While the so-called terror “expert” talking heads fill cable news with facts and fictions, it is growingly clear that U.S. Homeland Security is learning from the incident and adjusting its Watch and Do-not-fly lists to make them more usefully integrated as well as working more closely with foreign governments and their airport security operations. It’s also a fairly sure bet that passengers will see more “puffer” machines, sniffing dogs and TSA workers swabbing at U.S. security portals. It is not as clear with full-body scanners, even though Wall Street has given the company that makes them a stock boost just after the holiday incident.
According to a report sent to Security Magazine today from the Department of Homeland Security and which quotes the Associated Press, the explosive device used by the would-be Detroit bomber contained a widely available — and easily detected — chemical explosive that has a long history of terrorist use, according to government officials and explosive experts. The chemical — PETN — is small, powerful and appealing to terrorists. The Saudi government said it was used in an assassination attempt on the country’s counterterrorism operations chief in August. It was also a component of the explosive that the convicted “shoe bomber” used in his 2001 attempt to down an airliner. PETN was widely used in the plastic explosives terrorists used to blow up airplanes in the 1970s and 1980s. Investigators say the suspect hid an explosive device on his body when he traveled from Amsterdam to Detroit on Northwest Flight 253. They say PETN was hidden in a condom or condom-like bag just below his torso. The man also had a syringe filled with liquid. One law enforcement official said the second part of the explosive concoction used in the Christmas Day incident is still being tested but appears to be a glycol-based liquid explosive. PETN is the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions and can be collected by scraping the insides of the wire, said an explosives expert. Law enforcement officials said modern airport screening machines could have detected the chemical. Airport “puffer” machines — the devices that blow air onto a passenger to collect and analyze residues — would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab. Hidden in the man’s clothing, the explosive might have also been detected by the full-body imaging scanners now making their way into airports. However, the man did not pass through either type of scanner in Nigeria or Amsterdam.
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