A Look at the Threat of Terrorists Using Liquid Explosives to Saturate Clothes for Stealthier Attacks

By David Harel

Recent media reports regarding impending al-Qaeda sponsored terror attacks across the Middle East and Africa also reported that the attacks were to involve a different kind of explosives using a new "ingenious" type of liquid explosive.

U.S. intelligence sources say the "ingenious" process involves dousing ordinary clothes in an unknown liquid explosive. Once dry, the liquid becomes virtually undetectable by current security measures. Visually, the process can described as a typical t-shirt which, upon being ignited by a flammable substance or detonated using unknown sophisticated methods, could be blown up causing mass damage around its perimeter.

Furthermore, sources point out that the liquid explosive, thought to be a new and improved version of the underwear bomb, has been devised by Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate and mastermind bomb expert Ibrahim al-Asiri of "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," or AQAP.

Assuming the information regarding this "new" type of explosive to being partially accurate, we must consider the implications for homeland security and, more specifically, for those responsible for aviation security.

Firstly, it should be said that clothes saturated with explosives is far from a new phenomenon. We can trace the roots of cloth-saturated explosives back to roughly 1846. In this instance, Mr. Christian Friedrich Schönbein, a German-Swiss chemist, was working in the kitchen of his home in Basel when he spilled a bottle of concentrated nitric acid on the kitchen table. He reached for the nearest cloth, a cotton apron, and wiped it up after which he hung the apron on the stove door to dry. As soon as the apron was dry, there was a flash as it exploded. His preparation method was the first to be widely imitated, thus inventing the "gun cotton" explosive a former widely used military standard explosive.

Terrorists have been using cotton saturated with explosives as a concealment method for a number of attacks. The most prominent case is the infamous "Bojinka Plot." In this case, a jihadist terrorist cell headed by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were in the advanced stages of planning to blow up 11 U.S. airliners departing from airports in South East Asia for the United States. Fortunately, the plot was disrupted in 1995. However, the terrorist had intended to use IEDs that were concealed inside dolls saturated with liquid explosives as the main charge.


View Recent News (by day)


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.