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PETN: The explosive that airport security is targeting

Full-body scans and aggressive pat-downs now under scrutiny are designed to seek out the explosive powder that was used in several failed terrorist bombings recently, officials say.

November 24, 2010|By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — New airport security procedures that have stirred the emotions of air travelers — full-body scans and aggressive pat-downs — were largely designed to detect an explosive powder called PETN, which has been a staple of Al Qaeda bomb makers for nearly a decade.

It was PETN that was molded into the sole of Richard Reid's black high-top sneaker when he walked onto American Airlines Flight 63 bound for Miami in December 2001.

It was PETN that was sewn into the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, authorities say, when he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

And it was PETN that suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen packed inside computer printer cartridges that were shipped Oct. 28, intending to blow up planes en route to Chicago.

None of the plots succeeded in taking down an aircraft, but top U.S. officials are concerned about fresh indications that Al Qaeda remains determined to get PETN on airplanes by trying to exploit vulnerabilities in passenger and cargo screening.

Not only has the terrorist network acknowledged its role in bomb plots, it is also sharing what it knows about building bombs on the Web and elsewhere.

PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, presents some vexing problems for security experts. A powder about the consistency of fine popcorn salt, it will not trigger an alarm on a metal detector. Because of its more stable molecules, PETN gives off less vapor, making it more difficult to detect by bomb-sniffing dogs and the trace swabs used by the Transportation Security Administration.

PETN's stability makes it easy to hide and easily transformed. When mixed with rubber cement or putty, it becomes a rudimentary plastic explosive — a baseball-sized amount can blow a hole in an airplane fuselage.

"PETN is hard to detect and lends itself to being concealed," said an intelligence official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "It packs a punch."

One way to detect PETN is through its detonator, which typically uses materials that are easier to trace. Reid's shoe bomb combined PETN with a volatile explosive accelerant called TATP that can be made from dime-store nail polish and hydrogen peroxide. The Yemen printer cartridge bombs placed the PETN around small homemade blasting caps containing the chemical lead azide.

The fact that PETN has been the common denominator in all of the bombs is a major reason why the TSA is unlikely to yield substantially in its search for practical ways to prevent the deadly powder from making it aboard a plane.

The new aggressive pat-downs and the increased use of full-body scanners — there are more than 400 machines in 69 U.S. airports — were a direct response to last year's alleged bombing attempt on Christmas Day, when Abdulmutallab passed through screening with 80 grams of PETN, authorities say.

Some passengers have objected to the enhanced screening as an invasion of privacy, though several polls show air travelers consider safety far more important.

"I know people want to bomb us," TSA chief John Pistole told reporters Monday. Pistole isn't just worried about terrorists in Yemen. He said he is particularly concerned that home-grown terrorists might "get ahold of a PETN device."

PETN can be made in a rudimentary lab or salvaged from old munitions. It can scraped from old bombs or stripped out of detonator cord, a fast-burning fuse about the diameter of a clothesline that is commonly used in road construction and mining. The amount of PETN in 5 feet of detonator cord has enough explosive power to buckle the roof of a car.

Smuggling explosives onto airplanes is a vulnerability that the TSA has known about since 2005, when covert testing teams run by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general were able to penetrate TSA airport security with explosive-like test devices, Pistole said.

The best technological weapons that the TSA has now are body scans of passengers and X-rays of cargo and baggage. But the scanners can't see anything hidden inside body cavities, and their effectiveness relies on operators identifying something unusual.

The scanners are "just anomaly detectors. Someone has to notice, has to have some expertise," said former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, who managed covert testing teams in 2003 and 2004 that were able to get guns, knives and explosives through TSA screening.

There are new techniques available for cargo, baggage and passenger screening that can detect individual explosive molecules using mass spectrometry, a technology that would be better at identifying PETN than the swab machines in use by the TSA.

"There is no question that the technology now deployed can't do it," Ervin said.

Even technology can only detect so much. The printer cartridge bombs from Yemen were sealed in plastic and cleaned with solvents to remove PETN molecules. The packages were discovered because of a tip from Saudi intelligence services.

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