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Dolls, coats next carry-on items banned?
Air cargo also big worry as al-Qaida dusts off old plans
With al-Qaida dusting off old plans, homeland security officials worry the terrorists may try to conceal explosives in children's dolls, an innocent-looking disguise al-Qaida experimented with a decade ago in an aborted plot to blow up airliners.
TSA over the weekend added toys with gel inside to the list of banned carry-on items that could contain liquid explosives. Next could be dolls and stuffed animals. Officials fear bombers may use them to conceal the explosive material nitrocellulose, a key ingredient in "smokeless gunpowder." It's commonly used in rocket propellant.
They also fear terrorists may try to slip explosives into cargo stowed in the bellies of commercial jetliners. Cargo is not inspected by the government for explosives and remains a soft target. Cargo planes also were targeted last decade by al-Qaida. The plot included the use of nitrocellulose sewn into jackets.
The transatlantic sky terror plot appears to be a redux of an aborted plot from 1995, as WorldNetDaily has reported. So counterterror officials are busy reviewing al-Qaida's old playbook for clues to other possible plots in the pipeline.
Al-Qaida operative Ramzi Yousef planned to blow a dozen U.S. airliners out of the Pacific skies using liquid-based explosives. When authorities busted him at his Pakistan apartment, they also found dolls wearing clothes containing nitrocellulose, also known as "guncotton."
Evidence gathered also revealed he was developing plans to bomb U.S.-bound cargo carriers by smuggling jackets containing nitrocellulose on board. Yousef attempted to follow through on the cargo carriers plan, but was arrested. Both he and his uncle, 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, remain in custody today.
Nitrocellulose was invented by the German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein in 1846 when he accidentally spilled a mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid on his kitchen table. He grabbed a cotton apron, wiped up the mess and hung the apron by the fire to dry. A violent explosion resulted that damaged much of the house. The cellulose in the cotton had undergone a process called nitration. Without realizing it, Schonbein had invented nitrocellulose.
Officials say nitrocellose could produce a fairly major explosion onboard an airliner, enough to rip the plane's thin aluminum skin and cause a huge breach in its fully pressurized cabin. One or two doll bombs or jacket bombs could be enough to down a jumbo jet, they say.
The explosive material is also hard to detect by bomb-screening equipment.
If such carry-on items were banned, however, experts speculate terrorists could simply switch to targeting cargo riding in the belly of commercial airliners.
Unbeknown to many passengers, the planes they fly on have a second deck beneath them that often contains uninspected cargo. About 22 percent of all cargo shipped by air is transported by passenger aircraft, not airplanes dedicated to ferrying cargo. And that freight for the most part is still not inspected for explosives.
"Air cargo is not being inspected, and that is a big concern. It is an extremely vulnerable area," says Charles G. Slepian, a security analyst who worked for TWA and now heads the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center in New York. "Yet TSA essentially says: We'll get to it when we get to it."
Aviation security expert Stephen Flynn agrees – "it's barely screened at all" – and argues the government should focus on air freight before it's too late.
Under the Trusted Shipper Program, airlines waive inspections of cargo shipped by regular customers, Slepian explains.
And when a suspicious package is inspected for explosives, it's not scanned by one of the giant CTX machines used in terminals for checked baggage. They are configured to handle luggage, not irregularly shaped packages and other cargo. "So they may use [a trace] explosives detector," he says.
Virtually every month since 9-11, former FAA special agent Steve Elson has been warning members of Congress serving on transportation and security committees that al-Qaida would continue to target planes to hurt the economy. Citing the gaping hole in cargo security, he argues that in many respects, aviation security is worse, not better, since 9-11.
"AVSEC is for the most part worse than before 9/11. Check out what is going on at TSA in cargo security," Elson says. "A joke? Yes. Funny? Hell no."