Liquid Explosives: New Terror, Old Idea

With the recent arrest of 21 terror suspects in the United Kingdom, the focus of terrorist weaponry has shifted focus to an age old, but largely unnoticed idea: that of liquid explosives. Before August 10th, there was little public focus on liquid as a potential weapon, as TSA screeners allowed all kinds of liquid and gel containers to move through checkpoints with little notice.

Since the UK arrests, however, the idea of volatile liquid weapons will likely be on the mind of the traveling public for quite some time, and with good reason. But how, and why, would terrorists want to use such a volatile weapon to carry out their plans? The answer is-or was-their relatively simplistic nature.

Simply put, a liquid explosive is a chemical compound that happens to be very unstable in liquid form. This volatility makes the liquid extremely dangerous, sometimes even to carry, as sometimes even a physical jolt can cause the mixture to explode. Chemical or electrical stimuli can also cause liquid explosives to detonate, and initial reports confirm that the sports drink-type mixtures would have likely been set off with a small device like a cell phone or MP3 player. Depending on the density of the mixture, the ingredients used, and several other components, detonation of a liquid explosive can result in a potentially dangerous amount of heat and light accompanied by a shockwave.

Despite the danger involved in transporting such materials, it seems that liquid explosives would be very appealing weaponry to terrorists. Again, the answer has to do with simplicity. Liquid explosives of varying power can be mixed with relatively common ingredients, some of which can be found in most any home. This adds a layer of difficulty to tracking those intending to make such explosives.

But the difficulty doesn’t end there. Since liquid explosives are little more than mixtures of a few different ingredients, they can be brought into a central location separately, and then mixed to create the final explosive. This mean four different people could smuggle four different ingredients through a security checkpoint and mix them once they were cleared to create the final explosive. The ability to mix an explosive on-site with common ingredients-especially when those ingredients can be smuggled in containers as simple as a soda bottle-makes it incredibly difficult for authorities to detect possible threats. Hence, a nationwide ban on liquids and gels was instituted in airports in the wake of the UK arrests.

The difficulty in screening for liquid explosives is a very real threat to airlines. It has been a weak point in security for years, and though authorities have recognized the need for such technology for some time, priorities and funding have put a hold on the widespread use of liquid screeners. The field isn’t entirely bereft of technology, however, though much of it is fundamentally flawed. Screeners using both microwaves and laser technology to detect safe liquids have been developed and tested. Both work well under the right circumstances, but metallic and opaque containers, respectively, give make those detectors useless. It is likely that the new attention to the liquid explosive threat will help the technology gain momentum, but more pervasive and successful screeners could be years in the making.

The nature of terrorism lies, unfortunately, in the realms of both desperation and innovation. The same duality is true for the technology that they harness to accomplish their goals: much of it is downright crude, but has a somewhat cutting-edge twist. This newest threat to airline passengers is no exception, and while a ban on liquids moving through security checkpoints might be a band-aid to stop the threat for now, it’s the nature of terrorists to keep thinking and pushing for new ways to make their point. In the case of these recent arrests, luckily and thankfully, the authorities beat them to the p

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