tricks of the trade!
Invest in the education of our children. (See What innovation advantage? Chinese and Indian companies aren't leaving design to the North Americans, Russia opens new nanotech center, Virus Fuels a Battery Breakthrough, and Business Round Table Discussion and Recommendations.)
Bottom line is that we must very quickly reprioritize our goals (and act on, of course) to include education of our citizens; investment in technology (regardless of religious convictions; read: President Bush's veto of the Stem Cell Bill); invest in a strong defense (read: do not fight other people's wars); learn from other countries and adapt to the challenge; and above all acquire, invest in, and nurture talent from anywhere in the world (read: legal immigration).
The following article appeared in August 10, 2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal:
Alleged Terror Plot Involved Liquid Explosives, Official Says
By DEBORAH BALL and CASSELL BRYAN-LOW
August 10, 2006 12:07 p.m.
LONDON – The alleged plot to bring down several trans-Atlantic flights involving liquid explosives highlights a vulnerable area in airline travel, despite efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to strengthen security.
Security experts say there are a number of chemicals that could potentially be used in such a bomb, including nitroglycerin, hydrogen peroxide or hydrazine.
The attraction for terrorists is that liquid explosives can be hard to detect, says Peter Hurry, an explosion specialist at risk consultant Kroll Inc. and a former British army bomb-disposal expert. Explosive liquids could get through airport security because security checks don’t use sensors that would pick up its vapors. Furthermore, if the liquids were tightly sealed in a container, such a sensor wouldn’t detect it. That would require airport security personnel to open each bottle of liquid in order to check for such chemicals.
“That would mean checking every single bottle of shampoo that anyone has ever taken from a hotel room,” said Bob Ayers, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and vice president for homeland security for Selex Sensors & Airborne Systems of Italy, an arm of Finmeccanica SpA. “The best and optimal way to make sure no one carries something dangerous onto a plane is to make people fly naked and with no baggage,” he added. Authorities in Britain responded yesterday by moving closer to those draconian measures, banning almost all hand-carried items on planes departing from British airports. Elsewhere, airline passengers were required to give up any liquids – such as beverages, hair gels and lotions – before boarding.
A terrorist could carry a container of liquid explosive onto a plane and then detonate it using the electric current from a simple device, such as a travel alarm clock or a cellphone, to detonate the container. However, the reason that liquid explosives haven’t been used more often is because they are tricky to store, difficult to transport and can be highly unstable.
“The people who are going to carry it onto a plane aren’t too concerned with blowing themselves up, but it might before they even get it to the plane,” Mr. Ayers said.
This latest plot appears to bear some similarities to an al Qaeda plot to bomb 11 U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific that was uncovered in the Philippines in 1995. Code-named “Bojinka” – the Serbo-Croatian word for “explosion” – the plot also included the assassination of Pope John Paul II during a visit to Manila and crashing a plane into the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Virginia.
Police in Manila stumbled across the conspiracy when they responded to a fire at an apartment rented by Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Yousef, who was later caught in Pakistan and convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They found bomb-making materials in a sink and a laptop computer full of coded information. The mastermind of the Bojinka plot – Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – later went on to orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003.
“The parallels are quite striking between what [Mr. Yousef] did then and what is happening now,” said Peter Neumann, director for the center for defense studies at King’s College in London.
The masterminds of the Bojinka plot had planned to hide the batteries needed to detonate the liquid bombs in the heels of their shoes, Mr. Neumann said. It is likely for that reason that passengers in Britain yesterday were advised that no electrical or battery-powered items including laptops and mobile phones could be carried into the aircraft cabin.
“It may not take a huge blast,” said Suraj Lakhani, a researcher on counterterrorism at Royal United Services Institute, a think tank that advises the British government on security issues. “If the person detonating it sat near a window or near the fuselage, it could cause a big enough hole to bring the plane down.”
–James Hookway contributed to this article
Write to Deborah Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org and Cassell Bryan-Low at email@example.com