The changing pattern of Islamic suicide terrorism and the countermeasures for aviation security
Wafa al Bass has been given permission to enter Israel to receive hospital treatment for severe burns
“Allah loves us to die and kill in his path. There are many more like us, and many more like me ready to strike.”
Umar Islam on an alleged martyrdom video (2006 transatlantic aircraft plot)
Often a question is asked – are suicide bombings justified or condemned under Islam? Since during Muhammad’s time there were no ‘bombs’, Allah was silent on this issue. However martyrdom is strongly encouraged in various Islamic scriptures.
“Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward”. (Q: 4.74)
“Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain…” (Q: 9.111)
“And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah…” (Q: 2.207)
In Sahih Muslim Hadith (55.93), we can read a lengthy parable, in which a boy chooses to die in order to spread religion, thus legitimizing the practice. Present day suicide terrorists are just following this sanction. Let me repeat, Muslim suicide terrorists are not radicals who distort the Qur’an’s teachings to justify their heinous actions. Rather they are rationally acting students who study Islamic scripture dealing with jihad – Jihad Fi Sabil Allah (Jihad for the sake of Allah). Islam does not prohibit suicide terrorism; in fact, the suicidal version of radical Islam is the true Islam.
Therefore, suicide terrorism will stay with us as long as Muslims believe they are the chosen one by Allah to commit mass murder in the name of Allah, and also as long as some communities have this Gandhian philosophy ‘See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil’ attitude on Islamic terrorism. Since the root cause is religious faith, suicide terrorism is first and foremost a social science problem. Though suicide attacks in the service of Allah will never become a thing of the past there will be some tactical changes which will be the most significant challenge for the law enforcement and intelligence communities all over the world. This article is written after much painstaking research to identify many of these emerging trends and to predict more extreme adaptations. If you read my analysis carefully you will certainly agree with my concerns and conclusions that the whole world will inevitably face new tactics, techniques and procedures. Accordingly the world should change the countermeasures.
So far we have seen car bombs, shoe bombs, liquid explosive based bombs, bombs disguised within benign objects and swarming attacks. But the next generation Muslims will take it at the top of barbarism. US officials have been collecting examples of would-be bombs from airport security and intelligence agencies around the world. The next terrorist attack is not a matter of if, but when. The worst is yet to come as terrorist masterminds are constantly developing on the terror tactics. As example:
In-body explosives: These devices are of two types – Body Cavity Bombs (BCB) and Surgically Implanted Explosives (SIE). We have seen the use of body cavity bombs on August 27, 2009 when in Jeddah a suicide bomber tried to assassinate the Assistant Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef. The bomber Abdullah Al-Asiri had hidden the improvised explosive device in his rectum and activated it once close to the Prince. When the bomb exploded in his rectum his body was flung in all directions and part of his arm was embedded into the ceiling. But remarkably, the prince was mildly hurt. It is believed that the device had been built by his brother Ibraham al-Asiri, al-Qaeda’s master bomb-maker in Yemen.
Muslim males can have the explosive hidden near their appendix, buttocks or inside rectum while a Muslim female can use her vulva. Since the space available inside a vulva (it has the capacity to expand like a balloon as the cervix will lift up and move out of the way) is much bigger than a rectum, she can do much more harm than a male. Other typical locations are under her breasts and in the groin section for both sexes. The intention is to bypass ‘less intrusive and more conservative in nature’ security screening because it does not culturally offend those being screened. As the barbarization of terrorism continues, Body Cavity Bombs are indeed an emerging threat.
Surgically Implanted Explosive device is just one step ahead of Body Cavity Bombs. Here the explosives are placed inside the body, e.g., seal a plastic explosive such as PETN (Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate – a common explosive that is very easy to set off) in a packet, cut open the volunteer, insert the packet, stitch up the incision, and let it heal. Mixed with a plasticizer, PETN forms a plastic explosive which is very stable and can stay ‘safely’ inside the body for a long time. But it requires a detonator (a booster to set off larger charges) to explode it. Burke (2013, p. 170) reported that PETN was used by the December 22, 2001 shoe bomber Richard Reid, in the 2009 Christmas day bomb plot by al-Qaeda terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and in the October, 29, 2010 Cargo Plane bomb plot by Anwar al-Awlaki, the ‘Spiritual Leader’ of al-Qaeda. A skilled surgeon can open the abdominal cavity and literally implant the explosive device in amongst the internal organs. The bomber will carry a syringe to inject TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide – the most common peroxide-based explosive which is 83% as powerful as an equivalent amount of TNT) to detonate the bomb. TATP is a white crystalline powder with a distinctive bleach-like odor which is very unstable and liable to detonate with the slightest shock or rise in temperature (Burke, 2013, p. 170). Accordingly to Aviation Security Analysis, the substance PETN can be almost undetectable even for sniffer dogs if packed appropriately. TATP detonators, commonly known as ‘Mother of all Satans’ (Girard, 2011, p. 422; Siegel et al., 2000, p. 60) are highly favored by the Muslim terrorists. The July 7, 2005 London bombings, were carried out by four radical Islamic terrorists using 4.5 kg of homemade TATP explosives, killing 52, injuring more than 700.
