August 29, 2006
First they came for the chemistry books
From the New York Times, on the British airline plot:
“There have been 69 searches,” Mr. Clarke, the chief antiterrorist police official from Scotland Yard, said Monday. “These have been in houses, flats and business premises, vehicles and open spaces.”
Investigators also seized more than 400 computers, 200 mobile phones and 8,000 items like memory sticks, CD’s and DVD’s.
400 computers. That sounds like a lot of seizures of private property belonging to people facing no charges, to me at least. Presumably that includes things like all the computers at internet cafes the suspects frequented, etc.
A 17-year-old boy accused of storing an explosives manual... connected to an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners was denied bail at a court appearance on Tuesday... If convicted, he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Note to self: throw out anything that could be construed as an explosives manual: old chemistry texts, you name it. Those are doubleplusgood unthink now.
The simple fact is this escapade has so far been a total victory for anti-Western terror: massive dislocation of Western society out of all proportion to the effort expended. In achieving its victory, terror has relied on the three things -- superstition, mass hysteria, and scientific ignorance -- of which it seems we have an almost inexhaustible human supply.
August 28, 2006
Forget TATP, now it's HMTD
The New York Times reports this morning that the British airline bomb plot involved making HMTD explosive, not the TATP (acetone peroxide) that had been previously focussed on. Star copy of the story here.
It should probably be noted at this point that the fastest method to make HMTD takes at least five uninterrupted hours (not counting drying time), that only one of the components (the hydrogen peroxide) is normally a liquid, and that you're going to need, among other things, lots and lots of ice... all effectively ruling out any on-plane synthesis.
Oh, yes, and HMTD (like TATP), once synthesized, is not a liquid. It's a powder. The fact that governments have not yet banned all solid substances from airplanes is undoubtedly something of an administrative oversight, and certain to be corrected shortly.
PS: This is a brilliant article.
August 12, 2006
Today's crop of airline idiocy
Two quotes from the Globe today that really say it all about the current mass hysteria:
"In Halifax, passengers are even being told that fresh fish must be placed in their checked luggage. Doubt has been cast on that decision, though."
I'm presuming this is justified on account of the fish having been in liquid at some point in their lives... but hey look, if there wasn't a ban on carrying freshly caught fish in your purse before now, there probably should have been. Meanwhile, on the other end of the country...
"What to do with all the discarded goods is creating a new issue. While the Greater Toronto Airport Authority is throwing them away, B.C.'s Victoria Airport is taking a different approach.
"Airport manager Richard Paquette said some of the [suspected high explosive] seized from travellers at security check-ins this week will be salvaged and donated to charity."
Meanwhile in the United States, I see the terror laws are being used for a useful purpose again: to prevent people from buying discounted cellphones.
Nothing faked about this photo
Two flaming Israeli tanks, killed at long distance, next to each other. Never thought I'd see it.
Who gave Iran the TOW missiles, Iranian-made copies of which are now being used to brew up Merkavas? Oh yeah, him. (Of course, given that it was Israeli TOWs that North sold, there's plenty of blame to go around.)
Colby Cosh raises a good point: if you really think a liquid bottle could contain either nitroglycerine or TATP, about the last thing you want to do is *throw* it into a giant bin next to you, and then throw a whole bunch of other bottles on top of it. The fact that that hasn't occurred to anyone yet really shows the degree to which these new "screening measures" are essentially talismanic.
That said, I'm not sure of his numbers in the post immediately above. 360ml of nitroglycerine, depending on how it was prepared, would be the equivalent of a couple of sticks of dynamite, and should have done a lot more damage than just killing the one man in the seat the bomb was under: the estimates I read had it as little as a tenth of that amount in the Flight 434 bomb. The August 2004 suicide bombings by Chechen terrorists of two Russian planes seem to indicate conclusively that a moderate amount of explosives (like a bomb vest) detonated in the cabin will manage to bring down a passenger plane.
It should also be noted that Flight 434 was hardly the first time a Muslim terrorist tried to blow up a plane with a bomb under a passenger seat, either.
