About Me

Steven Frischling
Live: HVN
Work: JFK-SFO-CDG-HKG
Contact Me

Steven Frischling, aka: Fish, is globe hopping professional photographer, airline emerging media consultant working with large global airlines and founder of The Travel Strategist. Fish has racked up more than 1,000,000 miles since he started to track his mileage in 2005.

Fish's travel tends to be less than leisurely, including flying from New York to Basrah, Iraq, for six hours; Hong Kong for eight hours, Kuwait City for two hours and traveling around the world in 3.5 days to shoot a series of photo assignments in 4 cities and 4 countries on 3 separate continents.

Fish grew up at the end of New York's JFK International Airport's Runway 4R/22L, which probably explains his enjoyment of watching planes, fly overhead. When not shooting photos or traveling Fish designs camera bags, hones is expertise on airline security and spends his time at home cheering for the Red Sox with his 3 kids 102 yards from the ocean.

“Two Men Enter Two Airports, One With A Rectal Bomb…” (this is not a typo)

As I have been digging deeper into the ineffectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) current security procedures in the face of the current threat assessments for a likely terrorist attack on a commercial airliner I have received quite few opinions on the situation at hand. It seems each assessment is more grim than the last, and that many experts within the security agencies are frustrated that the real threat scenarios they are uncovering are not being addressed.

Shortly after asking a very pointed question to the TSA’s public affairs team regarding the effectiveness of the TSA’s current procedure for pat downs, and how they’ll likely miss the primary threats to aviation security I received an email from a “threat assessment analyst” with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  This email’s opening line read like the start of a bad joke … except there was no punch line, just a chilling description of a current potential threat assessment of how a terrorist organization can split up and completely evade detection.

The email begins:

Two men enter two airports, one with a rectal bomb the other with a masterfully concealed detonation device.”

The email goes on to say:

“By splitting up the components of a bomb, concealing one part in the rectum of one terrorist and the other parts hidden among benign everyday items intelligence is scrambled leaving us essentially blind. These two terrorists start the journey at two geographically separate airports that have been researched for relaxed security procedures and fly to a common hub airport. Once at a hub, these terrorists meet a third person, the suicide bomber, who has arrived at the hub with nothing. Now inside security, where they will not be checked again, because we don’t do screening at gates any longer and behavior detection officers are rarely at gates, the bomb is assembled. Assembly would likely take place in a restroom because the PETN hidden in a rectal cavity needs to be extracted. The bomb is placed in a bag of the suicide bomber, the two couriers of the bomb parts fly off to two unrelated destinations on flights before the suicide bomber’s flights and the suicide bomber boards a flight.

We know how the story ends.”

For those wondering how this gets past the current TSA security procedures, let me fill in the gaps … the enhanced pat down of a passenger does not check body cavities and the current TSA Advanced Imaging Technology whole body imaging scanners cannot detect an item placed inside a body cavity. If the item is not metal, it will not alarm.

In theory a swab for explosives should detect the components hidden in a terrorist’s rectum, however there are two problems with this given current threat scenario information. The first is that PETN barely emits any vapor, making it difficult for bomb dogs to sniff out and for explosives swabs to detect. Additionally its density is so fine that it’s near impossible for current screening technology to detect … but there is another catch to this scenario …

… it is likely the PETN smuggled through security will be packed into a condom. This condom would be packed by someone other than the traveler; the condom would be cleaned of all trace elements and inserted into the smuggler by someone other than the traveler. By this process, there would essentially be no trace elements of the explosive on the smuggler at all.

While PETN is generally detected through its detonator, for the purposes of a taking down a plane, PETN can be detonated with a shockwave, rather than a blasting cap. A purpose driven designed electronic device can generate a small electronic shockwave that would cause an explosive reaction to detonate the PETN. This device, if carried on board with other scientific equipment would raise few eyebrows, if any,  from airport security screeners.

On the topic of agencies missing potential aviation security threats, the DHS threat assessment analyst goes on to say:

Internally we struggle with the public search for pocket knives when we need to look for PETN & matching accomplices. Realistically pretty much anyone carrying a Leatherman tool onto a flight in plain sight of screeners isn’t a threat. We allow corkscrews but not pocket knives, if you are going to stab someone a corkscrew is an effective weapon, but neither a corkscrew or a knife is going to take a commercial jet out of the sky.

The TSA, DHS, FBI, CIA, FAA and other agencies need to get serious on connecting the dots. Right now we will never find two men entering two different airports carrying a bomb to meet a third person that will set it off. We are not set up to connect the dots. We say that we cannot under estimate our enemy but instead we spend our resources on inconveniencing the traveling public in public security farce.

