Saturday, November 3, 2007

Uninformed Nonsense: Juan Cole, Rashid Rauf, Liquid Bombs and Whole Cloth

Today's reading is from "Combating Muslim Extremism" by Professor Juan Cole, of the highly respected blog "Informed Comment", as published in the November 19, 2007, edition of The Nation. The piece reached me via George Mason University's History News Network.

Professor Cole's essay includes a short passage about the one "terrorism" case with which I am most familiar, that of Rashid Rauf [photo] and the so-called "Liquid Bombers". I am very unhappy to report that this passage contains a significant amount of fiction.

The rest of Professor Cole's essay may make perfect sense, or it may not. I don't know. For the purposes of this essay, I have set myself a much smaller task: to look at a single paragraph in depth, and to separate what is false from what is true.

For ease of discussion, I have broken the passage in question into four smaller sections, as follows:
The Administration clearly is not very interested in doing the hard work of dealing effectively with small fringe terrorist networks. That is why Osama bin Laden is at large and the CIA unit tracking him disbanded.
This is a highly contentious subject and the assertion is not only unsubstantiated but also absurd. How, pray tell, does the good professor know why Osama bin Laden is at large? Does he really expect us to believe that the administration talks about al Qaeda all the time because it considers al Qaeda a "fringe terrorist network" which is not worth dealing with?

Does he really believe that the administration hasn't made a serious effort to catch Osama bin Laden, a CIA asset whose family does business with the Bush family, because the administration is not very interested in doing the hard work?

Do we really spend $500 billion a year trying to do something the administration is not very interested in doing? I'm sorry to say so, but this explanation cuts no ice with me. So let us move on.

Next, Professor Cole says:
Successful counterterrorism involves good diplomacy and good police work.
And here I agree. I wish Professor Cole had thought to use a better illustration, though:
A case in point is the plot last summer by young Muslim men in London to bomb several airliners simultaneously using liquid explosives in innocent-looking bottles and detonators hidden in disposable cameras. Contrary to the allegations of skeptics, the techniques they envisaged were perfectly workable.
... because here I most emphatically disagree. The techniques envisaged by the plotters were utterly impossible, and if you're willing to spend a few more minutes reading, I will tell you why this is so. But first, let's deal with the rest of the passage.

Professor Cole continues:
The plotters were determined enough to make chilling martyrdom videos.
But determination is no substitute for technical ability. And if they couldn't do it, then it really doesn't matter how badly they wanted to do it! I wish I could flap my arms and fly. I really, really, wish I could do that! But I can't. So I won't.

And the alleged plotters could not have done what they were allegedly plotting to do.

How Do I Know This?

If I dare to speak with a voice of authority about this case, it is because I have done the research.

On the night of August 9, 2006, pro-Bush "Democrat" Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic Senatorial primary in Connecticut to the anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont. As soon as the result became clear, the Republican noise machine suddenly shifted into high gear, calling Democrats all over the country "Defeatocrats" and "soft on terror" because the Democratic primary voters of Connecticut had chosen Lamont over the faux-Democrat Lieberman. At the time I was guest-hosting a high-traffic blog, and I figured this was a newsworthy story. So I started digging. And since I would be writing for a larger than normal audience, I started digging hard. I've been digging hard at this story for the past 15 months.

While I was composing the piece, which came to be known as "An Avalanche Of Bullshit", breaking news arrived from the UK, telling us about two dozen Muslims who had been arrested for allegedly plotting to attack a dozen intercontinental airlines simultaneously. The synchronicity -- Democrats soft on terror while British allies foil a horrifying plot -- seemed too good to be true, and I kept digging.

Within a few days the British press had obtained the names of those who had been arrested (or so they thought: they wound up paying dearly for a couple of minor errors, but that's another story). The papers printed the names, and I set up Google alerts for all of them. (It was because of my Google alert for Rashid Rauf that I found Professor Cole's article at the History News Network.)

For the past 15 months, I have received email whenever any of those names appeared in any news or blog item, and I have read everything about all of them. In addition, I have done more reporting -- and more detailed reporting -- on this story than anyone else, anywhere.

I don't mean to be immodest here -- just truthful. Since August of 2006, I have spent hundreds of hours reading about this case. I've written an extensive series (of which this is the 21st installment) which links to hundreds of source articles. And at my other blog, "Winter Parking", I have posted copies of more than 160 news articles concerning the alleged mastermind and al Qaeda connection, Rashid Rauf.