Another data point: the 1986 passenger compartment bombing of TWA Flight 840 by the Abu Nidal organization involved the setting off of a pound charge (.45kg) of plastic explosive. Four passengers were sucked out of the resulting hole in the fuselage, but the plane still landed. Hezbollah is suspected of at least one suicide passenger bombing, as well.
UPDATE: Found another one. This 1972 bombing is one of three I've found where a planted passenger compartment bomb successfully brought down the aircraft.
There's also the case of China Northern Flight 6136, in 2002, involving a suicidal passenger setting the interior of the plane alight with gasoline.
So if you wanted to calculate the odds, I have found 497 fatalities due to passenger compartment bombs (or molotov cocktails, in the last case) in the history of air travel, in ten separate attacks. In the four of those that were suicide attacks, each time the plane crashed: in total 222 died. In the six hide-the-bomb-under-the-seat-and-get-off-the-next-stop attacks, 275 people died, but three of the six planes landed safely. Which could give the answer to Colby's question, why did Al Qaeda go with a suicide plan instead of the hide-and-get-off Bojinka plan.
Also, based on the historical evidence, guaranteed immediate in-flight destruction by this kind of bomb in this location on the plane would seem to require something in excess of 1 pound (.45kg) of high explosive, depending on the type used... about the same as is generally considered deadly in a luggage compartment bomb. Which means even your largest contact lens cleaner container probably wouldn't be enough even if it was high-grade nitroglycerine (about .21kg by weight), and definitely not if it was a home-cooked TATP in a liquid suspension.
(Going back to Mythbusters, in their similar first-season experiment a 0.1kg shaped charge of high explosive against the interior passenger compartment wall proved sufficient to wreck a DC-9. But a bomb under a seat or in a luggage rack not specifically designed to blow a hole would have to multiply that weight by a significant factor.)
Of course, we shouldn't forget how Stan Rogers died, either.
August 11, 2006
The difference between good blogging and bad blogging
This is an entry by someone whom, whatever his other faults may be, happens to be highly competent in his chosen profession, which involves computer-based design and layout. The animated gif, like the one before it for Dan Rather, is basically unarguable in its conclusions.
This is an entry by a johnny-come-lately with no obvious knowledge of photography, and an apparent difficulty grasping spatial relationships.
It goes back to the theory, previously promoted here, of the knowledge donut. All bloggers have stuff that is too close to them that they cannot comment about, for work, personal reasons, etc., no matter how deep our insight into it may be. Glenn Reynolds writes a lot, but he certainly doesn't write about some titillating gossip from the law faculty at the University of Tennessee, his students' personal failings, etc. We also all have a vast universe of stuff we're completely unqualified to comment about and should probably avoid on that basis. You could describe these as two concentric circles around each blogger, with every blogger's circles taking up a different part of the space of all knowledge.
Blog entries are only useful to the common discourse if they're drawn from and based upon that realm of personal knowledge in between those two circles: the donut in between. If it's something you know a lot about but which is too close to you, you're unlikely to be considered objective. If it's outside your realm of expertise or ability, you have nothing useful to add.
My personal knowledge donut is quite small. I think I generally try to keep my mouth shut about stuff I don't pretend to understand, and there's lots of stuff in my personal and professional lives that I will never write about, out of professional and personal obligation. Other bloggers are less circumspect. We call these people "idiots."
We really should take these stories with a grain of salt
For anyone reading Sonya Fatah in the Globe and Mail this morning, please don't throw away your salt shakers.
"An experiment to test the capacity of such combinations was carried out combining an easily bought hair cream, with sodium chloride, or bleach, says Dr. [Jay] Siegel, [director of the forensic and investigative sciences program at Indiana University].
'They used half a tube of Brylcreem and a cup full of sodium chloride and they put a crater in the ground with it," he said. "In a closed space like an airplane there is no question you can bring the whole plane down. Destroy it.'"
I'm going to assume, until proven otherwise, that it's Ms. Fatah and her copy editor, and not Dr. Siegel, who weren't really listening in Grade 12 Chemistry. For the record, bleach is normally a 5% solution of sodium hypochlorite. NaOCl, not NaCl. Big difference, as anyone who resisted the urge to put bleach on their dinner last night probably could have figured out. (Anyone tempted to eat Ms. Fatah's cooking, on the other hand, may wish to reconsider.)
