View Full Version : New Air Security Threat: Pillow Bombs

14th Oct 2003, 12:01
Pillow Bombs Feared on Planes

U.S. Says Al Qaeda Explosives Could Also Be Stuffed Into Coats, Toys

By John Mintz and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 14, 2003; Page A05

Airport screeners in this country and overseas are on the lookout for suspicious pillows, coats and even stuffed animals after U.S. intelligence concluded that al Qaeda operatives are being trained to apply special chemicals to the material inside to transform them into bombs.

American intelligence officials have picked up several indications that al Qaeda is attempting to create a chemical called nitrocellulose to fashion explosive devices that could be smuggled aboard jetliners, according to a warning the Department of Homeland Security sent in August to airlines and airport security officials around the world.

"We judge this type of threat to be real and continuing," the department said in the Aug. 8 warning. It noted there has been "persistence [in a] line of reports from several credible, independent sources" that al Qaeda is training to build such bombs. Among other things, confiscated al Qaeda training manuals show the sophistication of its preparations, the document said.

Explosives experts said that the detonating power of a nitrocellulose bomb depends on numerous factors -- but most particularly on how tightly the cottonlike material is packed into an area. If small free-standing wisps of it are set on fire, they could blaze up quickly and die down just as fast. But large wads of it tightly crammed into a container of some kind could create a booming detonation, they said.

"It has to be confined in an area to be explosive," said Gregory G. Baur, a former director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators. "Producing this requires somebody who has some sophistication and who knows what he's doing."

Items such as buttons, zippers or wristwatches could be used in tandem with tightly packed nitrocellulose as power sources or ignition components to set off a detonation, the directive said.

Baur, who retired in 2000 after 23 years with the Milwaukee police department's bomb squad, said that he had not heard of terrorists using nitrocellulose but that it is similar in its combustibility to black powder, a substance used as a propellant in ammunition.

U.S. officials said that while airport X-ray machines cannot detect nitrocellulose, another type of technology called a trace-detection machine can. Screeners rub the inside of, say, a briefcase or jacket with a specially treated cotton swab or piece of gauze and then insert the swab into the machine. The machine heats the swab and can detect from the vapors whether explosive chemicals or narcotics are present.

The Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has purchased several thousand trace-detection machines in the past year as part of a broader effort to check for explosives in checked luggage.

Nitrocellulose, also called guncotton or cellulose nitrate, can be created by combining cotton or cottonlike material with nitric acid or sulfuric acid, substances that are used in various forms to clean drains and by artists in metal etching. Mixing in nitroglycerine makes the mixture even more dangerous.

If dried carefully, it emits no odor, but if dried incompetently, it has a slight etherlike smell, the August memo said.

The existence of the warning was reported by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo earlier this month. In the warning, later obtained by The Washington Post, Homeland Security officials told recipients that the document should not be shared with the media or public.

TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said his agency and its predecessor, the Federal Aviation Administration, have circulated memos on the threat of explosives hidden in clothing or toys for three years.

"This is a threat that has been anticipated in the design and development of the procedures our screeners follow," he said. That's why passengers are asked to remove their jackets and place them, as well as stuffed animals and pillows, on X-ray machines, he said.

Many passengers have complained that such procedures don't seem to make sense. But the TSA pointed to an incident in July when airport screeners found a .22-caliber handgun hidden inside a teddy bear at a Florida airport checkpoint.

"Our screening procedures call for the full scrutiny of jackets, pillows and toys," Turmail said.

The TSA is experimenting with new walk-through portals at airports that blow puffs of air on people to shake loose invisible chemical residue on their clothes, possibly revealing explosives.


Old King Coal
15th Oct 2003, 00:38
Here’s are some interesting facts:

Even in the tragic year of 2001, your chance as an American of dying in an act of terrorism in the USA was 1 in 100,000.

Indeed, in 2001, you had a greater chance of dying from the flu or pneumonia ( 1 in 4,500 ), from taking your own life ( 1 in 9,200 ), being a homicide victim ( 1 in 14,000 ), or riding in a car ( 1 in 6,500 ). The suicide rate alone means that YOU were a greater danger to yourself than any terrorist.

All of these causes of death were far greater than those from terrorism - but there were no laws passed, no countries bombed, no emergency expenditure of billions of dollars per month, etc....

One might be so bold as to suggest that a mass psychosis seems to be gripping the USA, wherein some ( many ? ) seemingly believe that any of you, anywhere in that vast country, could die as a result of terrorism, at any time - never mind that the actual chances of that happening are virtually nil.

So, exploding coats and pillows ? Get a grip – just how much more of this CIA, FBI, TSA bull are you going to keep swallowing ?!

15th Oct 2003, 02:29
Producing nitrocellulose aka. guncotton is a common and simple experiment in pharmacy studies.