Who will catch these terrorists? Behavior detection officers, but access to behavior detection officers is limited and poorly placed. I am not advocating profiling being performed by behavior detection officers but I am saying that these highly trained officers need to look for the tell tale signs that make the hairs on the back of their neck stand up.  With more than 450 airports lacking behavior detection officers the field is wide open to run the ball through a gaping hole in our defensive line.

The current airport procedures and policies leave little room for effective human interaction and intelligence gathering. We are not Israel, we won’t be Israel, we are not trying to be Israel, but we can be effective because we have the resources and the potential to effectively use these resource. Unfortunately the resources available to stop this potential threat are FUBAR because of politics.

In the end who will suffer?  The 250 passengers on the flight that gets bombed because we missed the guy smuggling one pound of PETN in his rectum and his accomplices meeting up in the middle of an airport to have lunch, build a bomb and blow up a plane.

After reading this detailed correspondence, I am once again left with the lingering question that I have after reading many of the emails I receive. Given the constant flow of information that is available to the TSA and DHS from their own internal sources, what is the agency’s fixation on using procedures that are outmoded and ineffective?

The TSA and DHS clearly have people within the agencies that are intelligent, capable and able to address the current threat situation, but are politics so heavily involved in the security of the traveling public that those running the agency fear admitting the current procedures are wrong?

What will it take for those creating the TSA’s policy to adapt and adopt a more viable security policy and procedure? Even the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted his unregulated markets theory was incorrect after 18 years running the Federal Reserve … following the collapse of the stock market.   Is this the type of scenario that must impact the TSA for change to be enacted?

Keep this in mind, while TSA and DHS publicly state that they don’t believe these threat scenarios are likely … the FBI never thought simultaneous hijackings of commercial aircraft, with two being flown into the World Trade Center, was a likely scenario either.

I wish the opening line to the email had a punch line … but in this threat assessment scenario the punch line is a plane exploding in flight and killing hundreds of innocent people on board.

_ _ _ _ _ Flying!

24 Responses

  1. What happens when one of them swallows a condom full of explosives, like drug smugglers have been doing forever? No current screening method will detect that.

  2. From stuff I’ve been reading lately, it seems that explosives small enough to be contained in a rectal bomb would not do enough damage to bring an airplane down. So, it would take several rectal smugglers to get through security.

    The bottom line is that current airport security does little or nothing to protect us. The bottom line is that life is full of risks. We have killed more people in Iraq than were killed in the Twin Towers.

    We need another approach to security. One that is more intelligent than six eyes for an eye.

  3. Becky,

    A ‘wad’ of PETN about the size of a baseball, which is under half-a-pound, placed against the wall of an airliner is enough to successfully blow a hole through the skin of the aircraft big enough to do some serious damage. Actual damage has many factors, such as location of placement against the fuselage, altitude, and other factors.

    While the space to conceal PETN in an anal cavity may not seem like enough to build an effective bomb, keep in mind that on 27 August 2009 an al Qaeda suicide bomber attempted to blow up the Saudi Deputy Minister of Interior with one pound of PETN placed inside his anal cavity. The bomber, Abdullah Hassan al Asiri, died in the blast when he blew himself up, however the Saudi Deputy Minister of Interior survived because of how the PETN was packed inside his body.

    Using the current DHS scenario the PETN would not be detonated from within the terrorist’s body, merely smuggled past security in this manner allowing them to board a flight with the explosives available to them to place them at will once on board the aircraft.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  4. [...] of chills down the spine and an intellectual realization that it’s all for naught, consider this (the rectal bomb — a variation on a scenario I conceived back when I began writing on this [...]

  5. Who needs rectal bombs when they can just blow up the security line itself with a carry-on or backpack full of PETN? There’s no security at all before you get to the security checkpoint. I once made a rough guesstimate of the number of people in line at DIA and came up with about 400 or so.

    The serpentine line snakes back and forth about a dozen times when the wait is long and there can be as many as 30-35 in each cross-section. If you look at the DIA pic in the article I listed below, you can count about 25 in each, but you can’t see all the way to the end of the lanes.

    The TSA agent’s reply when I quizzed him on it? “Oh,we know about it. We just try to move the line as fast as we can.”

    http://tinyurl.com/278d8b2

  6. Rob,

    What strikes more fear and makes a better political impact? Blowing up a section of an airport terminal or taking a plane out of the sky? I have long since wondered why other targets are not sought out … and the experts always come back with “political impact” as an answer.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  7. A sobering and excellent blog post Fish. Fortunately, I live in a part of the world with a much lower terrorist threat. However, there are flights daily between New Zealand and the US, and a terrorist could possibly try to come through New Zealand to the US. (Although why they would come all this way south to go north again, unlikely). Fortunately, there is fairly good security in New Zealand for all aircraft that have more than 30 seats.