UPDATE: It's been a long time since I took Grade 12 chemistry, too, but I can't think of any way that you could combine brylcreem (which is mostly mineral oil and beeswax) and bleach to produce a violent, crater-causing explosion. It seems to me the description above is missing a third element, probably hydrogen peroxide (which can react violently to bleach). Again, I'm going to presume this is the Globe's fault, and Dr. Siegel is not actually a complete idiot in his chosen field.
UPPERDATE: Let's try and be absolutely clear, before this gets completely out of hand. Doing final assembly of a bomb in flight (meaning connecting the igniter/timer to the substance to be detonated) is certainly plausible, and has been done. Sneaking a prepared explosive in liquid form (such as nitroglycerine) onto a plane is, as well: it's been done before. But any "expert" or journalist who surmises that this plot involved *creating* a chemical explosive from the reaction of two or more components *in flight* (ie, making an ad hoc chem lab out of the rest room) is engaging in unsubstantiated surmise, as will be undoubtedly borne out when more facts on this particular plot become known. (The other idea floating around, of a *prepared* liquid explosive contained underneath a false bottom in a large sports drink container is, certainly, also plausible).
How much liquid? Well, the 1994 bombing of Philippines Airlines Flight 434, which killed one passenger, was reported to have used around 2 fluid ounces (60ml) of nitroglycerine, which was enough to kill the passenger in the seat it was attached to and blow a hole in the internal floor below. To actually blow a hole in the plane itself with nitroglycerine, bringing it down, would require a somewhat larger amount: the Operation Bojinka planners were reported as planning to use the largest generally available (c. 12 fl oz) contact lens solution bottles to hide their explosive.
It should probably be noted that the Flight 434 plan, which also involved smuggling in the required two 9-volt batteries and wiring in hollowed out shoe heels, would have had a higher probability of being caught by airport screeners today, who are somewhat more sensitive about checking shoes.
UPPESTDATE: Friday's new proposed Canadian controls on chemicals (goodbye, chemistry sets) suggests another possibility: that Dr. Siegel actually said sodium chlorate (NaClO3), which would make somewhat more sense. It's not actually bleach, though, it's a herbicide (although it is sometimes used in the making of chlorine dioxide, which is used to bleach paper pulp and flour, to be precise), and certainly not something you want to confuse with your sodium chloride around the house. Sodium chlorate's explosive properties were best documented, I thought, in the recent Mythbusters episode about exploding Kiwi farmers' pants. I haven't tested it, myself, of course, but I can't say it couldn't be hazardous in combination with the organic material in something like Brylcreem. It might be pretty unstable, though, and there are much easier methods by weight, cost, reliability or effort involved to bring down a plane.
PS: I'm really hoping that Christopher Maughan's statement that it would take "half an hour" to brew up acetone peroxide (TATP) in the Star yesterday was not a verbatim quote from his primary source, security expert John Thompson. It takes considerably longer than that, and John's smarter than that.
August 10, 2006
Liquids and the mubtakkar
Andrew Sullivan's getting the vapours over the reference to "liquids" in this story.
Three obvious points come to mind:
1) The alleged "mubtakkar" hydrogen cyanide device, as constructed by the CIA at least, didn't use liquids, it used crystals. Photo here. So the current British ban on flying with hair gel or baby formula likely has nothing to do with the fear of this particular method of producing cyanide in an enclosed space.
2) Calling something an "iGod" when in reality the mockup was the size of a large paint can is a little misleading, no? This thing isn't fitting in anyone's pocket, or even most people's carry-ons.
3) The fact that the weapon would have to be a bulky carry-on pretty much eliminates its use as a viable terrorist weapon against aircraft. (Subways, maybe.) I mean, first you have to get a paint can sized device full of poisonous crystals (and with air holes to allow the venting of gas) through airport security checks. Not that that's impossible, but you can hardly normally rely on it. Second, if it's your carry on, that means you're sitting near it when it explodes into flame (which this particular pair of chemicals would... this wouldn't be a silent killer). Now, it's true some people are suicidal, but I doubt few would-be terrorists look forward to spending their last seconds on earth covered with a flaming cyanogen. Yes, you have your Richard Reids, but at least his choice of weapon had a higher chance of getting through security, would likely be at least as deadly to other passengers, and would probably have killed him instantly and much less painfully if it had worked.
