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Expert Commentary

Expert Commentary
Aircraft parked at London's Heathrow Airport (epa file photo)

THE LIQUID THREAT. RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash spoke with Crispin Black, an independent, London-based intelligence analyst, about the would-be bombers’ capabilities and the ability of detection devices to counter them.

RFE/RL: What is known so far about the techniques the bombers planned to use? What was the nature of the liquid explosives involved?

Crispin Black: I think what we know so far -- and there's a lot of speculation about this -- is that that they have managed to make, if you will, a small technological step forward, and they've managed to develop new techniques to disguise liquid explosives so that they could be gotten onto a plane. One of the techniques [that] they might be using is the so-called binary technique, and that is when you have two chemicals that on their own are benign, but when put together, they have an explosive capacity. And it's possible that those two comparatively benign chemicals would be transported independently by two different people onto a plane, and then married up, as in a chemistry lab, actually in the air.

RFE/RL: What are possible detonation systems for such an explosive?

Black: There seem to be two detonation systems that are being talked about. One is some sort of electronic method, which would be what you would traditionally expect, either from a key fob or from some sort of I-pod or something like that -- in other words, something with an electrical charge that could be hooked up to do it. Some, I understand -- some explosives -- can just be detonated by delivering a sharp shock to them; say, if you bang the thing hard enough, it will go off. But obviously, [with] those ones, the risk is, for the terrorist, [is] that they would go off at the wrong time.

RFE/RL: Does the liquid-based explosive represent a new front in terrorist strategy?

Black: We've seen something like this before, in 1995, when a similar plot was hatched with its hub in Manila, and the idea was to blow up 11 aircraft on their way across the Pacific to the United States. The plot involved liquids, and in fact, putting the liquid explosive into a contact-lens-liquid holder. The idea didn't seem to catch on particularly or spread through the 'terrorist community, which I think is why we haven't perhaps confronted it before.

RFE/RL: What kind of new detection technology is on the horizon to cope with this threat? Until that technology is implemented, what strategies will airports use to maintain security?

Black: When we know the precise specifications of the bomb or the bombs that were designed for this particular plot, I think it's going to make it easier for us to recalibrate our systems. And in any case, regardless, new hand-baggage rules and new search procedures at airports in the meantime will be enough to ensure that -- unless we're very slack -- that these devices don't actually get on an aircraft. There is explosive-sniffing technology on the horizon, but I don't think it has been installed yet at airports.