Body Bombs May Challenge Terrorists as Much as U.S. Air Security

TSA Enhanced Pat Down
A traveler undergoes an enhanced pat-down by a TSA agent at the Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado. The TSA said that added security measures may include “interaction with passengers,” pat-downs and “the use of enhanced tools and technologies.” Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Body bombs, the latest terrorist threat flagged by U.S. officials, may prove to be as difficult for would-be attackers to use with the desired effect as they are for airport screeners to detect.

Prompted by new intelligence, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has alerted airlines and its counterparts in other nations to the potential risk of implanted explosives, a U.S. security official said in a July 12 e-mail.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based terror group, has been looking at how to develop body bombs stitched into a terrorist’s belly, breasts or buttocks, though destroying a plane in the air that way “would be a really, really tough thing to do,” Seth Jones, a senior political scientist for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, California-based policy research organization, said in an interview.

Jones served until March in the Special Operations Command at the U.S. Defense Department in Arlington, Virginia.

For such an attack to succeed, “a lot of things need to line up,” Tom Blank, former TSA acting deputy administrator, said in an interview. Blank is vice chairman of Wexler & Walker, a Washington-based policy consultancy.

Al Qaeda, Surgery

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula evaded security with bombs concealed in toner cartridges in 2010 and in an attacker’s underwear on Christmas in 2009.

Each plot failed, as intelligence helped uncover the printer equipment smuggled aboard two cargo flights from Yemen, and a failed detonation alerted fellow passengers who subdued the would-be bomber aboard a Detroit-bound jet originating in Amsterdam.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has had help from people with surgical backgrounds, Jones said. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who stepped into al-Qaeda’s top spot after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in June, is a surgeon.

The Transportation Security Agency notified passengers on its website July 6 to expect heightened security measures for arrivals in the U.S. from other countries, also because of the possible use of body bombs, the security official said. In its statement, the agency said added precautionary measures may include “interaction with passengers,” pat-downs and “the use of enhanced tools and technologies.”

X-Ray Detection

There were no indications of an imminent threat, said the U.S. official, who asked not to be identified discussing private briefings for airlines and security agencies.

Existing TSA screening technology and methods won’t detect explosive implants, Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House transportation committee, said July 14 in an interview at Bloomberg’s Washington office.

TSA should beef up personnel in other countries “where the threat is coming from,” Mica said.

X-rays would be necessary to reveal contraband below the skin, said Michael Jackson, a former deputy secretary of the Transportation and Homeland Security departments who is now president of Firebreak Partners LLC, a security consulting firm in McLean, Virginia.

“That approach would likely require greater radiation exposure than would be considered acceptable on a routine basis,” Jackson said.

Syringes as Weapons

A surgeon could insert a plastic explosive like C-4, inside a silicone bag attached to wires, into the breasts of a female operative under local anesthetic and a sedative “in a hotel room,” Timothy A. Miller, chief of the plastic and reconstructive surgery division at the Geffen School of Medicine at University of California Los Angeles, said in an interview.

Each wire, sharpened to a point, could be threaded under the skin to a spot near the surface of the flank, Miller said. The attacker could press to make the wires cut through the skin and place the ends together to produce an electrical charge, setting off the bomb.

Another approach may be to fill breast or gluteal implants with separate fluids that are stable on their own and explosive when combined, said Stephen Baker, program director of the plastic-surgery department at Washington’s Georgetown University Hospital. An attacker could draw the liquids out with a syringe to mix them together, Baker said in an interview.

The abdomen could also be a good receptacle for bomb materials, according to Martin A. Makary, a specialist in advanced laparoscopy and gastro-intestinal tumors at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. A chemical detonator could be injected on board, Makary said in an interview.

Muffled Impact

“If you have the rudimentary skill, you could be taught” procedures for embedding a bomb in a person, Miller said. “It would be much easier than learning how to fly a plane,” as hijackers of four airliners did in the 2001 attacks that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing about 3,000 people.

The only effective way to stop syringes from being brought on board for use as detonators would be to ban carry-on luggage, said Blank, the former TSA official. Diabetics are allowed to carry an “unlimited number of unused syringes” onto flights when accompanied by insulin or similar medications, according to the TSA website.

Hard as they may be to discover, bomb implants have one disadvantage for terrorists. They probably wouldn’t cause a big enough explosion to bring down a plane, the surgeons and consultants said.

The same tissues and skin that conceal the implant would muffle the impact, said Cathal Flynn, a San Diego-based consultant who headed security for the Federal Aviation Administration during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“It would certainly do damage to people nearby,” Flynn said in an interview.

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