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Liquid Bombs and Airline Security - Fear as a Force Multiplier

Ever since the disruption of the liquid bomb plot in Great Britain, the stress on airline security is clear. As the airlines and TSA implement new security measures, lines have gotten longer and delays at the airports have increased.

In a USA Today article last week titled Checked Luggage Strains Security, it became clear that the system is being overwhelmed by the 20% increase in checked bags since the TSA banned liquids from carry-ons August 10th. The result of the liquid ban has been more than 500,000 new bags each day requiring scanning. That alone would stress the system. But when you realize that the increased volume places a time pressure on the process of scanning luggage, there are concerns about security gaps.

Baggage Facts - CHECKED BAGS 1 billion Annual number on domestic flights, before recent surge
3.6 million Number lost, damaged
120-180 bags an hour Speed of bomb-detection machines
$1 billion Cost of luggage screening Sources: Air Transport Association, Government Accountability Office, Department of Transportation

What are the implications of this, and what is really happening here. Since August 10th, there have also been 17 or more airline incidents reported in the U.S. and Britain, with many requiring emergency landings and very visible baggage inspections on the tarmac by bomb sniffing dogs.

Stratfor’s most recent article provides a revealing analysis of the airline liquid bomb plot, raising the spectre that we are watching a “misdirection play here.”

Airline Incidents: Fear as Force Multiplier
A Google link to the Stratfor article

The following are highlights of this article:

Given the asymmetric nature of the war we are fighting with al Qaeda, its important to understand the propaganda aspect of the attempt at airline terror in Britain, the thinking that may be behind it all, and the real possibility that we are witnessing a misdirection play.

As we fast approach the fifth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, we may well be advised to remember that misdirection and deception are long practiced tactics of war. Our opponent, al Qaeda is as capable of such deception and misdirection as any other adversary, at any other time in history.

The spate of incidents -- each of which rings up significant financial costs to the airline company and governments involved and causes inconvenience and delays for travelers -- is a reminder that terrorism, philosophically, is not confined to the goal of filling body bags or destroying buildings. At a deeper level, it is about psychology and the "propaganda of the deed." And as far as al Qaeda is concerned, it is also about economic warfare: Osama bin Laden personally has stated that one of the group's strategic objectives is to "bleed America to the point of bankruptcy."

If among the strategies of al Qaeda is to create havoc, cause the airline industry to spend excessive money in search of the next solution, and perhaps, divert attention from another form of attack, is that strategy not succeeding?

These new security measures already have had a financial impact on the airline industry. On Aug. 25, Irish discount airline Ryanair filed the lawsuit it had previously threatened against the British Department for Transport --- Ryanair officials have publicly called the new restrictions "nonsensical and ineffective" and have called for "a return to common sense" regarding airline security. The company claims it has lost 3.3 million pounds (nearly $5.9 million) in earnings as a result of the new measures.
As discussed in the USA Today article (above) the strain on the system has already been seen, costs mount, and the effect on the airline industry and the flying public is apparent. The Stratfor article talks about the impact of fear.

With that psychological component in mind, terrorist acts do not have to be tremendously successful (in terms of physical casualties or damage) in order to be terribly effective.
Remembering that one of the strategies of al Qaeda is to "bleed America to the point of bankruptcy," the effect of the events post-September 11th have clearly been costly, despite the gains. The sacrifices being made by the American public in the expense of the War on Terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, the removal of Hussein in Iraq and in whatever theater of operation that comes next, are all consistent with this strategy.

"It's the economy, stupid!" Bin Laden outlined this very clearly in his October 29, 2004, message to the American people. In that recording, he estimated that it cost al Qaeda only $500,000 to carry out the 9/11 attacks, whereas the estimated cost to the United States from the event and its aftermath was measured at $500 billion.
The government has no choice but to respond to the threats as they are presented. So airline baggage rules are changed and adapted to fit the newest apparent threat. In response to the terrorist threats, the U.S. and other governments have stepped up surveillance and interception of suspected terrorist funding. Every threat must be treated as a real threat. There is no choice but to do so. All too many people point to raised threat levels and laugh. When the threat passes, the public questions the validity of the alert and the expenses incurred. Does the government have any other options?

