The last two decades have seen remarkable developments in the use of homemade explosives devices (HMEs). These have been used to great effect by terrorists, causing significant damage and death around the world: Oklahoma, USA (1995); Bali, Indonesia (2002 and 2009); Madrid, Spain (2004); London, UK (2005); Prune, India (2010); Oslo, Norway (2011) and Boston, USA (2013). Whilst these attacks took place on the ground, the aviation industry has not remained unscathed with the 2001 shoe bomber and 2009 underwear bomber being notable incidents. Both perpetrators were successful in smuggling HMEs onto an aircraft; fortunately both devices failed to properly detonate and the assailants were restrained by passengers and crew. It was more through luck than effective security that these incidents were not catastrophes.
These events, and the 2006 trans-Atlantic liquid explosives plot, triggered immediate security responses. In response to the underwear bomb attempt, full body scanners were deployed at some airports and a number of new screening devices have since been developed to detect liquid explosives within bottles. This has led to the perception that the threat has diminished but this is not true. Only two of the incidents above, London and Madrid, used liquid explosives, all of the others were based on inorganic explosives.
Inorganic explosives are a different class of explosives whereby the oxidiser and the fuel are separate chemicals. The classic inorganic device is ANFO – ammonium nitrate fuel oil (as used in the Oklahoma City bombing). Existing Explosive Trace Detection technology does a reasonable job at detecting this explosive in large quantities, although sensitivity is poor when also screening for commercial/military explosives. More problematic are those made from perchlorate and chlorate salts which are mixed with aluminium, sulphur, charcoal, sugar or a range of other fuels to make an explosive. One only needs to perform a basic search of the internet to find multiple videos demonstrating the power of these explosives, and those so inclined can find quite explicit instructions on how to prepare these explosives in their kitchen.
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