Lock up the encyclopedias:ooh:

15th Oct 2003, 05:23
I am a very poor sleeper and always pack my own pillows in my main baggage when going on holiday.

Does this mean I am going to be a suspect each time my suitcase is put through the scanners?

15th Oct 2003, 09:31
well said OKC. This is just more scare mongering from the largest terrorist network of them all.

15th Oct 2003, 09:41
IIRC the attraction of nitrocellulose AKA guncotton as a military explosive was it was very difficult to detonate although it would burn quite happily.

15th Oct 2003, 10:55
OKC you are spot on. The odds of an American being the victim of terrorism in 2003 has to be one in several million, yet this will not be "news."

Rather, the emphasis is on the dangers, keeping the great unwashed at a level of hysteria unmatched in history. I doubt that the Americans of 1941 were as afraid of shadows as those of 2003.

It might be unfair of me, but I see the effects of this national cowardice (I would like to use a better word, but fear is not enough, since fear is normal and does not prevent a brave person from doing what is right) in the way the US government is being allowed to treat its own citizens under the guise of security.

In the same way I see the difference between the way the US troops in Iraq put their own safety as their only priority, shooting first and often whenever they perceive a threat, and the British troops, who are not so paranoid, or so trigger- happy, and so are not so hated or subject to attack.

Winter is coming, and there will be lots of down-filled coats for the TSA to panic over. Let the circus continue!

15th Oct 2003, 12:41
>>One might be so bold as to suggest that a mass psychosis seems to be gripping the USA...<<

I guess it is all a matter of perspective <g>:


European Health Reports Create 'Culture of Fear'
Myriad Scares Confound Continent

By T.R. Reid

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 1, 2001; Page A01

LONDON -- A bowl of cornflakes can kill you -- not to mention a ham sandwich or a T-bone steak. Getting vaccinated can kill you. Flying economy class can kill you, and business class isn't much better. The rubber duckie in your bathtub can kill you (and your children). And put down that cell phone, before it kills you!

Such is the woeful catalogue of warnings that confronts Europeans these days as the continent veers almost weekly from one health panic to the next. From Belfast to Belgrade, wealthy, well-educated Europe is regularly swept by frightening reports of new dangers said to be inherent in contemporary life. The lack of scientific basis for many of the worries doesn't stanch the flood.

Americans have health concerns, too, but not on this scale. The year 2001 is barely eight weeks old and already public opinion and public officials here have been rattled by alarms over risks -- proven and not -- from genetically modified corn, hormone-fed beef and pork, "mad cow" disease, a widely used measles vaccine, narrow airline seats said to cause blood clots and cellular phones said to cause brain damage.

"If these stories were true, we should all be dead by now," quipped Mart Saarma, a biologist at the Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology.

Saarma attributes the "culture of fear" to carry-over from genuine health problems, trends in environmentalism, anti-Americanism and a pessimistic strain in the European psyche. "It is a matter of emotion here," he said...

Old King Coal
15th Oct 2003, 15:40
Ah, Airbubba, are you aware that the Intelligence service in the USA has also produced reports on the following:

Watch out for toy model aircraft packed with explosives ! The FBI Law enforcement bulletin reported that they ‘faced off’ a “terrorist threat” from an “unconventional weapon” in the form of “Satin [sic] gas” after a tiny canister was seized from a model aeroplane builder and flown to a special army base by hazard materials support personnel in a special military aircraft - albeit that the modelling enthusiast admitted that he labelled the empty canister “Satin [sic] gas” as a “joke”.
Nonetheless, the US government issued an alert to be on the lookout for model aircraft that could fly explosives into a building, and cable news channels presented experts in mid-July 2003 to warn of the grave danger.

People lurking near train tracks preparing to derail trains ! The FBI issued a warning to law enforcement agencies throughtout the US about a possible attack against transportation systems, particularly railways, in October 2002. “Intelligence” officials said they had seen captured al Qaeda photos of train engines and railroad crossings. ( Perhaps OBL is a closet train spotter ? )

Al Qaeda may be setting wildfires in the western US ! The FBI issued a memo to law enforcement agencies to alert them that al Qaeda had developed a plan to set midsummer forest fires in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, so that “once it was realised that the fires were terrorist acts, US citizens would put pressure on the US government to change its policies”.

Especially keep an eye out for undercover al Qaeda agents with portable blow torches attempting to cut through the 21,736 wires holding up the Brooklyn Bridge ! The FBI nabbed a truck driver who had been casing the bridge and counting the wires. Best estimate is that you could cut through the wires in about a week, so be on alert !

