Binary Liquids

by on August 21, 2006 · 6 comments

The Register has an in-depth analysis of the terrorists’ purported plan of attack:

It’s all right to mix the peroxide and acetone in one container, so long as it remains cool. Don’t forget to bring several frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively marked “perishable foods”), a thermometer, a large beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You’re going to need them.

It’s best to fly first class and order Champagne. The bucket full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might possibly be adequate – especially if you have those cold gel-packs handy to supplement the ice, and the Styrofoam chiller handy for insulation – to get you through the cookery without starting a fire in the lavvie.

Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide / acetone mixture into the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you’ll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you’ll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.

After a few hours – assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven’t overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities – you’ll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two.

The genius of this scheme is that TATP is relatively easy to detonate. But you must make enough of it to crash the plane, and you must make it with care to assure potency. One needs quality stuff to commit “mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” as Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson put it. While it’s true that a slapdash concoction will explode, it’s unlikely to do more than blow out a few windows. At best, an infidel or two might be killed by the blast, and one or two others by flying debris as the cabin suddenly depressurizes, but that’s about all you’re likely to manage under the most favorable conditions possible…

We’ve given extraordinary credit to a collection of jihadist wannabes with an exceptionally poor grasp of the mechanics of attacking a plane, whose only hope of success would have been a pure accident. They would have had to succeed in spite of their own ignorance and incompetence, and in spite of being under police surveillance for a year.

But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security). Nearly everything must now go into the hold, where adequate amounts of explosives can easily be detonated from the cabin with cell phones, which are generally not banned.

I don’t know enough about chemistry to know if this analysis is right. But if it is, it makes Deputy Commissioner Stephenson’s pants-wetting all the more embarrassing.

Update: Perry Metzger points out that his interesting people post making many of the same arguments was posted several days before the Register‘s article. It goes into more detail about the chemical processes involved.

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