Underwear bombs may have gotten the most publicity of new, unusual terrorist techniques and provided comedy writers with tons of material, but get ready for a newer threat that may make for a great punch line but could post an even graver security threat: terrorist body bombs implanted in passengers. Newsweek reports:
Worse still, intelligence is mounting that new terrorist bombs are under development that are meant to be implanted surgically inside a man or a woman (conjuring fears, not least, that someone who looks great with child could in fact be heavy with explosives). Last spring, U.S. intelligence officials began to pick up worrying information that al-Asiri was working with doctors on just such a project. Some dismissed the plan as far-fetched. But by last June, the CIA concluded that al-Asiri was close to being able to pull it off.
Newsweek has learned that U.S. intelligence officials circulated a secret report that laid out in vivid detail how doctors working for al-Asiri had developed the surgical technique. An American government source familiar with the report described it as 15 to 20 pages, single spaced, and replete with schematics and pictures. “It was almost like something you’d see in Scientific American,” the source said. (In military parlance, the bomb is called a “surgically implanted improvised explosive device,” or SIIED.) A diagram with arrows and blocks of text explained the surgical process. “The idea was to insert the device in the terrorist’s love handle,” says the U.S. government source, who declined to be named discussing sensitive intelligence. While it was not clear whether the terror doctors had ever succeeded in implanting explosives in a human being, they had experimented with dogs and other animals.
Fortunately these devices are easier to describe than to detonate. “You would have to have a very unique firing system,” says Borelli. “If it’s a ‘body bomb’ you are going to have to have a way to initiate it from the outside—almost a stent, or something like a pacemaker.” And it’s not least because of the technical challenges that, in fact, both of al-Asiri’s suicide-bomb devices known to have been used were failures. In the attack on bin Nayef, the body of the bomber himself absorbed most of the explosive force. The pyrotechnic underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up the Northwestern jet to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, fizzled instead of exploding. But as Borelli points out, “Even the threat of these devices causes a reaction by the security apparatus where we wind up spending millions of dollars.” The body scanners now in many U.S. airports were installed to prevent a more deadly repeat of the Abdulmutallab incident. If SIIEDs could be perfected, however, even full-body scanners would not detect them.
“We’re certainly concerned,” says a senior administration official, adding that al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen are always working on “newer and more innovative ways to conceal bombs, whether it be in cargo planes or surgically implanted IEDS.” If scanners couldn’t recognize such a device, security would depend on airport screeners spotting an “anomaly,” the official said—such as an unusual bulge in a traveler’s body—or detection by other means, including bomb-sniffing dogs and swabbing for explosive residues.
It’s precisely because of these uncertainties that the Obama administration has worked so hard to take the war to the enemy. Airport security is only the last line of defense. It takes the relentless disruption of al Qaeda operations in the field to prevent the old core group and its various spinoffs from spreading their terror far and wide. That’s the purpose of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. But when it comes to the fight on the ground in the Arabian Peninsula, bin Nayef is the pivotal player.
This and other news stories on terrorism always have a common thread: authorities are trying to stay one step ahead of the terrorists. That’s not usually news. The news is the day when they discover they’re one step behind.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.