The implanted bomber “would carry a letter from a doctor claiming they have had surgery and need to carry a needle and syringe for medical reasons. It would be sufficient to clear security during check-in for a flight” (Saletan, 2011). The simplest medical excuse would be diabetes. Hence the PETN-TATP formula, which is relatively simple to produce, easy to use, and essentially as deadly as conventional high explosive-based weapons, is a major concern for the aviation security.
In 2010, al-Qaeda in Iraq reportedly surgically implanted bombs into dogs in order to send the animals on planes to the US on which they would explode. In this case, the bombs were so badly stitched inside the dogs that they died before the plan could be carried out.
Sometimes an organ can be removed for this purpose such as one kidney is removed to place bigger charges (a kidney is roughly the size of a mouse for a computer). Carrying these devices inside the body is painful, but for a bomber, he knows that his days are limited. Plastic explosives have moldability, and therefore could form into any shape and easily fit it into an internal body cavity.
Surgical implantation is much easier when a dead body is used. Much of the abdominal organs can be removed and even a larger quantity of explosives can be placed inside. If the dead body is carried inside an airliner’s cargo hold, or in the medical ward at a military base, then it would cause severe harm.
These devices could be placed in the breasts of female bombers much like an implant. Since they have no metal components the bomber can pass through metal detectors. In fact, no metal component is required in the bomb because they have some other advantages. If strategically positioned, explosive could turn human bone into deadly shrapnel comparable in effect to a nail bomb. The bomber can also carry innocent objects such as pocket change, bunch of keys, metal pens, finger-rings etc that will be forcibly propelled by the detonation of the bomb. Though these devices are less useful as a tool for assassination, in a plane, all that may be needed is an explosion just strong enough to punch a hole in a pressurized cabin (the blast effects are heat and overpressure). Just eight ounces of PETN, the weight of a Rubik’s Cube, can have enough explosive force to breach the outside skin of the aircraft and bring down a plane. If the terrorist takes a window seat close to the wing, it will not only cause hull fracturing much faster, but also cause a secondary explosion in the fuel tank.
Some skeptics may question whether bombs can actually be detonated inside human bodies. Yes, it is possible. If bombs can be detonated while underwater (sea mines) and underground (land mines), it can be detonated inside human bodies also.
The tricks of carrying in-body explosive devices are borrowed from illegal drug traders who have long smuggled drugs in body cavities. French newspaper Le Figaro reported on October 6, 2009, “French anti-terrorism experts have warned that suicide bombers carrying explosives inside their bodies pose a new threat to air traffic” (cited Bunker and Flaherty, 2013, p. xliv). These explosives cannot be detected by standard airport screening and therefore, full-body screening would be needed to spot them. The good point is that the awareness of this security gap is increasing. As example, the Daily Mail (UK) reported,
“Britain is facing a new Al Qaeda terror threat from suicide ‘body bombers’ with explosives surgically inserted inside them. Until now, terrorists have attacked airlines, Underground trains and buses by secreting bombs in bags, shoes or underwear to avoid detection. But an operation by MI5 has uncovered evidence that Al Qaeda is planning a new stage in its terror campaign by inserting ‘surgical bombs’ inside people for the first time” (Leake, 2010)
Fetus “Martyrdom” bomb: This is a further sophisticated idea for Surgically Implanted Explosives. In medical terms, a fetus is a prenatal human between the embryonic state and birth. The pre-pregnancy uterus (female reproductive organ) is fairly small, about the size of a woman’s tightly clenched fist. As the fetus gets bigger and bigger, it needs more and more space in the womb. Therefore, the uterus expands to give it that extra room, that’s why the female’s womb grows over the nine month period. Now if the fetus is surgically removed from the womb an enormous volume is created which can be exploited as a bomb placing option. This is not a matter of imagination. The ‘Muslim’ fetus will reach martyrdom by total surrender to Allah’s cause and get its designated seat in Allah’s paradise even before birth – what a great sacrifise! While gruesome, it is possible for a Muslim mother to encourage her own children to go for martyrdom for Allah’s cause.
