January 15, 2007

British domestic terror update

Turns out the "follow-on" crew for the summer, 2005 London bombings were actually complete idiots. Flour and drugstore-quality peroxide? Come on.

Here's the math, in case you don't get why this is such a joke. One story says the plotters purchased exactly 284 bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Pharmacies normally sell peroxide in pint bottles (473mL) at 3% concentration. That means the plotters could well have had 134.3 litres of solution, or the equivalent of 4kg of actual pure peroxide if all the water were to be boiled off and there was no loss.

The British Crown further says that the peroxide mixture they obtained from boiling was mixed with flour and put into five 6L containers at a 30/70 ratio flour-to-peroxide. Let's be charitable and say that half of each of those containers was filled with other stuff (the detonator, the metal for the planned shrapnel effect, air, etc.) That means that there would have been at least 3L of peroxide-flour in each, of which 0.9L was the flour (likely meant more as some kind of stabilizer than a contributor to the explosion). Between the five containers, there then would have needed to be at least 10.5L of concentrated peroxide solution, post-distillation, to make the "bombs."

Do the math and that indicates the peroxide was likely at no more than a 40% concentration when it was mixed with the flour (the remainder being water and other impurities). That level of peroxide isn't even strongly corrosive, let alone explosive. I have no idea why the plotters would have thought a moderate peroxide solution by itself, as opposed to mixing the peroxide they'd laboriously gained along with other compounds to make some kind of real explosive, would make a satisfactory detonation. It goes without saying the successful suicide cell that had ripped up central London two weeks previously were using a quite different mixture in their bombs, indicating the two cells were not strongly connected operationally.

In other news I don't think enough people have read, here's a concise explanation why the British airline bomb plot scare was another mass hysteria outbreak.

UPDATE: Of course the real reason one can safely conclude that the July 25 bombmakers never got high-concentration peroxide for all their troubles is that they all were still able to run away after their "bombs" went off. If they had managed to obtain a 50% peroxide solution, they'd have covered themselves in the fizzled explosion with a highly corrosive substance; if they'd achieved 70% it would have been highly flammable as well. In either case an immediate need for burn-unit hospitalization would have been the likely result for one or all... but in their case they all managed to run off.

The British Crown prosecutors are quoted as stating in their opening remarks that the transit passengers that would have been the bombers' victims were "lucky" to have survived. I know what they mean by that in that context, but the fact is luck was not involved. What you had in the end was five apparently good-quality detonators, that an incompetent bombmaker managed after much effort in five containers of relatively inert* peroxidy sludge: the would-be human bombs were, in their ignorance, no threat to themselves, let alone anyone else.

*Even 30% peroxide is still not something you want to screw around with, mind.

UPPERDATE: A little more news on the peroxide-flour bombers. Other stories have indicated they bulk-purchased 443L (ie, a bathtub and a half) of peroxide solution (those 284 bottles must then have been the industrial use, roughly 1.75L variety) from hairdressers' suppliers... that choice of source would likely mean the concentration was in the area of at least 5%, not the 3% normally found in drugstores. So that'd actually give you roughly 22 kg or more of hydrogen peroxide in solution at the start of the boiling process. So, contrary to what was stated above, it is possible they could have gotten a fair bit of high quality peroxide if they'd been careful. You just can't do it if your only point of purchase is your local drug store.

The inherent problem would be the apparatus for the boiling off of such large quantities, in one apartment, I suspect. They were obviously successful in creating small test-tube sized amounts of high-quality H2O2 via evaporation or slow heating, sufficient to make their own TATP detonators with. They balked, however, at the kind of large scale heating and mixing with other chemicals sufficient to produce any large quantities of explosive. It's possible they felt they were running out of time after the July 7 attacks and decided to go with what they had. What's baffling is that they managed to convince themselves it would work. And again, whatever they did, they can't even have gotten the concentration of peroxide very high, based on the results they achieved.

(Some more back of the envelope stuff: to fully convert that quantity of peroxide purchased in this plot into a large quantity of one of the two most common derivative explosives would have also required the plotters obtain either 125L (250-plus hardware store-sized bottles) of acetone and 7.5L of high-concentration sulfuric acid, or roughly 1,400 campers-fuel type hexamine tabs. Difficult, but not impossible, of course... and quantities possibly detectable by law enforcement if suitable safeguards were in place -- like those US state laws that limit over-the-counter peroxide sales above a certain percentage to licensed hairdressers only.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:07 PM

The non-barking dog, surge edition

One thing one normally sees in foreign intervention situations, just before the Marines, or whomever, is about to land, is a rapid attempt by the forces in place to lock in a favourable situation on the ground as much as you can. For instance, take Kosovo, where evidence that NATO airstrikes would soon begin led to an increased intensity in Serbian attacks on ethnic Kosovars. Haiti and Rwanda provide another couple examples. "Surge" type announcements almost always lead to a short-term local increase in violence by the forces that would see the surge as a threat to their situation.

What is not being reported in Iraq right now is anything like an increase in violence above the usual baseline. Apparently, no one is trying to change the facts on the ground, at least not any faster than usual. This should say all that needs to be said about the American prospects of significant success, whatever that would mean in this context.

Oh, yes, and the military expert who is more than anyone else responsible for this current plan is saying it won't work, at least to British reporters. Nice to know.

UPDATE: I have no doubt that Gen. Petraeus is the U.S. Army's leading counter-insurgency expert. Unfortunately, although no one seems comfortable pointing this out, the counter-insurgency phase of this war in Iraq all but ended roughly a year ago. We are now in a situation where a "stopping state-sponsored genocide" expert, with on-the-ground experience in Rwanda, Bosnia, or western Sudan, would be really helpful. (See also Zakaria.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:26 PM