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Terrorism threat of explosives smuggled in body cavities

Borderpol : 06 October, 2009  (Special Report)
Borderpol details the lack of installed detection equipment that has the capability of detecting explosive devices that can bypass screening systems by being hidden in body cavities
The attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia deputy interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was widely reported but the full implications of the attack do not yet seem to have been fully understood.

On 27th August, Al Qaeda suicide bomber Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri blew himself up in the presence of the prince. The prince was unharmed but al-Asiri was blown in half and the blast is reported to have left a substantial hole in the concrete floor of the prince's home.

Whilst details of the attack are only now beginning to filter through, it was reported in the Saudi Gazette and elsewhere that al-Asiri, to avoid detection by security, inserted around half a kilo (just over a pound) of explosive plus a detonator into his body. As far as we know, this is the first time an attack using this method has been made.

The attack took advantage of the Saudi programme to 'rehabilitate' dissident but 'repentant' Saudi nationals, which has been championed by the father of the intended victim the interior minister, Prince Nayef.

Living in exile in the Yemen, al-Asiri, one of the Kingdom's 'most wanted' militants, persuaded officials that he wanted to surrender but that he would do so only on condition that he could meet the prince personally.

This is not unusual. It is a long-standing Arabic custom that the royal family make themselves available to receive petitions and hear the grievances of their subjects.

The Prince agreed and al-Asiri was flown to meet him at his residence. With the explosive and detonator actually inside him, al-Asiri managed to pass through security checks at Najran airport and Jeddah airport, as well as through some presumably pretty stringent checks by the prince's own security team as he entered his residence.

The bomb is believed to have been triggered by mobile phone. At the meeting bin Nayef was persuaded to call another 'militant' in Yemen who was supposedly considering handing himself in. It was this call, so the theory goes, that was the signal to an accomplice in Yemen to trigger the device in al-Asiri's body by mobile phone.

This assassination attempt, which has been claimed by Al Qaeda on a number of Jihadi web sites, was well conceived, well planned and has shown again that Al Qaeda are able to switch tactics and targets and stay one step ahead of the security services.

Most members of the general public are aware that drug traffickers regularly use couriers or 'mules' to smuggle drugs, either swallowed or inserted, across borders. But what was not so obvious until now is that the same method can be employed to smuggle explosives, detonators, liquids and any of the component parts necessary either for a ready-made 'Improvised Explosive Device' (IED) or for assembly of one on an aircraft.

Drug 'mules' regularly carry 0.8 to 1.25 kg of drugs; a determined individual or group could conceivably carry a lot more explosive material, certainly sufficient for an IED.

Sidney Alford, one of the UK's leading explosives engineers, confirms: 'Half a kilo of explosives is more than enough to bring down an aircraft; any more would usually be a waste of effort.'

Conventional search measures such as 'pat-downs' and metal detectors can be used to determine whether someone is carrying illegal objects or substances on their person, but those objects hidden internally are extremely difficult to detect.

Explosives trace detectors that pick up vapours and particles are of little use in this scenario. Only if there is some seepage into the carrier's body systems will this equipment have any chance of success at all.

Sniffer dogs offer the best hope of detection but are currently not widely used to screen people.

One useful technology that is available and that does work is the full body scan - the use of X-rays to determine whether a person is carrying any substances on or in the body, either by insertion or ingestion.

However, body scanning only comes into play when the officer or security official has already become suspicious that an individual represents a security threat. Suspicious individuals are currently identified using the existing profiling and risk analysis techniques employed by border officials for screening travellers at borders; these include direct questioning, suspicious behaviour, body language, anomalies in travel documentation, unusual travel patterns and so on.

Jan Steven van Wingerden, managing Director of one of the leading scanner manufacturers OD Security, says: 'Our scanner will pick up any ingested or inserted object within the human body, the scan is performed in less than 10 seconds and is completely safe.'

Mass scanning is not practical and is probably not acceptable to the travelling public; scanners are also not yet widely in available in most airports.

In planning this attack, Al Qaeda have clearly understood what security officials have always known: that there is no equipment currently widely available that will detect explosives carried internally. What the terrorists will also have noted is that, although this attack failed, the method of delivery and detonation worked. A similar attack on an aircraft would be devastating.

What can be done?

Use dogs for people screening. Hannes Siabert, a dog training expert with South African company Mechem assured us that 'no matter where or how explosives are carried in the body, a trained sniffer dog would definitely be able to pick it up.' Whilst there are cultural issues associated with the use of dogs, these can be dealt with sympathetically.

Sharing of information between frontline border officials about the movement of suspicious individuals. It will probably surprise members of the public that there is no global mechanism for sharing information between border officials. This is something that Borderpol, a global border organisation, has been lobbying for very strongly for the last five years but that has yet to be adopted by the international community.

Good intelligence, this relies on the security services to identify, monitor, infiltrate and apprehend attackers before the attack is carried out. Lastly, there is technology. It is up to governments to provide more of the technologies that do work and provide the necessary incentives and resources to improve explosive-detecting equipment priority development projects.

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