Medical Cast Bomb: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) noted this as another potential aviation threat. In this option, the Muslim terrorist will hide the bomb in the medical arm or leg cast that would normally be placed over a broken limb. Either the plaster cast itself is the bomb with the explosive integrated inside the length and width of it or the cast covers the bomb, which is composed of a thin-sheet explosive. Since some explosives are highly toxic, so when it is placed near human skin some sort of non-permeable membrane will be placed between them. In the past the terrorists have used arm casts to hide firearms for assassination attempts, as example, assassination of US President William McKinley in 1901 and in the 1980s with an assassination attempt made on the wife of the Philippine president. Drug smugglers have used leg cast for smuggling cocaine internationally and the same principle would be applied to forming explosives into a medical cast that could be worn.
David Stone, then assistant secretary of Homeland Security, identified this threat coming through airport screening checkpoints in December 2004 as his greatest concern (cited Prince, 2005). In the past, terrorists have used thin-sheet explosives in letter bombs but just as easily can be utilized inside or under other objects. The thin back brace bomb is a medical variant to the cast bomb. Detonators can be placed within the lining of the cast (Pierre et al., 2008). Other medical variants might be bombs hidden in urine and colostomy bags.
External Belly Bomb and Prosthesis Bomb: In this option, a terrorist’s intension is to create an empty volume of space next to his/her body, yet which appears to be part of the body, that can be utilized for the placement of a bomb. Such a bomb can consist of either solid or liquid explosive charge. The terrorist can use a plaster or plastic mold that mimics the contours of a woman in late term pregnancy – “prosthetic devices that mimic the look of a pregnant woman” (Fox News, 2008), or more pronounced breasts, male beer bellies, muscular calves, and more masculine chest. Hunchback effects of osteoporosis or a birth deformity with a mold or polyurethane bladder can also be mimicked in the same way. One company is already selling ‘Winerack’ and ‘Beerbelly’ to smuggle alcohol where it is prohibited (Devaney and Stein, 2007). In order to better disguise the molds synthetic silicone skin may be used. An innocent-looking electric toothbrush or a digital electric pen can actually be re-engineered to work as a detonator.
In prosthesis bomb options, the terrorist can utilize older style wooden legs and arms and also newer ones made out of composite materials for bomb placement by creating a void space in the prosthesis. Though no Islamic terrorist groups have ever tried this option, the smugglers have used this tactics. In one case, a false leg was found containing some valuable iguanas and in another incident it had a small canister of CS gas (Wilson, 2008; The Sun, 2008). In the case of CS gas the container was of the size of a small hand grenade. It means sufficient space inside a false limb can be created to carry enough explosive for mass destruction.
Under Fat Roll Bomb: This option is available for significantly overweight terrorists who have enough belly fat to create a void large enough between the pelvis and the fat rolls to hide explosive. Those women who have enough fat under the breasts can also hide explosives there. There is no shortage of cases where drugs and firearms had been found in the potbelly of obese criminals. Such criminals have one advantage – security personnel generally don’t check suspect fat rolls because often skin rashes and wounds may exist due to poor personal hygiene. So far no Islamic terrorists have been caught while carrying explosives in the fat rolls, but this is a possibility we cannot ignore.
Explosive Clothing Bomb: In this case, the clothing to be worn by the suicide terrorist will be dipped in liquid explosive and then dried. Hence the cloth itself becomes a bomb. Carrying these bombs is safer for terrorists because sewing explosives adds extra weight that might get noticed by the security. Since explosives are often toxic, the terrorist will wear preventive underclothing. This bomb option is highly probable because at present explosive clothes would be undetectable by current security measures. An alert from US authorities 2003 which “…warned of terrorists using socks soaked in explosives and hung from a cord around a terrorist’s neck…” represents an example of concerns over this bomb use option (Bunker and Flaherty, 2013, p. 23). This bomb does not need a detonator because it will not work like a conventional bomb that explodes. While inside a confined place, the terrorist only needs to set him on fire and toxic fumes will kill everyone present in that place.
Bra Bombs: In March 2002, a Palestinian teenager, Ayat al-Akhrass, used a Semtex (a general-purpose plastic explosive containing RDX and PETN used in commercial blasting, demolition, and in certain military applications) stuffed bra to detonate herself in a Jerusalem supermarket killing two shoppers. The LTTE terrorists from Sri Lanka had used it in 2004 and 2007. Chechen terrorists, who have had past links to al-Qaeda, are also believed to have possibly utilized bra bombs to take down two Russian commercial jetliners killing ninety people. Hiding the explosives in a bra instead of a vest allows for the women to show their midriffs when searched.
