Last Thursday, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration temporarily banned all gels and liquids in carry-on baggage on flights between the United States and Russia. The measure was instituted one day after the U.S. government warned of the possibility that explosives could be camouflaged inside toothpaste tubes in order to be smuggled aboard an aircraft.
The warning came amid heightened concerns that there could be a terrorist attack during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. With the world's media firmly fixed on Sochi, the toothpaste tube bomb warning generated a great deal of media coverage and a lot of hype.
The concept of camouflaging explosives inside innocuous looking containers to smuggle them aboard an aircraft is nothing new. For decades explosives used to attack aircraft have been hidden in a variety of objects from electronics and shoes to wine bottles and baby dolls — and in October 1976, the main charge of one of the two explosive devices used to destroy Cubana Air Flight 455 was actually concealed inside a tube of toothpaste. However, bombmakers pay close attention to warnings and security measures and alter their methods of concealment accordingly to stay one step ahead of security. Aviation security has long been an evolutionary arms race.
It is not difficult for a skillful and imaginative bombmaker to change the method of concealment for an explosive charge. Therefore, in light of the current warning regarding toothpaste (and the temporary security measures instituted because of it), any bombmaker currently planning an attack with a camouflaged explosive device will undoubtedly use something other than a toothpaste tube for that purpose.
Capabilities of the Caucasus Emirate
It is also critically important to note that in this particular case, the primary group that has threatened the Olympic Games, Vilayat Dagestan, and their leaders in the Caucasus Emirate have not demonstrated the ability to construct and deploy cleverly disguised explosive devices. Nor have they demonstrated the operational reach required to place such a device aboard an aircraft originating in the United States. The Caucasus Emirate and Vilayat Dagestan do not possess the bombmaking skills and operational planning capabilities of the Chechen groups of the past, and anyone who wants to understand the threat they pose needs to be mindful of this distinction.
This difference in bombmaking capability and operational planning is quite evident in a comparison of the January 2011 attack at Moscow's Domodedovo airport by the Caucasus Emirate and the August 2004 attack by Chechen militants under the command of Shamil Basayev in which two airliners were destroyed. Interestingly, in that case, both of the flights also originated from Domodedovo — one was bound for Sochi and the other for Volgograd. In the Basayev-led attack, female suicide bombers were able to smuggle camouflaged explosive devices aboard the two aircraft, which were destroyed in midflight, killing all their occupants. In the 2011 Caucasus Emirate attack, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the airport arrival lounge outside the security perimeter; no device was smuggled through security.
Certainly the 2004 attack led to tighter security checks in 2011, but other attacks by Basayev's group, such as the May 2004 assassination of Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov, also demonstrated significant sophistication. In the Kadyrov assassination the militants were able to penetrate security weeks in advance of the actual attack and place a device in the concrete under where the president would sit.
Recent attacks in Volgograd by the Vilayat Dagestan have used suicide devices that were created by wiring up unexploded military ordnance — an artillery shell — with a detonator and a command switch. There is a large difference between the skill set required to assemble an improvised explosive device from manufactured military components and designing an elegant improvised explosive device that can be concealed and smuggled aboard an aircraft. This distinction is what we have in the past referred to as the difference between a technician and an inventor. Basayev's Chechen group had at least one inventor, while the Caucasus Emirate and Vilayat Dagestan have not yet shown that capability.
One of the problems posed by a warning like the recent toothpaste alert is that it can tend to focus security officers too much on one specific mode of camouflage.
The Threat Posed By Concealed Explosive Devices
As noted above, airline security officials have long been engaged in an evolutionary arms race with those wishing to attack aircraft. This threat transcends ideologies; a number of different actors, including Marxist Palestinians, anti-Castro Cubans, Sikhs and North Korean and Libyan government agents have targeted aircraft.
However, while many varieties of militants have attacked aircraft, as we have repeatedly noted, jihadists have long had a fixation on aircraft — from plots such as Bojinka in the 1990s through the 2001 shoe bombing, the 2006 liquid bomb plot and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's underwear and printer bombs from 2009 to 2012.
This fixation on aircraft as a target set is not only because the fragility of aircraft makes it possible to cause damage with relatively small quantities of explosives but also because of the massive media attention that past attacks against aircraft have generated and how that media coverage has served as a terror magnifier.
One of the problems posed by a warning like the recent toothpaste alert is that it can tend to focus security officers too much on one specific mode of camouflage. Explosives come in a number of different forms, including liquids, solids, flexible sheets and cords, plasticized solids, powders and gels, and they can be hidden in any number of innovative and creative ways.
Among the notable early experimenters in this field was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which did some outside-the-box thinking when it melted the explosives TNT and Composition B and cast them into a variety of shapes, including a tea set. This group also hid Semtex and other plastic explosives in a variety of items, including running shoes and electronics.
Electronics have long been a popular choice for bombmakers looking to smuggle improvised explosive devices aboard planes. Perhaps the most famous case is the Libyan-constructed device concealed inside a Toshiba radio cassette player that was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103. Similar devices hidden in another model of Toshiba cassette player were found in a raid on a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command safe-house in Germany a few months before the Pan Am 103 bombing.
In 1987, North Korean agents destroyed Korean Airlines Flight 858 using a modular explosive device design in which the firing train and a small charge of C4 were hidden inside a radio, which was then used to initiate the main charge of liquid PLX hidden in a liquor bottle. In a London case in 1986, Nezar Hindawi, a Jordanian who later acknowledged working for Syrian intelligence, gave his unwitting and pregnant Irish girlfriend an improvised explosive device concealed in bag to take on an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv. The timer and detonator for the device were concealed in a pocket calculator, and the main explosive charge was hidden in the suitcase under a false bottom. El Al security detected the device before it could be taken aboard the plane, and Hindawi was quickly arrested.
In addition to Richard Reid's infamous shoe bomb and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb, there are many other ways in which explosives could be "worn" onto a plane. In the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434, Abdel Basit and his associates used nitrocellulose camouflaged inside a doll. Nitrocellulose also could be easily hidden in any number of clothing items that have fiber filling or — as seen in drug trafficking plots using cloth impregnated with liquid cocaine — even in the fabric of the clothing itself.
There is actually a close parallel between drug smuggling efforts and bomb smuggling efforts, and many of the methods mentioned above for camouflaging explosives have also been used for smuggling narcotics. As security measures have changed and adapted to drug smuggling efforts, narcotics "mules" have adapted to these security efforts by using everything from body cavities to dead babies to smuggle contraband.
This history of adaptive bombmaking and narcotics smuggling serves to highlight the fact that it is impossible to use technical screening measures to absolutely prevent any explosive material from being brought on board an aircraft. Even prison authorities who can use magnetometers and strip searches to search prisoners have failed to completely prevent all contraband from slipping through their system.
Does this mean that all air passenger screening is futile? No. At the very least, such measures prevent low-level threats from succeeding, and anyone who might currently have a device disguised as a tube of toothpaste will have to take some time to retool.
However, it also means that given enough persistence and innovation someone will eventually get a device through the system. That next device might function better than the shoe bomb and the underwear bomb — two cases in which disaster was only narrowly averted. When the next attack happens, the public needs to maintain a realistic expectation of aviation security efforts and not ascribe to the attackers some superhuman abilities or make totally unrealistic demands of passenger screeners that cost large amounts of money and still fail to guarantee security. The world is a dangerous place, and there are people who wish to do terrible things to other human beings. Occasionally they will succeed.