  8. A very insightful article. I’ve often thought about how explosives could be smuggled in body cavities but never considered the steps you outlined to ensure bomb detection machines & sniffer dogs wouldn’t catch it. Very enlightening.

    Here’s something else to keep in mind with respect to the current screening process: When a person is busy searching for something they expect to find they are very likely to overlook that which they don’t expect to see. The TSA gladly touts that 96% of items confiscated at screening areas in 2006 were lighters & knives. That statistic seems to reinforce the issue surrounding finding what you expect vs. what you don’t expect to find. They expect to find cigarette lighters & pocket knives. They don’t expect to find tiny components that could be used to fashion a bomb or detonator.

    Here’s an excellent example of how focusing on the expected can leave you virtually blind to the unexpected. I feel that this is an excellent example of why the TSA screening process is nothing more than “security theater” that is doomed to failure:

    http://www.tsasecuritytheater.com/2010/11/expecting-unexpected.html

  9. Steven:

    If the experts are looking at “political impact”, then anything that provides horrifying television images will be good in this era of 24-hour news cycles.

    I live in an exurb of the Twin Cities, but that’s recent – I come from the more security-minded cities of DC and NYC. To me, there are plenty of visible targets in the Midwest that would cause enough graphic damage and body count to please any terrorist group. (That it happened “in the heartland” instead of a major east-coast city ups the terror factor.)

    Which is why the e-mail you shared infuriates me. The feds are so focused on air travel that they just sort of gloss over that whole “The TSA, DHS, FBI, CIA, FAA and other agencies need to get serious on connecting the dots” issue. That’s where it begins – if people intent on destroying an airplane, airport, or building have made it to the airport, TSO’s are not trained to detect them. This is especially frustrating when you consider the lack of security around airport employees with plane access that aren’t screened. And when you consider that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was reported to the CIA by his father and he wasn’t placed on the correct watch list or his visa revoked (as part of a larger intelligence investigation). So they were watching him, but not closely enough to keep him off a damn plane.

    And while I understand what they are saying about “not being Israel” (our country is bigger and our air travel system far larger), with all the money TSA spent on the AIT, you think they could have hired more behaviouralists. (I guess that wouldn’t have lined Chertoff’s pockets, though.) Or done some of the more practical things like providing money to airport authorities to physically restructure security points and include the blast-proof shields and bomb-boxes of Ben Gurion.

    There are so many holes in our intelligence agencies – too much bureaucracy, and too much turf war. So things like AIT and the pat-downs (where you can either subject yourself to a machine not appropriately studied for health impact or submit to a search by TSO’s who don’t change gloves between enhanced pat-downs) are truly security theater. I’m not against proper security, I’m just against security theater. That TSA seems to be aware they are engaging in security theater pisses me off even more.

  10. Why even bother going through security? The terr’ists could just work at the airport, or get someone to smuggle the devices inside. There are so many people at the airport that access the “secure” areas that don’t go through any TSA style security theater, or if they do they could easily bypass it (eg get “screened”, walk to fence, have co-conspirator throw contraband over fence), all this talk of anal cavities is for nought.

    Why hasn’t it been done yet? Maybe because this whole terr’ist threat is so farcically overblown, no pun intended.

  11. I have read countless threats that involve catering crew. Access to planes, trucks aren’t screened, personnel aren’t patted down. It has come up countless times.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  12. I’ve really begun to wonder if airlines are even likely to be used anymore. The scenario described is SO complicated and it would be infinitely easier for a terrorist to fill a backpack full of explosives and wander into the Garden State Mall or Port Authority Bus Terminal or…. who knows? Either way, the explosion (and secondary attack to take out first responders) would likely have a far greater impact. I’m far more concerned about that sort of attack than I am of an aircraft being used like on 9/11.

  13. …and guess what? If, occasionally, 250 people die in a plane bombing (by no means a given, as a bomb does not necessarily take out an entire plane, but let’s say it does)….well, that’s a shame, but is it really worse than *all* of us losing *all* our liberty by a thousand cuts in a vain attempt to prevent it?

    and how many times did this actually happen before 9/11, exactly?….

  14. What if they had several people in the same terminal smuggle items through security. They had shown up very early for their flights, and now they spend time assembling the necessary devices and bombs needed. Again, nothing stops this except someone randomly walking in on the process. They wouldn’t even need to be on the plane, it could be put in someone’s carry on with a timer.

