By David Gardner
Air travellers could face even more intrusive security checks amid fears that Al Qaeda as well as other Muslim groups are planning a terror campaigns using suicide bombers carrying explosives hidden in their bodies.
The body bomb threat was revealed after the tactic was used in an assassination attempt on a Saudi prince.
Although the bid failed, it has sent shockwaves through the world’s airline industry and US and French anti-terrorism experts are urging increased security to safeguard against future attacks.
Intelligence chiefs feared it was only a matter of time before terrorists would try the kind of methods used by drug mules to evade airport security.
The dilemma is that explosives inserted into body cavities like the stomach or rectum, or even implanted surgically, cannot be detected by regular airport checks.
But draconian and potentially costly measures such as full X-ray screening or a requirement for all passengers to hand in electronic equipment that could possibly be used as detonators would cause chaos and massive delays.
The body bomb method was tested for the first time by 23-year-old Al Qaeda militant Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, who got through several security checks with military grade plastic explosive in his rectum and detonated them during a meeting with the Saudi anti-terrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in August.
The prince only escaped serious injury because the terrorist’s body absorbed much of the impact of the blast and was ripped into seventy pieces.
The bomb is believed to have been triggered by a signal from a mobile phone text message.
The concern now is that a similar small explosion could be disastrous in the pressurised cabin of an airliner.
‘While not wanting to be alarmist, I admit this is alarming,’ said Richard Barrett, head of the United Nation’s Al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group.
‘Even though its capability is reduced, it is clear that Al Qaeda remains determined enough and inventive enough to cause another terroriost spectacular,’ he said at the weekend.
‘Our aviation controls are equipped with metal detectors, but in the case of the Saudi suicide bomber only an X-ray control would have detected the explosive,’ a French official told Le Figaro newspaper.
But a French Interior Ministry official said X-raying every passenger would be unthinkable. ‘The health risks would be too high,’ he added.
Security experts are considering isolating the electronic trigger by risking the wrath of passengers and insisting they hand over mobile phones, iPods and other equipment for the duration of the flight.
Sebastian Mahe, an airport security expert with Brink’s France, said advances in miniaturisation were making it easier for terrorists to hide and detonate small bombs powerful enough to bring down an aircraft.
Saudi intelligence chiefs believe al-Asiri hid the explosive and an electronic detonator in a long, thin animal gut casing to protect it from body acid after he inserted it into his intestine. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the August 28 attempt and promised more surprise attacks in the ‘near future’.
In a video, released last month, al-Asiri, one of Saudi Arabia’s most wanted terror suspects, is seen showing off the 3in-long bomb.
He had travelled on the prince’s aircraft and spent 24 hours with his guards without being detected. He had been granted an audience at the prince’s palace because he supposedly wanted to repent.
‘This is a threat not only to airlines, but to the whole transport infrastructure. There is grave concern about the rail, buses and even ships,” said Sandy Straus, Florida-based chief engineer for the Explosives Academy.
‘The terrorist attack in Jeddah will have a widespread, global impact on security for years to come. The implications are enormous. This totally changes the direction of screening tactics and techniques,’ she added.
She said more research is needed to tackle the danger.
‘The problem is people have their boundaries. Where does society draw the line in the level of security? There is concern that these particular explosives can be surgically implanted as well as put in cavities,’ she said.
Another US expert, Scott Stewart, of Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company, said a body bomb could have a ‘catastrophic’ effect if it were somehow removed and placed at a strategic place on board an aircraft.
Low radiation body scanners have been in use at some European and US airports for the past two years but they do not show internal objects, while metal objects would show up clearly on X-rays.
Civil liberties groups have opposed the use of body scan screens, saying they are virtual strip searches.