In all the furor about the new TSA scanners and pat-downs at airports, what surprises me is that there is very little discussion of what exactly the inspectors are now looking for and why they are shifting tactics.
The old scanners and procedures designed to discover metal (guns, knives, bombs with timers or detonators) are helpless before a relatively low-tech alternative kind of explosive that is favored by al-Qaeda and similar groups.
The inspectors are looking for forms of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which is from the same family of explosives as nitroglycerin and which is used to make plastic explosives such as Semtex.
Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, used PETN, as did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the crotch bomber, last year this time over Detroit. PETN was in the HP cartridges sent by a Yemeni terrorist in cargo planes recently. And, a suicide bomber put some up his anus and used it in an attempt to assassinate the son of the Saudi minister of the interior (which does counter-terrorism). Yes, he was the first ass bomber, and he missed his target, though he no longer cares about that, what with being dead and all.
The problem with PETN is that it cannot be detected by sniffing dogs or by ordinary scanners. But if you had a pouch of it on your person, the new scanners could see the pouch, and likewise a thorough pat-down would lead to its discovery.
The TSA guys are trying to look more systematically for PETN. That is why they have adopted these more intrusive methods. And, there has been chatter among the terrorist groups abroad about launching attacks on American airliners with this relatively undetectable explosive.
None of us likes the result, which is a significant invasion of privacy.
But if al-Qaeda and its sympathizers could manage to blow up only a few airliners with PETN, they could have a significant negative effect on the economy and could very possibly drive some American airlines into bankruptcy. Al-Qaeda is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization, which was the point of the September 11 attacks.
Since the Bush administration hyped the ‘war on terror’ trope half to death, many in the American public no longer want to hear about this danger. But it is part of my business in life to deliver the horrific news that the threat is real.
The question is really what level of risk Americans are willing to live with. On the one hand, studies suggest that the crotch bomber could not really have brought down the airliner over Detroit last year, even if he had been able to detonate his payload. And, 500 million Europeans decline to take off their shoes when they travel by air, but there haven’t been any successful shoe bombings over there, nevertheless.
On the other hand, it would only take a few small teams making a concerted effort at bombing airliners, to spook travelers and consumers. With the US at risk of a double dip recession, this moment might appeal to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda wannabes to strike. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is openly talking of a low-tech, high-explosive war against US economic interests, a war of a thousand cuts. Its planned method? PETN-based mail bombs.
I doubt it is possible to outlaw or control PETN. The only alternative to looking for it systematically on air passengers and in cargo would be to just take a chance that no al-Qaeda operatives will be able successfully to detonate a PETN based explosive on an airliner.
And, you have to wonder whether air travel was not anyway a bubble. It depends on inexpensive fuel, which probably won’t be with us for long. It has a very big carbon imprint, which may soon be illegal. And it is vulnerable to low-tech chemical sabotage. Our generation perhaps, and the next one almost certainly, will have the unprecedented experience of having their world become larger and less accessible, after two centuries during which it shrank and seemed conquerable. Cisco’s telepresence technology may be the future much moreso than the airlines.