Finding Hidden Explosives – An Impossible Task

C4 Plastic explosives are very powerful, and can be molded into any sort of shape, aiding in their concealment.  A piece of plastic explosive about the size of a regular 4 oz stick of butter is enough to destroy most airplanes (this picture shows a piece of C-4, sufficient to destroy a two storey building.

It is because of this 'new' danger (well, plastic explosives have been around in modern form since the 1960s, and terrorists have been using them ever since), and the increased interest by terrorists in smuggling such explosives onto flights, that we all now have to accept being electronically stripped naked when going through airport security, possibly receiving a dangerous dose of x-rays as part of the process; and/or being given an extremely intimate pat-down full body search.

It is for our protection, and to ensure safety/security, that we must endure these new indignities; or so we are told.

But do these procedures actually work?  Are they sure to detect all 'artfully concealed' explosives?  Alas, no.  They don't work at all, and any terrorist knows how to outsmart them.

Read my new article about how terrorists can readily smuggle explosives onto planes, and you too will know how to smuggle explosives onto a plane, and you'll also know why it doesn't even matter if you can do this or not, because there are so many other ways to get explosives onto a plane and destroy it.

But, even after carefully reading the article, you'll be left with one unanswered question – a question we all should be asking of our law-makers.  If this new nasty security process at airports doesn't work, why are we being required to do it?


11 thoughts on “Finding Hidden Explosives – An Impossible Task”

  1. Well said, from top to bottom. Governments persist in spending billions on the security charade, and imposing ever more intrusive and draconian demands on our tolerance. Why? Like you, I don’t know. Perhaps a well-intentioned but totally misguided political response to our emotional reactions to air disasters, however rare they might be. We’ve come to regard as acceptable the risks of auto travel, despite the 1.2 million lives lost to it every year. Traffic accidents are barely headline news. But let an aircraft overrun the runway, with no injuries at all, and its front page stuff around the world. Perhaps some of the billions should be spent on educating the public (and media and of course politicians) on rational risk assessment and management.

  2. Here are my answers to your two questions –
    “First, if it is as easy as this for terrorists to get explosives onto a plane, why aren’t they doing so? Have we massively over-estimated the terrorist threat? ”
    I think the reason is that they don’t need to – they have already won.
    They have succeeded in causing untold billions of economic damage – not by blowing up the odd airplane, but by disrupting travel using our own paranoia, which makes our governments deploy ever more sophisticated, expensive and, as you so rightly point out, essentially useless “security” methods. Whenever things ease up a little at the airports, which will always happen as we have a very short attention span, all they have to do is persuade some inept “terrorist” to try a different method – in his shoes, underwear etc to bring on more screening and chaos. I think these “terrorists” were meant to get caught – if their planes had just gone down in an unexplained explosion we wouldn’t now have the “take your shoes off” and “step into the scanner and show us your stuff” ordeals that drive everyone crazy.
    “Second, if the current security measures truly can be so readily circumvented, why are we spending so much money and making the lives of ordinary travelers so unpleasant, when it brings us no extra safety in return?”
    I think the answer to this is twofold –
    1. If any government , especially ours, did a serious risk analysis and deployed the appropriate security measures and then had a plane go down or some other incident they would be roundly voted out of office at the next election. I can just see the commercials now “My opponent voted for terrorism and murder……” It all boils down to “cover your ass”
    and give the appearance of doing everything possible so no blame can come your way.
    2. The vast majority of the American public actually believe that all these measures are working. Sure it’s inconvenient, but it “makes me feel safe” – how many times have you heard that from the airport passenger interviews. Until we all realize that there is no such thing as absolute safety and that we are thousands of times more likely to be killed on the way to the airport by someone running a red light while drunk (or even texting) I fear we will all just stand, grumbling, in ever increasing lines while the terrorists watch, laughing.
    If you are going to publish any of this please do not use my full name – I work for a defense contractor and don’t want the FBI at my door. (Now who’s paranoid!)

  3. Hi, David,
    Great article on airport security and the futility of detecting explosives that are really cleverly concealed!
    I tend to agree wholeheartedly, and posted my own bit on FlyerTalk today with Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon:
    I think you would enjoy the cartoon by Tom Tomorrow that appeared in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser:
    Pretty much says it all.
    I remember a woman at the Chicago – ORD AA Flagship Lounge – she told me she had been seconded to El Al for training in more thorough security techniques (back in the old days, pre-9/11) but the airline had chosen to go with the “simpler” approach, so with her training she has been welcoming travelers to the ORD FIrst Class lounge. Color me chagrined.
    I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Another wonderful newsletter.
    My comments on the new pat down/groping at the airports are this.
    I am almost 72 years old now and have two artificial hips which makes me ALWAYS knowing their pat down/grope will happen if I intend to fly. I was not really thrilled with the wanding but did not object although have always felt the whole thing was really not needed.
    Can you imagine how many of us older people that are somewhat “bionic” and that we will always be forced to be subject to the whims of the TSA? We will never have to deal with the body scans and potential radiation hazard of course as we can not make it past the first security checkpoint that sets off that nice buzzer allowing for us to be groped in public?
    But wait, then we will be subject to the full body scan and the problems in that!
    Have you ever noticed that just about all the ones that are groped/patted down are older people!
    thanks so much for listening.

