The Unique Terrorism Threats Posed by Liquid Explosives

Home-brew explosives create new risks, but detection systems working to automatically ID these materials


Nolin says that by eliminating liquids and gels from carry-on luggage, and by pushing checked baggage through in-line explosives detection systems, airlines are able to significantly reduce the possibility for liquid explosive-based terror attacks aboard airplanes. "If today's enforcement standards stay in place," says Nolin, "we've essentially banned everything that could be an explosive threat."

However, not all liquids or semi-liquid substances have been banned. Policies today still allow prescriptions and essentials like baby formula, but in England, mothers were being required to taste their babies' milk to ensure that the material wasn't a threat.

Brigham notes that thanks to today's newer technologies, even these allowed liquids don't have to fly under the detection radar. He notes that one of the products that's come out of GE's research labs is what the company calls StreetLab, a portable detection unit that can identify a variety of chemicals without ever requiring a scientist to pour a test tube into a beaker.

"It offers immediate potential for determining whether certain innocuous substances (baby formula, prescription medicines) that might need to be carried on commercial aircraft are actually threat substances," explains Brigham, who adds that the system has been modified such that it can directly test substances within bottles as well. "I think the thing to take away is that there is already technology to handle these kinds of threats, and it's in use," said Brigham.

And while technology may offer the chance to save the day against airline terrorist plots similar to the one uncovered in England and Pakistan, policies and technologies won't be able to work in all situations.

"The nature of the change is impossible to implement, for example, on a cruise line," said Nolin, whose K-9 teams often are on detail for Florida cruise lines. "People carry on items the same way they carry on items to an airplane, but if we confiscated those items or told them to put them in the checked luggage, they'd still get that luggage when they got on the ship."