This is basically a heart-shaped suicide vest. The vest should be custom-built as per the size of the breast of the female Muslim terrorist. The vest is “designed to hold explosive slabs in two bra cups surrounding the breasts. Charges are detonated via one of two triggering mechanisms: one runs up the centre of the torso and one is placed under the armpit” (Jackson et al., 2007, p. 73). Muslim flat-chested women or with undersized breasts are most suitable for bra bombs. An average A-cup size of a Muslim woman’s breast can be turned into a double-D full of whatever explosive she would like to carry to commit suicide terrorism.
A Muslim woman more determined to kill more infidels can surgically remove the breasts and fill the hollow spaces with suitable explosive. The detonator might be camouflaged as a false nipple or nipple piercing. Explosives for Bra Bombs can be both liquid and solid. There are authentic reports with the intelligence that Muslim terrorist organizations are now rethinking about Bra Bombs. Jens Tollover, an expert on international terrorism based in Munich, Germany said, “The Stealth Bra is a major threat to national security. People thought the ‘shoe bomber’ was bad, but this is worse…” (Clayton, 2002, p. 5). The Stealth Bra was first uncovered at a British airport when security personnel spotted a suspicious woman with lumpy, oddly-shaped breasts. In France, a Muslim man dressed in female garb attempted to smuggle concealed weapons in his bra. A customs agent noted, “It looked like he had a couple of grenades under his blouse. Sure enough, he did.” Therefore Bra Bombs are not a matter of ridicule or strange imagination; it’s a hard fact and a horrifying new development. Some stealth bra uses a fabric created with a specially treated substance which can absorb radar and X-rays causing detection systems to go blank. Evidence is mounting that al-Qaeda network is developing this system.
Underwear Bombs: This is a unisex bomb. In one case, Wafa Samir al Bass (a Palestinian resident from the refugee camp of Jabalya in Gaza) was permitted to enter Israel for the purpose of being treated for severe burns at an Israeli hospital in 2005. At the Erez crossing (the main transit point between Israel and the Gaza Strip) the strangeness of her gait attracted the attention of the security officials. Subsequently they made to strip off her clothes at standoff range. She had strapped a 22-pound bomb hidden in her underwear under the traditional black robe. She was imprisoned for several years and released in the 2011. After she was freed by Israel, she returned to Northern Gaza Strip where dozens of children came to greet her at her home. Her advice to Gaza kids was, “I hope you will walk the same path we took and Inshallah, we will see some of you as martyrs.”
Another such underwear bomber was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Madden, 2011, p. 79). On Christmas Day 2009, this Nigerian Muslim attempted to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear on Northwest Flight 253 (Amsterdam to Detroit) during its final descent. The bomb was composed of about 80 grams (less than 1/2 a cup in volume) of PETN that was sewn into the underwear in a six-inch long pouch hidden next to the terrorist’s genitalia. Detonation of the device was attempted via the use of an acid-filled syringe. The bomb however failed to detonate aboard the flight, which was carrying 290 people, but caused a brief fire that caused burns to his groin. While engaging in this act, he pulled a flight blanket over himself to disguise his actions. However, instead of the explosion, it flared up like an incendiary device, and partially burned both him and the blanket over him. Quick thinking on the part of a Dutch passenger and others aboard the flight led to the extinguishing of the resulting fire and the placing the terrorist under restraint. Had the device detonated it would have caused lot of funerals. The malfunction probably resulted from loss of density of the explosive mass because the terrorist wore the same underwear for two weeks.
Many terrorist groups including al-Qaeda are trying to develop underwear bombs to bring down airliners (Perkins, 2014, p. 369). Bunker and Flaherty (2013, p. 13) reported that US and British airport security personnel have been on alert for explosive devices placed within or sewn into undergarments since at least the 2005 time period.
Under the pants bombs: In this case, the bomb placement option is around the ankles. When the Underwear bomb tactics became known to the security guards, some Palestinian terrorists have attempted to bypass this countermeasure by then placing bombs around ankles. The idea is when they dropped their pants no bomb would be found. This bomb placing option is not popular.
There are several reasons why the international airports and airliners are most vulnerable from Islamic suicide terrorism.
- International airports are a status symbol of a nation. A successful terrorist attack in such an important place gives terrorists the apparent value they seek by belittling the government. The psychological message to the citizens is, ‘your nation cannot protect you from Allah’s wrath’. It’s a complete humiliation to the nation.