Because of the nature of the alleged plot, I also did considerable research into the chemistry behind the alleged method of attack, and I acknowledge and thank my science adviser, Bruce, who has that rare combination -- a PhD and good common sense. Bruce's help has been most valuable, as has the assistance of a former Army explosives expert with whom I consulted while I was working on the Ronald Swerlein story.

A Simple Chemistry Lesson

According to the reports which scared us silly in August of 2006, the "Liquid Bombers" were allegedly plotting to take down as many as a dozen airliners en route to the USA from the UK, using bombs made from common household liquids. They were allegedly going to smuggle their ingredients onto the airplanes in soft-drink bottles, then create and detonate the bombs while the planes were in flight. Let's do a little chemistry and see how credible these allegations are.

There are three commonly-known explosives which can be made from hydrogen peroxide and other household ingredients. Hydrogen peroxide is a key ingredient because it has been mentioned in all technical accounts of the bomb-making aspect of the alleged plot, and also because the alleged al Qaeda connection, Rashid Rauf, faces trial in Pakistan for possession of articles for the purpose of terroism, in which the articles in question are bottles of hydrogen peroxide.

The three peroxide-based explosives which have been discussed in conjunction with this case are TATP, HMTD, and MEKP. For legal reasons, I won't link to the recipes for any of these compounds, and for security reasons I won't give enough detail for anyone to make them. I will, however, give you enough detail so that you can understand why the alleged plotters simply couldn't make any of these three explosives, not in sufficient quantity, and not on intercontinental flights.


Let's start with the first peroxide-based explosive mentioned in the press in connection with this case. Triacetone triperoxide, aka TATP, aka Acetone Peroxide, is reportedly called "the Mother of Satan" by the terrorists who try to make it, because it is so unstable. In other words, it tends to detonate prematurely.

But according to the official story of 7/7, TATP was the explosive used by the four notoriously uninvestigated London Bombers, each of whom supposedly wandered around with 10 kilograms of TATP in their backpacks before the "bombs" detonated, miraculously blowing the undercarriages of the trains upwards into the passenger compartments. It's quite a magical explosive, and according to an article published in the UK by the Guardian, TATP may have been the explosive the alleged plotters were allegedly plotting to make.

In a post called "To Mix The Impossible Bomb", I examined the process by which TATP is made. Here's a short and deliberately vague outline:

Start by mixing the acetone and the hydrogen peroxide together, in the right proportions, using lab-quality glassware (otherwise the impurities will destroy you). And be very diligent about chilling the mixture. You'll need to keep it cold throughout the entire process, otherwise you may get a weak and premature explosion. Add the third liquid, very gradually, stirring constantly and checking the temperature frequently. The addition of the third liquid starts the reaction, and the reaction gives off a lot of heat.

This will be inconvenient for you because the liquid ingredients are highly concentrated and the fumes are extremely noxious. But you need to keep the mixture very close to the freezing point, so you must add the third liquid as slowly as necessary to avoid overheating. When you've added enough of the third liquid, you can stop stirring. But you have to keep the mixture cold, and you have to wait.

The reaction is a slow one and it produces a white crystal. After six or eight hours (some sources say two or three days!), you can pour the result through a fine paper filter, to separate the crystals from the liquid. You can discard the liquid, but you should keep the crystals. They must be rinsed and dried before they can be used.

These explosive crystals formed by this reaction are very unstable and relatively powerful. But airplane fuselages are not cigar tubes. They are built to withstand a significant pressure differential, otherwise they couldn't fly at high altitudes. So it takes a significant quantity of these explosive crystals -- roughly 250 grams (half a pound) in a properly shaped charge, to blow a hole in the fuselage of a modern passenger airplane, according to one demolition expert whose work I read while researching the original series.

If all goes well, you can get as much as 8 grams (a quarter-ounce) of TATP crystals per liter (quart) of liquid. And you need about 250 grams (half a pound) of TATP, so you'll need roughly 32 litres (8 gallons) of liquid ingredients. Now: How are you going to mix that? If you do it all in one batch, you'll need a 40-liter (10-gallon) beaker, which will be difficult to smuggle onto the plane without attracting attention. Of course you can make the TATP in small batches, but then you will need multiple teams, and that means you'll need multiple restrooms.

