Plot This 

Americans shrug at phony binary explosives threat

LOS ANGELES--Attention, citizens of the national community: Stay tuned for a HomeSec alert! A fiendish plot has been uncovered! Terrorists loyal to the sinister forces of Eastasia have been apprehended! It is another glorious victory for the homeland! All hail Oceania!

It was hard not to suffer a 1984 flashback on August 10, when UK authorities and their rhetorical American partners claimed to have rounded up more than two dozen British Muslims accused of--or so they claimed--participation in an elaborate plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." According to Britain's national Crown Prosecution Service, the suspects planned "to smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble and detonate them on board" as many as 10 passenger jets bound for the United States from England.

The airline industry, long teetering on the edge of financial catastrophe, could easily be shoved headlong into oblivion as the result of harsh new security restrictions. Travelers are being asked to arrive at the airport three hours before their scheduled departure times because of longer lines at shortstaffed security checkpoints. All liquids and gels--staple components of cosmetics, toothpaste, medicine and other toiletries--have been banned from carry-on baggage, adding at least another hour to the trips of carry-on-only passengers who previously never had to wait for their belongings to disgorge upon the baggage carousel.

Industry analysts say travelers aren't afraid of being blown up by terrorists. They're right. Hundreds of millions of people fly each year; very few end up shredded among the wreckage of an office tower. But passengers are afraid. They fear that the government's draconian security measures will make them miss their flights. That real and wholly justifiable fear has already cut ticket sales by as much as 20 percent.

A mere two days after British officials announced that they had foiled the dastardly Islamofascists terror plot, and the Bush administration crowed that this news somehow proved that they had once again kept us safe, Americans weren't fazed in the least. People polled by Newsweek said, 54 to 26 percent, they still didn't want to give up their carry-on bags. As the Republican Party continued its suicidal stay-the-course mantra into the November midterm elections, the sound of a Great National Shrug greeted the latest triumphalist shrieks from America's telescreens.

Could it be, despite our leaders' long-established record of always telling us the truth no matter what, that we can't be sure there was a plot at all? Or that, if there was a plot, it wasn't viable--certainly not nearly enough to justify the risk to the airline industry or hassling hundreds of millions of travelers?

According to the respected and irreverent British technology publication The Register, the plot--if it existed--was a joke. Smuggling the component parts of triacetone triperoxide (TATP)--the liquid explosive we've been told was the object of the wannabe jihadists' vengeance fantasies--and successfully mixing them into a brew powerful enough to bring down a plane would require skills far beyond the capabilities of, well, anyone.

"First," wrote The Register, "you've got to get adequately concentrated hydrogen peroxide. This is hard to come by, so a large quantity of the 3 percent solution sold in pharmacies might have to be concentrated by boiling off the water ... Take your hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid, measure them very carefully, and put them into drink bottles for convenient smuggling onto a plane. 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 ... 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 conclusion is clear: "Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we've passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy."

The "plot," or at least the prosecution thereof, is already unraveling. Two "terrorists" have been released. Of the remaining 23, only 11 have been charged. Of those charged, only eight face charges related to the "plot."

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