- Lots of passengers from various nations gather here. Any attack is likely therefore to not only create bigger headlines in the country of the attack, but further afield – striking fear into more people globally (unlike a train station, bus terminal, shopping mall, crowded restaurant etc). Creating such fear is the goal of Muslim terrorists. Remember the prophet of Islam boasted, “I have been made victorious with terror” (Sahih Bukhari 4.52.220).
- In a major international airport, people look different because they are from various parts of the world. This allows the terrorists to move freely posing as passengers. In such diversity, monitoring of out-of-place behaviors is not an easy task. As an added layer of operational security the Muslim terrorists would dress like traditional Jews or Christians or Hindus. Some of them may carry pornographic magazines and condoms in the luggage to mask their Muslim faith.
- Airports by necessity are designed to handle huge numbers of people in a confined space. It means, the number of casualties can be vastly increased – “Killing disbelievers is a small matter to us” (Tabari: 9.69)
- The checkpoints are well inside the airports, not outside. There is absolutely nothing that can deter the terrorist at the entrance to the airport. It means, terrorists can roam freely with valid travel documents into easily accessible areas of the airport without any concern for checking. This is a logical hole right at the center of the aviation security.
- International air travelers carry larger items of luggage. Concealing explosives in bulky cases is easier.
- Security checks can be a dehumanising experience for some sensitive passengers. Hence some nations may want to keep it to a minimum because they don’t want to put off foreign travelers using them.
- A small amount of explosive can down an airliner with just one person with no military training. It took four men to kill 52 people in the London underground attack of 7/7, but if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had succeeded on the flight he took, he would have killed 290 by himself. This is what a Muslim hardliner will call ‘supreme efficiency in a mass murder mission’.
- Even failed attempts can be ‘sold’ as success later on. Piercing the thick barriers of checks all passengers have to go through to board a plane is in itself a success. As example, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to kill, but succeeded in making the west shake in fear, engendering a hysterical worldwide security response and obviously shaming the US security services. The protocol that all airline passengers are required to take off their footwear for x-ray screening at airports was implemented right after Reid’s failed bombing attempt. It means though these two terrorists had failed in their mission they had succeeded in steering a global fear.
Our security scanning and detection technologies are not presently mature enough to detect such bombs as mentioned in this article. Since all these attack methodology have immense potentials, we have now entered a very dangerous window of vulnerability. It can be partially closed by means of advanced counterterrorism methods and superior scanning devices, such as,
- The security personnel should be well trained about evolving patterns of Islamic suicide bomb use and the new realities of terrorism that now exist. Threat assessments must be up to date and accurate.
- Everyone, regardless of their religious or cultural background, is required to be screened before they can board a plane. If the passenger refuses to undergo the standard process he will not be allowed to proceed through the screening point.
- Multiple layers of preventive security with armed police presence should start at the entrance of the airport. It should end at the point just before the passenger boards the airliner. Staff working in secure areas of the airport and onboard aircraft must be background checked and hold an Aviation Security Identification Card.
- Full-body scanning machines such as millimeter wave scanner should be mandatory at all airports. Such machines are thought to be the perfect countermeasure for most of the bomb placing options. The millimeter waves utilized only penetrate about a centimeter into human skin so the bones of the skull and objects directly implanted under the skin will be detected by these scans.
- Explosive trace detection (ETD) machines and chemical spray detectors, which can test luggage and be applied to a passengers hands respectively, are also to be compulsory as countermeasure for Explosive Clothing Bombs.
- Biometric identifiers based on gait, pupil response, or facial expression should be deployed.
- Ground-penetrating radar technologies which show great promise in eventually being able to provide us with the interior body scanning capability are urgently needed as countermeasure for Fetus “Martyrdom” bomb and Medical Cast Bomb.
- Advanced explosive detection system and bottled liquid scanners capable of detecting liquid-based explosives are must at all airports.
- While the scanning of shoes for explosives is in practice, breast bomb pat downs are not yet compulsory. This is serious shortfall.
- Pregnant women cannot have the option to refuse a body scan on the ground of radiation. The energy projected by a body scanner is 10,000 times less than a mobile phone transmission because it does not use X-ray technology and does not emit ionizing radiation. There is no scientific evidence that an unborn baby is at risk when being scanned using this technology.
- Tightened security is not always popular and may cause visitor frustration, but the common public should be persuaded for the necessity of such systems.
With the various bomb placing options that the terrorist masterminds are planning we will see more attacks in major international airports and airliners in the coming years unless security measures are tightened. Law enforcement and intelligence bodies must adapt to the changing environment. In this whole scenario what is constant is Jihad Fi Sabil Allah.
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