  15. Sign the petition to abolish the TSA: http://abolishthetsa.net/sign-the-petition/

  16. The fact remains that the terrorists have already won and they cause more damage by not having a bomb go off than exploding one. They know that for each “threat,” be it explosives in the shorts, or in one’s shoes, we will react by spending enormous amounts of money and inconvenience in a forlorn effort to combat a perceived threat. As Lawrence Wright pointed out in The Looming Tower, the strategy of Bin Laden has always been to cause economic disruption by sucking us into foreign wars, i.e. bringing us to them for easier killing off (we have lost thousands more since the wars began than were lost in the Twin Towers,) and to engage us in an economically devastating foreign war. It worked against the Russians driving them into insolvency and our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan on borrowed money coupled with huge sums thrown at security theater may very well lead us down the same path. Just what would Homeland Security (I hate that name which reminds me of Der Vaterland) do if a bomb went off in the security area where hundreds congregate, or in a McDonald’s, or a football stadium? And now, as your excellent reporting indicates, TSA employees are frustrated and demoralized. It’s time to stop searching for objects and focus on behaviors. Or how about implanting an RFID device in everyone at birth so we can all be tracked and monitored (I’m kidding for heaven’s sake — but I bet some secret agency is working on just that in the name of security.)

  17. [...] [...]

  18. Your DHS e-mail contact is incorrect about the gate screenings (including pat-downs) by TSA employees. These do still occur. There is plenty of current commentary from the frequent flyer set (which I no longer belong to thanks to the TSA). For instance, “Gate searches/ID checks were in full effect this evening (12/1) at IAD gate B78 for DL to DTW and ATL. Saw the same at MSN on Thanksgiving Day.” DHS e-mail contact either is incorrect, or the rest of the TSA hasn’t gotten that memo.

    I understand the point the person is trying to make re: reassembly issues once past initial security, but frankly, I find further screenings at the gate of the average traveler offensive. If he/she wants to expand on this, that would be great, as these do still occur.

  19. Rebecca,

    I think the DHS analyst’s stating that gate checks are not frequent and not carried out at each airport. You tend to see gate checks come in clusters, rather than on a consistently random basis. By performing the gate checks in this manner, it somewhat easy to research what hub is the best target.

    I recently had a TSA STSO, based at a major hub, tell me that they rarely perform gate checks, at their airport, any longer due to man power issues.

    I’ll see if the person I quoted would like to elaborate on his comments though.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  20. I don’t doubt the scenario of the rectal bomber and friends. I am not convinced that the email is from a security analyst with DHS. What evidence do you have to support this?

  21. Michael,

    The only way to verify the email is to publish the email address it was sent from, and quite frankly that is something I cannot do.

    Read back through my blog. In the past year I have accurately published Security Directives before they were announced, both are “SSI” (Sensitive Security Information) documents. In one case I published the entire content, which resulted in TSA Special Agents (law enforcement) coming to my house 3 times in two days to subpoena me, the other was a few weeks ago when I wrote about a security directive … including the directive number … three days before it was announced.

    The two security directives, that were both significant news, along with my recent post regarding an internal TSA policy on those who double refuse security scanners and pat downs, also an SSI document, about 6 hours before that policy was announced the TSA’s front line TSOs, should show the depth in which I extract information from within the TSA.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  22. I read your blog.

    I believe it is possible for a disgruntled employee to leak you information. But a disgruntled employee telling you an old scenario about how a terrorist could sneak a bomb through the security check point at the airport is not a security analyst with DHS telling you DHS’s assessment of this scenario. If this were an internal memo from a DHS security analyst to his boss or someone else in DHS then it would be significant.

    The email is not the DHS saying anything about rectal bombings. It is at best the personal anonymous opinion of a DHS security analyst. I don’t doubt the emailer’s conclusion. But my opinion, the emailer’s opinion and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. If it were an official DHS document then it would only cost you a buck fifty.

    You leaking information and a subpoena being issued says that you have contact with someone who has access to DHS information. This person telling you an old story is no revelation. If it is have your emailer email me and I can tell him a half a dozen other ways to thwart TSA security and get a bomb on a plane. He or she can then analyze it and email it back to you for another blog post.

  23. Michael,

    The person quoted in this post is in their current position, not a former employer. I am aware of who this person is and confirmed it with an unrelated person within the agency.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  24. Fantasy Security:
    1) All bags are sent by separate cargo planes.
    2) All passengers, privately, disrobe for robots which then dress them in their TSA approved jumpsuit that can’t be opened by the passenger. The robots detain/shred anyone with objects attached to their bodies.
    3) No bathrooms or other private areas. Gotta go? Well no flight for you unless you visit the robot screener again.
    Rectal bomb? Not very effective if you don’t remove it from yourself first.

    Perfect? No. Implementable? Partially. What part?
    Put all bathrooms outside the security check point. In-flight bathrooms need to be monitored to only allow 1 person at a time and be swept of objects before the next enters.

Leave a Reply