Having recently flown and participated in the kabuki theater that is the security screenings at airports at the same time that the TSA issued an alert warning about implanted bombs, I realized that such bombs would end the charade we have been subjected to over the past 10 years. In 2009 an attacker using a bomb inserted into his rectum blew himself up as he met a Saudi prince credited with Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror campaign.
Intelligence analysts have known for years that al-Qaeda has been attempting to recruit surgeons to implant bombs into the human bodies, but so far without success. Considering that doctors have joined al-Qaeda, AQ chief al-Zawahiri is one himself as was one of the attackers on the Glasgow airport on June 30, 2007, it is only a matter of time before a terror group acquires a person with the necessary skills to surgically implant a bomb that would be undetectable without exploratory surgery or an MRI. At that point terrorists will be able to attack at will, and the current TSA model will be obsolete.
This doesn’t mean that we will be defenseless. Both Israel and Northern Ireland have had effective security in place that doesn’t leave their citizens unprotected or sacrificing their rights. Behavioral profiling is a topic familiar to any beat cop. The fundamental fact of behavior profiling is that people committing a crime act differently than those who aren’t. Israeli airport security follows an “onion model” where travelers are checked at certain points while under observation the entire time they are at the airport.
The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?
“Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” (Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy) said.
Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of “distress” — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.
“The word ‘profiling’ is a political invention by people who don’t want to do security,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behaviour. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?”
The key aspect is behavior; the race of the person under observation is immaterial – as it should be. AQ has been actively recruiting in the West, and is especially interested in Caucasians, believing that a white person of European ancestry would arose less suspicion than someone of Pakistani origin. Behavior profiling would catch a white suburbanite with an implanted bomb in her breast just as easily as a Pakistani because both would act in unusual ways and respond differently when confronted by security.
One must have fewer, highly trained and professional security personnel instead of tens of thousands of poorly-trained screeners in place today. The TSA has grown into a huge, politically connected bureaucracy, and the first priority of any bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself. Implementing a behavior based model would require only a fraction of the number of people currently employed by the TSA, and most if not all lack the required skill-set to transition to a behavior based model. These people would not easily let go of their jobs; in fact one could argue that allowing the TSA to be created at all is one of George W. Bush’s greatest failures in his handling of the Global War on Terror. Institutional and political resistance against change would be huge, and would only melt under catastrophic circumstances (such as the detonation of a surgically implanted bomb resulting in the deaths of hundreds or more civilians). Next, the skill-set by agents required at domestic airports is the same required by soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other danger spots abroad. The military and civilian authorities would in effect be chasing after the same people. The best option would be for the military working with intelligence agencies to boost recruitment and then take over security of airports and sensitive installations – but that would fall afoul of America’s Posse Comitatus act. Even if this act was suspended due to crisis, it is doubtful Americans would put up with an armed forces presence on American soil for long. Most importantly such a change in tactics would require a change in the politically correct dogma that has infected our institutions, both political and increasingly, those charged with our security. Such changes don’t come easily to bureaucracies, if they even come at all.
Can it be fooled? No system is perfect, but neither is any potential terrorist. Terrorists can be trained, but there is no substitute for real-world experience in the field. Unfortunately for terrorists, each suicide bomber is “one and done”; he is either caught or he explodes, rather limiting the opportunity to learn from his experience. There are no “experienced suicide bombers” who could school terrorist recruits in the best ways to avoid suspicion while on a mission. Yes, their handlers will be able to pass along some information, but the best car thieves and murderers are the ones who jacked cars or killed someone before. Meanwhile the security institution using the behavioral profiling method would constantly gain experience as it caught suspects, giving it a distinct advantage in the race between security personnel and terrorists; that is, if the bureaucracy is minimized to allow itself to change.
Herbert Stein of the American Enterprise Institute famously quipped, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” As the number of complaints grow with the TSA and its ineffectiveness exposed, it is only a matter of time before the bureaucracy is disbanded. When it is, it will not mean the end of secure air travel in the United States, but its true beginning.
UPDATE: This article at Bloomberg strikes me as wishful thinking.
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.
Those same tissues and skin could also direct the blast. When the shoe bomber attempted to detonate the explosives in his shoes, he placed his feet against the body of the plane. A bomber with a bomb in her chest could place her body against the airplane’s hull, directing the blast towards the skin of the craft. I cannot prove the often cited figure of 50g of PETN being necessary to take down a plane, but the average breast implant size I’ve found on the web is 440g per implant. That’s nearly 2lbs of explosive a bomber could carry in her boobs. And that assumes the use of breast implants; an even larger bomb could be implanted in the belly of a man. In addition the bomb designer could think creatively, perhaps employing a thin ceramic shield behind the bomb that wouldn’t set off metal detectors but would act to shape the blast. A few grams of explosives might be absorbed by the body of the attacker, but not hundreds of grams.
The main difficulty of an implanted bomb is detonating it, but it’s not insurmountable especially when the cost – from the terrorists organization’s perspective – is low. It’s an engineering problem, and unfortunately for the traveling public, al Qaeda seems to have as many of those as the IEEE.