  5. It’s true, as Mr/Ms Anonymous above states, that the terrorists are winning. Their objective was never simply to kill us off. There are countless cheap ways to do that, from gas in a shopping mall to toxins in municipal water supplies. But this was never the point. They targeted aviation because they understood how we and our leaders would react, or over-react. If we really want to fight terrorism, we need to first fight terror — the terror we ourselves feel.

  6. David,
    Thanks for the well written article. I agree with you whole-heartedly on each and every point.
    Therefore, I find the DHS officials’, if you don’t want to go through the nudie scanners or the invasive searches then don’t fly, attitude to be not only objectionable, but irrational, given all of the holes in the system.
    I would turn it on its head and make it more logical by saying, in order to barely/maybe comply with the 4th Amendment to the Constitution and to make a reasonable attempt at stopping hijackings, we’re going to have you go through a metal detector, and if it goes off we’re going to give you a non-invasive pat down to see if it’s something other than a implanted medical device. If this barely/maybe constitutional search does not give you the confidence to fly on a commercial aircraft, then you need to use an alternate form of transportation.
    We cannot violate the Constitutional rights of members of the flying public in order give the appearance of reducing the risk of a terrorist bombing. There are too many ways to for terrorists to smuggle explosives onto a plane other than by secreting them on or in their body.
    Personally, as has been stated by many people, I’d rather seem them do away with the whole procedure as now enacted and see them adopt the same procedures being used by the Israelis, profiling and psychological questioning.
    Right now my wife and I have a flight booked to visit our daughter in Spain in January. After that, we’re not flying anywhere until changes are enacted to protect our constitutional rights, our privacy, and our modesty. What they’re doing now is absolutely outrageous.

  7. Thanks, David.
    Good article on bombs & terrorists. I’ve been asking why a drug mule can conceal a kilo of heroin, but we have to be screened.
    “How do you smuggle a nuclear device into the USA? Put it in a bale of marijuana!”
    Other Points:
    1) Shoe bomber, crotch bomber, Yemen packages: all coming form OUTSIDE the USA, trying to get in. Passengers: already INSDIE the USA.
    2) Terrorists inside the USA don’t have to bother with getting on a plane.
    a) Detonate in the crowd waiting to go through security.
    b) Shopping mall
    c) Tunnels & bridges
    d) Trains & bases (Madrid, London.)
    3) Mumbai type attack, but starting internally.
    We need more & better intelligence. Too much to ask for?
    TSA are minimum wage, minimum intelligence.
    Keep the Faith!

  8. The thought does occur to me that with the draconian security measures instituted by the TSA, we have created the beginnings of the attitude and infrastructure of a police state.
    I am reminded of a saying attributed to Ben Franklin: They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.

  9. David:
    Please consider carefully before posting, as I don’t want to offend anyone by my direct language (in marked contrast to your clear circumlocution) – or attract the TSA’s further attention.
    Vaginas and rectums provide
    Convenient places to hide
    Explosive devices:
    The TSA’s vices
    We cannot afford or abide.
    (Purists can have ‘Vaginae and recta’ if they want.)

  10. There are a number of things that no-one talks about, on the subject of Airport “security”, probably because they are unaware, or just never bothered to think about it.
    Here are two of them:
    1. Since 11 Sept 2001, terrorists have sought to board aircraft, with explosives, for the purpose of destroying the aircraft, on two occasions.
    Both those terrorists gained access to the aircraft with their explosives. The reason why the aircraft were not destroyed is merely a function of the incompetence of the terrorists.
    However, be that as it may, TSA/BAA style of security was completely unable to detect the threat. Therefore, it follows that security has a 100% failure rate, and the terrorists have a 100% success rate in gaining access and passing through security.
    I comment that the people at Al Queda have a very difficult job in recruiting suicide bombers. They just don’t get the brightest and the best.
    2. One of the aspects of security is the unnecessary duplicative nature of it. If a passenger is on a direct or connect international flight, at the intermediate airport, he or she will get off the aircraft (a secure area), and be subject to yet another security inspection, in order to get from one secure area to another secure area. They don’t seem to grasp the simple concept that a passenger is either secure, or he isn’t.
    There is absolutely no need for this. There is no body of knowledge that shows that a second inspection adds anything to the security or safety of the traveling public. It does, however, add to the cost of operation, and you can be certain that such a cost is passed on to the passenger.
    There seems to be one minor exclusion from the duplicate security inspection. If you are a Lufthansa First Class passenger connecting at Munich to an LH flight to the USA, you are exempt from such a screening. Works for me.

  11. And another thing . .
    9/11 worked because pilots’ instructions were ‘Do what hijackers say, go where they say, and negotiate later’ Nobody expected suicide hijack.
    Now instructions say ‘Ignore hijackers demands, keep them out of the cockpit’.
    So today you couldn’t hijack a plane if you had a Samurai sword! So confiscating Swiss army Knives, or doctor’s forceps, is superfluous.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.