Report any powdery substance you come across ! After receiving a suspicious powdery substance in the mail, a New Orleans woman called the authorities, and fire-fighters, postal officials, police officers and FBI agents quickly arrived to investigate. It turned out to be a free sample of laundry detergent. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t terrorists out there ( even if the authorities suspect that the anthrax scare of 2001 was an inside job by someone who had access to the substance in US government or government approved programs ).

So, we’ve got exploding model aeroplanes ! Satin gas ! Forest fires ! ....... Lions ! Tigers ! Bears ! Dragons ! The Boogeyman ! ....... and they’re all out to get you ! Run for your lives !!!

And which US President was the one who said, “We’ve nothing to fear but fear itself !” ?

15th Oct 2003, 17:47
Franklin D Roosevelt (1882~1945) first inaugural speech:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

From a continental perspective, I think that the USA finds itself having to look outsode it's borders again - both at threats and possible solutions. This is not something the USA likes to do. It has lived under the idea that it is really a collection of lovely little towns of lovely little people. That they celebrated their diversity and yet helped each other.

That image is showing signs of being out of date. To state that gives me no pleasure but it is an inevitable step along the road of a nation starting to move on from it's infancy. I use the word infancy because the USA, in it's present form, is only some 125 years(?) old. [I am not sure of the date of the last of the 50 states being in place, so please correct me]

I am NOT saying that being in a country where we can rest our hands on stones laid in place over 1,000 years ago makes us special or better but it gives us a different point of view.

15th Oct 2003, 19:02
I think you'll find the vast majority of Brits laugh at all such media nonsense and blame it all on the European Parliament.

The only people likely to believe it are those looking for a good opportunity to do the American thing and sue the pants off the first person they can, citing this media nonsense as justification.

PS - I heard Al Quaeda are using invisible, undetectable rays through the internet and television to mess with your head and turn everybody into drooling, paranoid vegetables so that they can come and take over the Earth with their Martian friends waiting round the dark side of the moon. Seems to be working so far.

Gerald Bostock
15th Oct 2003, 20:38
Seem to recall that the Birmingham 6 were initially convicted on the grounds of tests which were supposed to be for Nitro-Glycerine.
These were later discredited on the grounds that lots of innocent substances contain nitro-cellulose and could have given a false positive. Examples include lacquers, paints and varnishes commonly used in bars and restaurants and from memory (can't seem to verify it) even the coating on playing cards.
So if you want to fly don't go to a bar or restaurant for several days beforehand ?

Onan the Clumsy
15th Oct 2003, 21:32
The TSA is experimenting with new walk-through portals at airports that blow puffs of air on people to shake loose invisible chemical residue on their clothes, possibly revealing explosives.

A picture of the equipment in action (http://www.marilyncollector.com/legend/images/itch.jpg)

16th Oct 2003, 00:08
OK, I guess we are a little on edge concerning security in the U.S. these days.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you <g>...

Mosquito Trap Sets Off 4 - Hour Bomb Scare


Published: October 15, 2003

Filed at 11:43 a.m. ET

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (AP) -- A battery-powered mosquito trap placed in a public park was mistaken for a potential bomb and caused a four-hour uproar Tuesday that included halting railroad traffic and rushing in bomb experts.

The scare came a day after industrial-grade explosives were reported stolen from a North Middleton Township explosives dealer.

``Better safe than sorry,'' said Roger Kohr, Cumberland County's public information officer.

A dog walker in Mechanicsburg's Memorial Park reported the contraption, a thermal container that traps mosquitos to test them for West Nile virus. It was placed along a walking trail between tennis courts and railroad tracks.

The device includes a thermos containing dry ice, which evaporates into carbon dioxide. The gas attracts mosquitoes, which are then sucked into a netted container by a small fan.

But there was no label on it and no one at the scene could tell what it was.

The mystery was dispelled when the county employee who placed the device there Monday night arrived to collect it.

About 200 employees from a nearby business were evacuated and Norfolk-Southern railroad traffic was halted. A bomb expert from the FBI's Philadelphia office arrived under police escort and another bomb expert was flown in from State College.

16th Oct 2003, 01:16
People lurking near train tracks preparing to derail trains ! This has already happened once in the US. It happened in 1995 in Arizona:


Old King Coal
16th Oct 2003, 02:20
Strange that, they've also tried to pin the terrorism link on some of the more recent fatal rail crashes in the UK.

But it didn't work, as all the UK public know it was really down to years of lack of investment in the railway infrastructure, coupled with lack of oversight. :rolleyes:

That said, maybe we should all stop using the railways, being that they are is such an obvious terrorist risk - what with all those thousands of miles of unguarded track and all ?!

I know, lets all charge about in a high speed pressurised aluminium tubes, do it at high altitude and bring along several tons of quite flammable liquid paraffin for fuel ! .... Uhm, ok, maybe not. After all some terrorist Johnny might try and blow it up.