No, dollars to donuts this threat, assuming it bears out, involved some form of high explosive, not an NBC threat. It's probably worth pointing out, though, that the last couple of times there was this kind of terror sweep in UK, everyone (except the one guy who lost his head and stabbed the officer arresting him)
August 09, 2006
The trouble, you see, is all the lying
Appears the ambulance-with-the-hole picture linked in a previous entry here was a fake, too. Too good to check, I guess. Assuming they're the same ambulance, the interior picture of the ambulance showing no burn or explosion marks pretty much settles it.
In other fake news news, I see one of the armed men from the "ZU-23 in Christian Beirut" stories below, was also getting his photo taken at the scene by several different press photographers, including the disgraced Adnan Hajj. Um, so why did Australian papers refer to their photos of the guy as being from a set of "graphic images smuggled out of Lebanon?" There doesn't appear to have been any smuggling required, at all.
No matter what you think of LGF and the other sites in a frenzy over this, it's getting undeniable by this point: the reliance on Lebanese photo and television stringers by major press outlets is messing with any kind of accurate picture of he Lebanon situation.
August 08, 2006
We get mail
"I came to pretty much the same conclusion as you but additionally I can't see the Christian militia which would almost certainly be operating in the Christian area of Wadi Chahrour in the east of Beirut allowing Hezbollah to waltz in and fire rockets. As you say, they might accept the help from AAA.
"The source I originally found these images at has six photos instead of three. The third of the six shows a pickup with the Lebanese flag on the side next to the truck carrying the ZU-23 which also suggests that it is a Christian militia manning the ZU-23. Finally, all the reports I have seen about press contacts with Hezbollah refer to the presence of Hezbollah security patrols with walkie-talkies. One reason the Israelis know so little about Hezbollah is that Hezbollah are paranoid about security (with good cause).
"There is a claim in the article that one of the photos shows "the remnants of a Hezbollah Katyusha rocket in the middle of residential block, blown up in an Israeli air attack." I can't see any sign of this in the remaining photos.
"BTW, apparently truck-mounted ZU-23s typically have another less well known use. They are the urban street fighters weapon of choice for dealing with snipers in tall buildings."
BruceR: A good, if subtle point about the lack of obvious communications equipment in what would be an unfamiliar operating environment for a Hezbollah team. By itself, neither it nor the Lebanese flag on the truck are evidence this *wasn't* Hezbollah, but there's certainly nothing in the photos to confirm the photographer's contention that they are. The story with the additional three photos is here.
Roger from Australia writes, re the posting on the Hezbollah rocket impact photos:
"I only have lay knowledge of the topic, but I think you are slightly incorrect in your comments about "bedevilled the British artillerymen in 1916: a lot of the balls shoot straight into the ground " in your article of 01/08/06. I believe Shrapnel projectiles had a timed fuse that ignited an explosive in the base and ejected the load of (lead) ball out the front of the projectiles. Timed airburst HE projectiles give a lot of fragments (or in common useage, shrapnel) of which some end up going straight down. The balls from the original shrapnel rounds would have had a forward and downward trajectory depending on the angle of descent of the shell, spin rate etc. I doubt whether they would have gone straight down though.
"Shrapnel balls were lead and the modern balls are likely steel and much smaller (and more numerous). When I was a kid in Petawawa we used to hunt though the churned up areas of the Mattawa Plains to find old, partially oxidized lead shrapnel balls. The difference between shrapnel and extremely sharp shell fragments was obvious. The smaller ball made perfect slingshot ammunition (as did 9mm bullets) while the larger ones were too big for kids' slingshots. I remember seeing a lot of rusty old shrapnel projectiles too, which were cylindrical with a closed base (where driving band was) and a frontal opening.
"I think virtually all rocket rounds nowadays and many artillery and mortar rounds are prefragmented in some way to provide clouds of high velocity, surprisingly small fragments which increase the hit probability. As you stated, the difference with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups is that they specifically target civilians with these weapons.
"Incidentally, here in Aussie, the common term for a handful of coins is 'shrapnel.'"
