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Scientist: Liquid Explosives Not a New Threat

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne. Authorities in Britain have thwarted what they describe as a plot to detonate trans-Atlantic flights using liquid explosives. Authorities say that if the plot had been successful it could have caused quote, mass murder on an unimaginable scale. Earlier NPR reporter Ari Shapiro spoke to a terrorism expert.

ARI SHAPIRO, reporting:

Joining me now on the line for more about the thwarted plot is Doctor Magnus Ranstorp. He's the chief scientist at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. Doctor Ranstorp do we know anything more about those arrested in this attack?

Dr. MAGNUS RANSTORP (Chief Scientist, Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Swedish National Defense College): Well they only know that they are numerous, there have been 21 arrests and that of course may have precipitated the unprecedented security matrix or dragnet that's occurring right now at Heathrow and also at other airports. Not only the U.S. but also in the rest of Europe.

SHAPIRO: Now we've heard reports about liquid explosives being part of this plot, what can you tell us about that?

Dr. RANSTORP: Well it's not the first time that liquid explosives have popped up in terms of operations. In fact, in 1994, the master al-Qaida terrorist Ramsey Yusef - who is now in custody for the, the brains behind the first World Trade Center bombing in '93 - he had thought up an operation that had actually materialized in whereby they used contact lens solution box that detonated a bomb on board a flight between Manila and Tokyo in December of '94. A Japanese businessman died and 10 passengers were injured by they managed to land, you know, this airline in Okinawa. But this was sort of the test for the larger plan, the operation Bojinga(ph), which is Croatian for explosion, that happened or that was about to materialize in 1995 - where twelve American Airlines were supposed to simultaneously be blown up over the Pacific.

Now the bomb was made out of nitroglycerin, which was incredibly difficult to discover in x-rays. This had been stabilized with a form of cotton and it was then detonated with a Casio watch and two nine-volt batteries. So it — for a long time this has sort of entered into the imagination of terrorist groups. Of course we've also had a more recent warnings of cancelled flights between the UK and the United States, whereby the bulletins that were going out asked security officers to watch for individuals who would have deconstruct - or have components individually, who would smuggle those through the x-ray and the security measures and then they would assemble that in a secure or quiet area inside the sterile airport lounge and then they would smuggle that on board. They mentioned in connection to that, canisters holding warm liquids, razors, other innocuous items that would conceal these types of components.

SHAPIRO: That's what we're hearing about products like lotions and hair gels being kept off of planes. Is it possible to incorporate or, or conceal these explosives within other liquid products?

Dr. RANSTORP: It is possible but it depends on the sophistication. I guess you know the most simplistic way is to—you know for these binary chemicals just to sort of be smashed together. That's the most simple form. You don't even need to cause a huge chemical reaction that would cause an explosion. It is entirely possible that they may be concealed into these types of other, other - it all depends on the chemical expertise of the, of the terrorist.

SHAPIRO: Now as part of this morning's events, British security have raised their threat level, so has the United States Department of Homeland Security. What does that mean?

Dr. RANSTORP: Well I can't speak to the U.S. But I know from the British experience that the measures taken is quite exceptional. Exceptional in the sense that they come after an exceptional arrest, in terms of the number of people which may nor may not be connected. But certainly the — you know almost closing down Heathrow; the exceptional banning of any sort of hand luggage; the public statements made by John Reid, the Home Office Secretary; as well as the Transport Secretary - of the necessity to undertake this after several meetings they at the Cobra(ph), at the cabinet office situation room, which they had last night.

You know, these types of decisions are not taken lightly, nor are they taken without any precise information. So I think that it indicates that there was very precise information. That it was a very serious plot. The police, who usually doesn't play politics with this, said that they possibly prevented a plot that would have had unimaginable mass casualty results. So I think that that indicates really what we're talking about here.

Thank you very much.

Dr. RANSTORP: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is the research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And thank you, Ari. NPR's Ari Shapiro joined us in our studios this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.