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Liquid Explosives – Another Look at the Threat

Ever since the disruption of the liquid bomb threat in the UK in August 2006, restrictions limiting what you can carry onto an airplane have been in place. The lines at airport security continue to be long. We are asked to remove our shoes and overcoats or sweaters. Most often when I travel, I need to remove my belt as well to go through the airport metal detector. The process is unpredictable and random, but I think all of this security is necessary, even if most of the time it looks pretty perfunctory.

Now an experiment conducted in the UK raises some serious questions about the 3-1-1 rules (volume of liquids, gels and aerosols to bottles 3 ounces or smaller, in 1 quart-sized zip top bag, and 1 bag per traveler). Early last week UK security experts conducted a test in which certain unnamed clear liquids were brought onto a mock airplane in the required 3-ounce containers. When the two liquids, reportedly easily obtained, were combined in a 500 ml water bottle and connected to a detonator (could be an I-pod), the bomb then blew a six-foot hole in the fuselage of a decommissioned plane - enough damage to bring down a jet in flight.

As a result, Philip Baum, editor of the International Journal of Aviation Security asked questions about the effectiveness of airport metal detectors and X-ray machines:

"I cannot cite a single example of a bomb being found using an airport X-ray machine alone,î he said. "X-rays were introduced to identify dense metallic items, not bombs. If you've got a well-concealed bomb, it's possible to get that through many an X-ray machine."

Mr Baum described a deeply disturbing trial he had run for a European government. "We took a woman through 24 different airports. On her body were the complete components of an improvised explosive device," he said.

"At each of those airports, she alarmed the metal detector and was subject to a pat-down search on her body. But not a single item was identified in any of the 24 searches."
Instead. Baum argues that enhanced intelligence and behavior pattern profiling would be more attention would be more effective.
"We should be looking more for behaviors. The person who has negative intent will show signs of stress and nervousness." Baum adds that trained spotters should be deployed in terminals to watch for suspicious behavior, passengers who do not fit the normal traveler profile for a flight should be flagged and software such as voice stress analysis should be used to select certain travelers for more thorough checks that stand a better chance of detecting a weapon. The technique, called behavior pattern recognition, is controversial because of fears that it will be used in a racist way.

A program like this was implemented in January 2006 at the Seattle airport (Sea-Tac Airport) using “behavior detection officers. Since that time, TSA behavior observers, operaitng in more than fifty U.S. airports have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening with 600 to 700 of those being arrested on a variety of charges. Its pretty obvious that the thrust and parry of terrorist and terrorist countermeasure will continue.