BruceR: To clarify, I was referring to the World War 1 shells used with an impact fuze, fired (somewhat ineffectively) in preparatory bombardments to shred barbed wire, not the same shrapnel shell with a time fuze, set to explode as an airburst, that was used extensively by Commonwealth armies in their barrage work and which Roger is referring to, above. Historians have argued that the British in the First World War had an inordinate fondness for shrapnel shells, out of proportion to their effectiveness: the most obvious indicator of this being the ubiquitous British flat Tommy's helmet, which is just great if the enemy is throwing airbursts at you, but not as good as the helmets of other nations against horizontal fire. Prior to the invention of the VT (proximity) fuze, setting a shell to explode in flight at the correct altitude required precise calculation and gunnery work. The Royal Artillery persisted in their reliance upon this technique long after other armies had reverted to the simpler (and cheaper) high explosive shell. I don't know, but I suspect Hezbollah rockets are impact fuzed.
August 02, 2006
NORAD under pressure
The must-read 9/11 tapes article from Vanity Fair.
August 01, 2006
Of steel balls
A lot has been made of this picture. Human Rights Watch has even posted press information condemning the Hezbollah use of "ball bearings" in their rocket attacks.
The usual suspects have joined in. "You won't see this kind of weapon in the arsenal of any civilized country," the deputy head of the police bomb disposal unit told Newsmax. "Certainly not with Israel or the United States."
Not to contradict HRW, but the use of an outer shell of steel balls is pretty much standard in the Chinese-made 122mm and 107mm artillery rockets that form the bulk of Hezbollah's arsenal. Good pic showing the steel balls here. Hezbollah probably didn't modify their weapons: they were fired as they came out of the packing, probably. And it's not just them. Any anti-personnel warhead described as "prefragmented," "enhanced fragmentation" or "blast fragmentation" generally has a outer casting filled with small steel balls or similar castings. This one, for instance. Or this one. Against people in the open these weapons have a significantly wider damage radius than a similar weight of high-explosive would have. (On the other hand, against an enemy with good cover they're practically useless, as the British found on the first day of the Somme.)
This is not new, either. The original "shrapnel" round was an 1803 British weapon combining a lot of small balls and a fuzed bursting charge, exploding in the air over advancing troops, and named after its inventor, Henry Shrapnel. (During World War One, the term was redefined in common practice to any debris from an exploding artillery shell.)
Hezbollah's crime here is not using anti-personnel weapons per se, but using those weapons indiscriminately against civilians. That should be sufficient. Their choice of weapon to do so is neither particularly novel, uncommon nor surprising.
UPDATE: The actual PowerPoint, of a single Hezbollah rocket's impact in Haifa on July 17, is worth going through. Six Israelis were wounded in this attack, believed to be from a single 240mm Fajr-3 warhead. The peppered car appears to have been directly underneath the wall that was hit, perhaps 1-2 m under the impact point: the picture is taken after the debris from the building was removed from the car (it's the car with the open hatchback in other photos in the series). Note also the photos of the wall and a car in a garage directly across the street from the impact point, showing the impact and spread of the steel balls and other shrapnel at a longer range. The tradeoff for high explosive vs. anti-personnel (steel ball) warheads is the balls subtract significantly from the size of the explosive charge. However, regardless of the type of warhead, if you were standing where that car was when the 240mm rocket warhead exploded next to you, you'd still be quite dead. The hood vividly shows another downside of these weapons that so bedevilled the British artillerymen in 1916: a lot of the balls shoot straight into the ground (or in this case, car hood) directly beneath the point of impact, and relatively few shoot off horizontally to do damage outside of the immediate impact area.
Back to those Zelzal-2s
So why has the 2006 Lebanon War unfolded the way it did?
You have to assume that Hezbollah's initial attack was an opportunistic attempt to prove its continued relevance and aid Hamas by a POW-seizure of its own. They didn't plan anything much more than that, and they clearly didn't expect the reaction they got.