How many restrooms on an intercontinental flight do you suppose could be occupied by Muslim men bearing glassware and large bags of ice, without attracting attention? It hardly seems possible to fit a 2-liter (half-gallon) flask in an airplane sink full of ice, but if you can do that, you'll only need sixteen teams (and sixteen washrooms). And of course if you make it in smaller batches, you'll need even more teams.

In summary, you will have big problems -- insurmountable problems! -- if you decide to blow up the planes using TATP. So what are your other options?


An article published by the New York Times on August 30, 2006 (which British subscribers were not allowed to read!), suggested that the alleged plotters may have been thinking of making Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, or HMTD. And a bit of research revealed that while HMTD is made from a different combination of liquids than TATP, the processes by which they are produced are virtually identical. Crucially, you can't make HMTD any faster than you can make TATP. Again you'll have to chill the mixture and wait for crystals to form, then filter them out, wash them and dry them before they can be used.

If you try to make HMTD on a plane, you'll run into all the logistical problems inherent in trying to make TATP. In other words, it's impossible, unless you get all the passengers and crew to help you.

So what's left? Methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, or MEKP.

The idea that the alleged plotters were planning on making MEKP has been floated on a few internet discussion boards, although to the best of my knowledge it has never been suggested in any mainstream news report. It does represent a third possibility, however, so the chemistry behind the synthesis of MEKP deserves some study.

MEKP differs from TATP and HMTD in that the reaction produces an explosive liquid, rather than crystals. So instead of filtering the result, the MEKP must be decanted -- never an easy task on a moving plane. And again, the plotters will need either an enormous piece of glassware and a way to keep it cold, or else uninterrupted access to more than a dozen washrooms for several hours at a time.

In other words, forget it. It can't be done, not without an enormous number of accomplices, not without the active cooperation of the flight crew, not unless the Atlantic crossing takes an inordinately long time.

To envisage one attack succeeding using this method is an excercise in fantasy. To envisage a dozen such attacks succeeding simultaneously is madness.

I do not say that the alleged plotters were not plotting along these lines. I have no way to know whether they were plotting or not; assuming they were, I have no way to know whether they were mad or simply clueless. But I do know, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the alleged plot as described was absolutely impossible.

And to make a statement such as
Contrary to the allegations of skeptics, the techniques they envisaged were perfectly workable.
without offering any supporting evidence, or any indication of having done any research, is ... well ... I was about to say "unfathomable", but let's just say a statement like that doesn't bring any credit to its author.

And considering what's at stake -- ridiculous airport security, enhanced police powers, and further legitimization of the GWOT -- Professor Cole's very superficial treatment of this apparently bogus case strikes me as not only "uninformed nonsense" but much, much worse. And here's the reason:

None of this uninformed nonsense would have been necessary if Professor Cole had merely wished to establish the point on which I noted our agreement, namely that "successful counterterrorism involves good diplomacy and good police work". If that was the point he was trying to make, there were a thousand ways he could have illustrated it. And so ...

One cannot help but wonder why Professor Cole would tell a tale made of whole cloth, as it were. Could he be so woefully uninformed? Or could he be trying to prop up the phony war on phony terror? The questions are not pleasant, but then again, none of this is pleasant.


For my best estimate of what may have driven the alleged plotters, please see "Inadequate Deception: The Impossible Plots Of The Terror War".


In recent "Liquid Bomber" news, Rashid Rauf's petition for a bail hearing was accepted by a judge in Lahore last week after being rejected in Rawalpindi last month. He is scheduled to return to court in Lahore on November 6th.

As the Frontier Post reported:
On the orders of Judge Sakhi Muhammad Kahut, the kids and wife of the accused Rashid Rauf were allowed to meet him at the premises of the courtyard of the ATC [Anti-Terror Court] here.

When accused Rashid Rauf met his family he began to cry as the environment became sentimental and emotional [scenes] were witnessed.

The meeting continued for 20 minutes.


A previously posted version of this piece was longer and somewhat speculative in spots. It also contained some crucial spelling mistakes. I have removed passages that may have been extraneous and/or misleading, and fixed the spelling, too. I apologize for any confusion caused by this deviation from the normal procedure of editing articles before posting them.


twenty-first in a series