To avoid the finger-pointing, governments have begun shifting the way they investigate potential terrorist acts from an approach based on waiting until a strike is about to be carried out -- and then "making the big case" -- to an approach based on disruption and pre-emption (or, in other words, taking action at the earliest possible stage).

The tactic of misdirection raises the question of whether, as the U.S., the U.K. and other countries scurry to prevent an attack with liquid explosives on transcontinental airlines, a different form of attack is being planned.

Obviously, the United States and its allies cannot conceivably protect everything, and attempts to do so take great tolls on human resources and finances. Viewed through this lens, the responses to the disrupted airlines plot may, in fact, be a form of success for al Qaeda, despite the failure of the actual plot.

This is not a matter of flag waving or chicken little exclaiming that “the sky is falling.” This is not an “either or” situation or a debate. What this represents is the very nature of the threat faced by our country today. Despite the robes and living in caves and the camels, we are dealing with a sophisticated enemy as embodied in al Qaeda. And they are schooled in tactics and strategies. So, is misdirection afoot here? With the attention being paid to airline security, and to the contents of baggage, is the real threat something else? Hopefully we will not see the evolution of this threat. But the very nature of asymmetric warfare suggests that we may be looking in the wrong place, and if that is true, then at least for this point in the match, it could be "advantage al Qaeda."



Alas, we continue on trying to find the device, rather than on finding its agent. And so much of this is red-herring stuff that I am convinced is more-intended to reassure passengers than to actually prevent a terrible incident on an aircraft.

One part of the problem is that we are so afraid of being labeled 'racist' that we will not engage in any kind of serious profiling. Another problem is more basic...

The people we hire to do baggage and passenger screening are not uniformly bright and motivated to do a really good job... salaries are not great, and it is basically a glorified security-cop job. Furthermore, for various institutional reasons, including fear of lawsuits, management sets up programs that are long on "system and procedures," and short on individual initiative. In other words, if they can't trust all of them to think on their feet and make rational, logical decisions, they will actually go so far as to make it difficult for anybody to do so. Management has become more concerned about avoiding the small failures of its systems than in ensuring the overall success.

The liquid-explosive panic is, IMO, a classic example of this prevent-small-failure mindset. When the problem was initially revealed, knee-jerk measures were implemented without really trying to understand the real risks. And once the measures were implemented, management has been most reluctant to back off, even though the threats are far less than were initially imagined.

The problem is that there are far too many ways that a creative person could manage to drop a plane out of the sky, especially if that person didn't mind his own death in the process. Explosives are not required, and certainly not liquid explosives.

With the current approach, we must have perfect screening of obscure objects and substances carried aboard a plane. And unfortunately, in spite of lots of money being thrown at that problem, it is eventually doomed to failure...somebody will eventually be sufficiently creative and succeed in getting something terrible on-board.

What we really need is an integrated and tiered system that includes elements of rational profiling (including the use of gathered intelligence), screening of carry-on and checked baggage, and some element of randomness.

No system is perfect, but we ought to have a much more effective system for the cost and aggravation that we suffer.

Just my $.02

Dave: Well, my initial reaction to your comments includes "of course." You're correct.

Your observation is that the response to the liquid bomb threat led to immediate short-term changes in procedures and to a flurry of activity to identify a "means to an end." In this case, detecting liquid explosives. Well I know of at least one solution, the use of Gamma Resonance Imaging that likely can do this. But at what cost? Maybe a $1+ million per installation. It would even improve ability to detect other "bad stuff." But is that really the issue?

Often my focus is technology and how it might address a particular problem. You'll find me wriitng about identity and authentication technologies, especially in light of revelations of vulnerabilities of certain approaches.

But what I look at often, too, is the policy and strategy side of things. In this case, with the flurry of activity and then the potential expenditure of money to prevent a liquid explosive attack, are our resources being misdirected? The real question in my mind, frankly, is whether the British plot was a calculated tactic to distract attention, manpower and resources from a different target.