Nope. Perhaps the safest thing is to stay at home with a good book, like, 'How to live happily for years in a fallout bunker', or some such ?! ;)

16th Oct 2003, 03:44
A slight aside on the mentality of authorities who know a band-wagon when they see it:

I was sent an article regarding a scheme to lay railway tracks near a prison.

The prison service objected because they said that ".. the trains could be hi-jacked and used to ram the prison walls!". A basic misunderstanding of how a railway works, unless they would let a whole new railway line be laid up to the walls without noticing (could happen).

Also they said that the noise of the trains would keep the inmates awake. Ah shame!!

Old King Coal
16th Oct 2003, 07:08
"Stop the press".......

Ten dead in NYC ferry disaster :(

That said, following announcement of this news, and perhaps somewhat predictably, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is since quoted as saying, "There is no indication that this is anything other than a terrible accident. There is no reason whatsoever to believe this was done by any outside factor other than perhaps high winds."

Err, so precisely just what is / was the 'outside factor' he was alluding to and just why did he make such a reference ( assuming that it was without substance and / or necessary ) ?

16th Oct 2003, 13:00
And in this morning's news:

Airlines, Police Are Alerted

Memo Cites 'Multiple Reports' of Terrorist Threats

By Sara Kehaulani Goo and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers

Thursday, October 16, 2003; Page A08

The Department of Homeland Security has warned airlines, local police and emergency personnel across the country to be on heightened alert after U.S. intelligence recently received "multiple reports [that] indicate terrorists may be poised to conduct simultaneous attacks in the near term against US interests" here or overseas, according to an agency memo.

The Oct. 10 "information circular" distributed to thousands of security and law enforcement officials, but not publicly released, repeats earlier warnings about terrorists' plans to attack "soft targets," such as hotels and apartment complexes, and terrorists' interest in launching chemical, biological or radiological attacks in the United States or against U.S. interests overseas.

"Some reports indicate that a large attack could follow a series of smaller operations in the Middle East and South Asia," the memo states, citing a number of intelligence reports. The advisory says the agency does not know the exact timing, targets or locations of the possible attacks...


Load Toad
16th Oct 2003, 14:46
Pillow Bombs? Coat Bombs? Cuddly Toy Bombs?

Do I as a passenger need to know what exactly the security people are looking for? I know what I'm not allowed to carry but do I need to know how security equipment works, what significant or subtle signs indicate a passenger is a potential terrorist?
What was the point of telling us that pillow bombs etc may be a new way for terrorists to blow up an airliner; am I now to view with suspicion and fear every child carrying a toy or grandmother nervously cluching her neck support?
Who was going to gain from this announcement? Surely it isn't the passengers and us knowing about this won't help. Are we going to be banned from wearing coats or carrying any soft furnishings (whilst carrying on our duty free and eating with or plastic knives / metal forks) - or are we going to jib in little nancy holding her 'Hello kitty ' doll?
Surely airport / airline security would have been better knowing this confidentially so as not to alarm passengers or alert potential terrorists that the possible weapon was already understood and safeguards existed to spot such threats?
Has common sense completely vanished from this world?

By the way, on the way home last night I lost HK$20 - at this point there is no indication that this was anything but an act of carelessness on my part.

Iron City
16th Oct 2003, 22:59
Airbubba: If they are flying in bomb specialists from State College (Pennsylvania) i.e. Penn State University then they are very desperate for help indeed. Should have called Grove City or Slippery Rock.

Never underestimate what will happen at the intersection of political opportunism, ignorance, and greed. The result is a lot of the stuff that is going on in the world today with alerts of this and that, fearmongering, and general idiocy.

Glad that in this country we mostly evaluate to 99% of the media and government "information" hype, discount it, ignore it, and do just fine thank you very much.

18th Oct 2003, 08:03
The FBI has issued a warning that terrorists may conceal bombs/weapons in innocuous objects -


including inside inflatable cushions and teddybears.

Ignition Override
19th Oct 2003, 12:06
If you are ever near a farm with animals, there might be a higher chance of being killed by a pig, than a terrorist's (cowardly) weapon on an airplane. But in India or Louisiana (USA), there might be more danger from a snake.

In the US, "corporate sharks" are the most dangerous predators, at least from a career/retirement perspective, and have neither shame nor conscience, not even a responsibility to their employees-and often very little regard for the stockholders.:E

20th Oct 2003, 22:37
If you are ever near a farm with animals, there might be a higher chance of being killed by a pig, than a terrorist's (cowardly) weapon on an airplane.

While I normally agree with this mindset, and I am not paranoid, recent events have made me think that this stuff is closer to home than I originally thought.

I was PIC on one of the aircraft last week where the box cutters etc. were found. Odds were better on 9/11 that (4 aircraft instead of 2) terrorists would be on board than they were on friday, yet, it happened to me.