Israel's apparent over-response had obviously been in the offing for a while... there was something of waiting for a pretext about it. A major strategic aim had to be to knock out Hezbollah's longest-range and heaviest weapons, those Zelzal-2s, which up until now were the predominant thing Israel (and the United States) had to worry about in case of a pre-emptive strike on their part against Iran. The Zelzal-2s, able to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and capable of at least theoretically carrying chemical warheads, were as potentially as useful a deterrent on future action against Iran as Soviet MRBMs in Cuba would have been in the 1960s for the Khruschev regime. So they had to go. Without them, Hezbollah's ability in the short term to immediately counter-strike Israel in case of an attack on Iran will be greatly diminished.
That's in part why the Israeli attacks could not be limited to South Lebanon. The heaviest artillery rockets are in those fixed positions in the Bekaa. (By comparison, the Zelzal-2 -- in Russian service, NATO used to call it the Frog-7 -- has a 600 kg warhead. The next-largest artillery rockets, the Fajr-3's and Fajr-5's that Hezbollah was actually using last month for its deep strikes, have 45 kg and 90 kg warheads.)
One has to assume, based on the fact they haven't been fired yet despite a serious threat to Hezbollah itself, that the Zelzal-2s are being held in a sort of "dual-key" arrangement with Iran. Unlike the other rockets, these are literal block-busters if they hit. (Again, to give some points of comparison, the modified Scud missiles that Iraq used against Israel in 1991 had a 500 kg warhead; the V2 rockets that fell on London in 1944-45 had a 1000 kg warhead.)
Assuming Israel has succeeded in largely eliminating those weapons, and if it can get any kind of a strengthened multinational observer force into Lebanon to prevent them coming back (or at least knowing when they do and where they are), they will gain significantly more freedom to operate against Iran's nuclear facilities over at least the next couple years. This is also obviously to America's benefit.
Hezbollah's choice to completely stop firing their rockets at the first sign of a ceasefire Sunday is a subtle sign of perceived weakness at this point... either on their part or more probably, Iran's. Providing he stays alive, Sheikh Nasrallah should only be able to benefit the longer the air-only war continued. But Iran may be rapidly losing its primary strategic deterrent to the missile plinkers of the Heyl Ha'Avir, and as a consequence is possibly encouraging Hezbollah to take up any reasonable truce offer.
UPDATE: The other big statistic for rockets, besides warhead, is CEP (circular error probable): the circle around the target within which the missile will fall 50% of the time. Some CEPs:
V2 rocket against London (1944-45): 17000m
Iraqi "Al-Husayn" Scud on Israel (1991): >1500m
Zelzal-2 rocket fired from Bekaa Valley into Tel Aviv/Jerusalem (estimated): 700m
So unlike the Iraqi Al-Husayn missile, the Hezbollah Zelzals would have a high probability of hitting a city centre they were aimed at. Combine that with about 20% greater destructive force over the Al-Husayn Scud, and one could anticipate significant Israeli casualties even with conventional weapons if they were ever to be used. Iran also may have an elevated respect for these weapons due to their use in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War against them. During that war, Iraq fired 189 Al-Husayn-model Scuds into Tehran, Isfahan, and Qom, killing 2000 Iranians and wounding another 6000: an average of 10.5 deaths per rocket.
As the V2 offensive on London and Antwerp showed, however, that figure minimizes a huge potential for a lucky hit to cause enormous casualties. The V2 average number of people killed in the England attacks was only around 5 per rocket, but possibly the largest single death toll from a rocket attack came with the Dec. 16, 1944 destruction of the Rex Cinema in Antwerp by a V2, killing 567 civilians and off-duty soldiers. The chance of a similar mass casualty strike on Israel, assuming a significant number of Zelzal-2 rockets remain in the Bekaa at the end of all this, has to be judged as significant: which is, of course, why Iran put them there, and why they're a good deterrent on full Israeli and American freedom of action in the region.
CAVEAT: The other possible reason, of course, that Hezbollah has not fired any Zelzal rockets yet, is because Iran never gave them any, and Hezbollah suggestions starting in late 2002 that they could now reach any place in Israel with their missiles were either untrue or misconstrued.
"endearingly macho" -- Mark Steyn
"wonderfully detailed analysis" -- John Allemang, Globe and Mail
"unusually candid" -- Tom Ricks, Foreignpolicy.com
Bill & Bob
Ghosts of Alex