My uninformed read on the British plot was that it was for real... but if anything like we were led to believe (that is, likely someone trying to prepare an explosive mix in the loo, mid-flight) would have been a very wild inflight scenario... smoke and fumes from the toilet, the preparer badly injured from spilled/overheated chemical mixes, and quite possibly even a significant fire onboard... quite possibly enough to actually bring a plane down mid-Atlantic, but not a sure thing.

Unfortunately, if the authorities continue to knee-jerk to every possible threat, the airlines will truely be driven to ruin, and the few of us who continue to fly will be naked in our seats... and we'll have to ship all our baggage ahead by surface carrier, a month ahead of our trip.

Somebody needs to get their head on straight and figure out that this is really about threat management, not PR. You do the very best that you can with the limited resources you have available. You recognize that it is impossible to eliminate all risks by direct control, but that the risks you can't realistically control can be greatly reduced by managing other aspects of those risks.

We are currently stuck with bureaucrats who are more interested in keeping their jobs if something terrible happens than in actually preventing that terrible event. Worse, I fear that we may face something as bad or worse than IX-XI before we really come to our senses about managing the threats we face from a determined and persistent enemy.

Just another $.02

DaveK and Jay...

Your opinions are worth more than two cents. Very astute commentary. The knee-jerk reaction of gov't officials in both the UK and US are for political consumption. There's no way a bomb, prepared from liquids in an airplane bathroom could possibly bring down an airliner. More than likely a premature explosion would kill the perpetrator and destroy a bathroom which in itself can be a serious problem on a crowded plane. Better to spend money on the known risks rather than creating absurd scenarios---to wit---the recent crash of the commuter plane in Kentucky.

There should be little doubt that the British airline plot was real. That's not really the issue here, nor is the very real tragedy of the plane crash in Kentucky that clearly was caused by human error (of the air traffic controller).

To close the loop, the premise of the Stratfor article is a strategic one. "Fear as a Force Multiplier" suggests that while real, the plot offered al Qaeda tactical benefits whether a plane was blown from the sky or not. Now, there is a hypersensitivity, the inspection of baggage has increased, lines are longer, money is being spent and resources redirected. Our attention may have been diverted. No one can be sure that was the original intent. But the end result is the same.

Obviously, the United States and its allies cannot conceivably protect everything, and attempts to do so take great tolls on human resources and finances. Viewed through this lens, the responses to the disrupted airlines plot may, in fact, be a form of success for al Qaeda, despite the failure of the actual plot.

A couple of weeks ago I created a minor "stir" when commenting that we were a Nation "on edge" (meaning nervous and reacting) and that we might be off guard as well (alluding to the possibility of a misdirection). Oh, how I hope that this is wrong.


It almost goes without saying, that the fear factor is a force multiplier. That's the entire point of a terrorist campaign, and is why it relies so heavily on mass media sensationalism... the real risks to an average person are pretty small for most any terrorist campaign. But when those threats are magnified through the lens of the mass media, they become larger than life, and can disproportionally influence political decisions.

A big problem that we face now is that while our national leadership keeps saying we are "at war," the people really don't have much sense of personal threat or of personal sacrifice that is involved with our concept of war. And our mass media persists on "humanizing" our enemies, showing them as simply misguided souls who have some perceived (whether real or even justifed) greviance against the West (and the USA/Israel in particular). Yes, we are a nation on-edge, caught between a traditional desire for isolation from global politics, and the threats of an enemy who hates us for what we see to be irrational reasons. We want desperately for all of this to just go away, and would be happy if our enemies would just fight amongst themselves and solve the problem without our involvement.

Unfortunately, our national interests are hopelessly intertwined with the politics of the Middle East. We cannot simply disengage ourselves. And if would be folly to simply say (as the Russians and Chinese seem to be doing) that we have only business interests, and will continue business as usual with whoever comes out on top.

At the present, we appear to have our grand strategy being driven more by short-term politics than by fundamental national interests. That does leave us open to manipulation by our enemies, and to misdirection, as you call it. I truly hope that we are not someday provoked to unleash terrible vengence against our enemies in retaliation for some unspeakable evil committed against us. Total war is a really awful thing, but (and this I really hope I am wrong about) something that I believe our enemies would actually embrace.

I'll quit here... I've leapfrogged around a few themes, and it looks like this is drifting a bit off-topic.

Another $.02