Detroit Bomb was Sophisticated, Well Thought Out

Soon after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to detonate a small, but powerful explosive compound concealed in his underwear, veteran counterterrorists speculated in interviews with HSToday.us that when the government indicted Abdulmutallab, it would be revealed that the bomb contained both triacetone triperoxide, TATP, and PETN, which is pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a key ingredient in forms of plastic explosives.
The officials told HSToday.us this on background – their remarks embargoed until the indictment was handed down.
They also emphasized that Al Qaeda’s bomb-makers clearly are learning from their failures and have carefully considered the weaknesses in airport bomb detection capabilities, not just in the US, but around the world.
Alarmingly, the officials stressed that had Abdulmutallab succeeded in detonating the bomb he’s been charged with trying to explode, it would have been very difficult for authorities to reconstruct just how the bomb was triggered.
Had the bomb exploded, clearly Abdulmutallab would have become the principal suspect because of the intelligence that was in the pipeline about him, but also because he would have been the likely culprit because the point of detonation would have been the area where he was seated. Which also obviously was strategically planned, according to the counterterrorism officials HSToday.us interviewed on background.
Abdulmutallab is said to have been seated in 19A over the jetliner’s fuel tanks atop the wing next to the skin of the aircraft. The roughly 80 grams of PETNthat formed the primary charge in the bomb was more than enough to blow a hole in the airliner, according to earlier FBI and other tests of the substance’s explosive power.
But “had this bomb exploded, we may very well have been stumped by the way it was detonated,” one counterterrorism official said, noting that the ingenuity of the device shows Al Qaeda continues to work on developing sophisticated, concealable bombs – and that they are learning from their mistakes [see the August 2008 Homeland Security Today report, Making Black Magic].
"When Obama said we dodged a bullet this time, he was absolutely correct. We might not have figured out precisely how this bomb was ignited, and Al Qaeda might have tried to immediately send more bombers on flights to detonate identical bombs.”
Indeed, more bombers are believed to have been trained and are prepared to be sent on their suicidal jihadist missions, HSToday.us reported earlier this week.
The six count indictment delivered by an Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division federal grand jury for the first time officially acknowledged that two suspected high-explosives PETN and TATP were used in the bomb, along with several other unidentified liquid chemicals.
“The bomb consisted of a device containing Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate … Triacetone Triperoxide …, and other ingredients,” the indictment read, noting that “the bomb was concealed inside defendant Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s clothing. The bomb was designed to allow … Abdulmutallab to detonate it at a time of his choosing, and to thereby cause an explosion aboard Flight 253.”
The components and workings of the bomb were strikingly similar to those used by hardened Al Qaeda jihadist Richard Reid, who – along with other Al Qaeda recruits – trained in Afghanistan specifically to blow up transatlantic airliners. Reid was convicted of trying to detonate an explosive charge hidden in a shoe during the December 22, 2001 American Airlines Flight 63 flight from Paris to Miami.
The difference between Reid’s bomb and Abdulmutallab’s is that Reid’s primary explosive, also PETN, was to be detonated by lighting a TATP fuse, or initiator.
Kasey Warner, a US attorney who worked on the Reid case, has said the bomb was "ingenious, simple, hard to detect, and deadly.”
Counterterrorist officials reiterated that position in interviews with HSToday.us, saying the bomb seems to have specifically been engineered and hidden in a way to bypass the predominate forms of bomb detection technologies that were deployed at most airports at the time.
But the bomb that Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to detonate apparently used an entirely new, flameless way of detonating the PETN initiator. A combination of liquids contained in a syringe are believed to have been designed to create a chemical reaction that would have generated the heat necessary to ignite the TATP trigger (which is extremely unstable and can be set off by heat, shock, or chemical reaction) that would then ignite the PETN package that was sewn into his underwear.
TATP is an explosive commonly used by Islamist jihadi suicide bombers in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. It’s especially favored by Palestinian bomb makers. It was used in the bombs exploded by the Al Qaeda-linked London subway suicide terrorists.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of TATP explosives by terrorists around the world, largely because it’s easy to make and difficult to detect. In one raid in 1998, Palestinian Authority security personnel uncovered 800 kilograms of TATP in a Nablus garage.
“TATP is a fairly easy explosive to make, as far as explosives manufacturing goes. All it takes is acetone, hydrogen peroxide and a strong acid like hydrochloric or sulfuric acid,” states a GlobalSecurity.org fact paper on TATP.
But because of its instability, TATP also increases the likelihood of premature detonation. Because of its instability, it has been called the "Mother of Satan” by some Islamist terrorist groups and suicide bombers. This instability, terrorist experts say, is responsible for many of the deaths of Palestinian bomb makers while making bombs.
While not that difficult to make, it nevertheless takes experience, skill, and good processing techniques to make stabilized TATP explosives and initiators.
Veteran counterterrorism authorities stressed to HSToday.us that the these types of bombs are sophisticated because they are difficult to physically construct, but even more dangerous to produce the explosive components in the forms that they have for these types of bombs.
That Abdulmutallab’s bomb contained a PETN primary charge indicates sophisticated development since it’s a lot harder to make or acquire – it’s used in both commercial and military-grade plastic explosives.
Combined with the ingenuity of the apparent liquid initiator for the TATP trigger, counterterrorism authorities HSToday.us talked to said the “whole package indicates the device was made by someone who knew what they were doing,” as one said, adding that the apparent liquid initiator was inspired because it “obviously would have been taken from the lessons learned play book” written on Reid’s failed shoe bomb, the TATP fuse for which had to be ignited by a lighter or match.
The only reason Reid’s bomb failed was because the TATP fuse had gotten damp – which made it harder to light. Reid was unable to get on the flight he’d intended to explode the bomb on the day before, and overnight his shoes got wet – probably from natural perspiration – while working to secure a new flight.
By developing a combination of chemicals the reaction between which would create enough heat to ignite a TATP detonator, the Al Qaeda bomb-maker avoided having to have Abdulmutallab physically light a “fuse."
Exactly why Abdulmutallab’s bomb didn’t work like it was supposed to hasn’t been revealed, but as an official familiar with the matter said, had it worked, “there may have been who knows how many airliners falling from the sky soon after." The official added there’s intelligence to indicate that Al Qaeda out of Yemen was prepared to activate a cadre of jihadists to recreate Abdulmutallab’s success.
The official added a caveat, however. He said had Al Qaeda’s counterintelligence been "up to snuff," it should have recognized that Abdulmutallab posed a potential security risk that could have been picked up on US and other intelligence services’ radar screens. Or, he said, that, too, could have been a test of the capabilities of “Western” and other intelligence agencies to put the pieces together.
“The whole thing could have been a test,” he said. “It could be that Al Qaeda used this for their own intelligence purposes for other bombing scenarios they’ve developed.”
Authorities have also raised question about what they say seems to have been sloppiness in the training and decision to use Abdulmutallab.
Nevertheless, had Abdulmutallab’s bomb worked, it clearly would have been a bonus for the terrorist organization, as other jihadists with similar bombs might very well have been able to smuggle their deadly payloads on to passenger planes. And some probably would have successfully killed hundreds.

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