As NATO continues its military actions against Muammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime, Gadhafi has threatened to carry out attacks in Europe against “homes, offices, families,” unless NATO ceases its airstrikes.
Gadhafi’s unstable government has previously carried out acts of terrorism on commercial airliners, most notably Pan Am Flight 103, on the 21st of December 1988, which exploded over Scotland. The likelihood that Gadhafi, now known to have directly ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, could carry out such attacks against European and American airlines is not out of the question.
Gadhafi’s government is in a unique position to carry out attacks against airliners with explosives that are largely undetectable by airport security screening … Semtex.
Semtex is a common explosive, used by industrial demolition companies and militaries around the world. Semtex, similar to C-4, is malleable, easy to conceal, provides a significant explosion, is easy to detonate, is waterproof … and Libya’s Semtex is virtually undetectable.
In the 1970s the single largest consumer of military grade Semtex was the Libyan Government, purchasing an estimated 700 tons. By comparison, the second largest consumer of Semtex at the time of Libya’s buying spree was North Vietnam, which purchased 14 tons to use during the Vietnam War.
The U.S. State Department has linked Libyan Semtex to attacks carried out of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and various Islamic militant organizations. Libyan Semtex has been found at the site of terrorist attacks throughout Europe. It is believed that Gadhafi’s government presently posses more than 250 tons of undetectable Semtex.
Why is Libya’s Semtex undetectable? The answer is simple, due to when it was manufactured. To reduce the potential for Semtex being used by terrorists, or be smuggled onto planes, the manufacturer of Semtex, Explosia A.S., began adding a ‘detection tagging’ in 1991. This ‘detection tagging’ produces a unique vapour signature allowing Semtex to be detected during routine explosives searches … however Libya’s stockpile of Semtex was purchased long before the explosives were manufactured to be detected.
While Semtex generally has a shelf life of 10 years, which has now been engineered to be approximately five years, the Semtex in Libya’s possession likely has no expiration date due to not only is manufacturing process, but how the Libyan government is believed to be storing the explosives.
So where does this leave aviation security across Europe, and possibly the United States? It leaves them unable to address a very real threat due to current security procedures presently in place.
Airport security in many countries is referred to as Security Theater, A Show Of Farce. Perception Of Protection, as well as other less polite phrases. Airport security battles airlines and airports for speed, governments for a show of effectiveness, and its own public perception. These external forces ultimately create issues that impact the ability of many airport security agencies to address specific security threats.
Right now a real threat is detecting an explosive that is easy to conceal and is nearly undetectable on its own and even harder to detect when properly packaged. While agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the United States and Department for Transport in the United Kingdom are quick to point out they are now able to detect PETN, they do not address the threats of ‘homegrown’ organic Semtex and detecting Semtex that has been properly packaged.
Detecting these explosives requires a change in security procedure, methodology and tools. The issue with changing airport security procedure, methodology and tools is two fold, 1) cost 2) increased passenger time in security. Airport security agencies face budget issue that prevent real chances in how they carry out passenger and baggage screening; and an increase in passenger screening time angers passengers, which leads to less people flying, reduce revenue for airlines and airports and an impact on the economy.
With a very real threat being publicly verbalized by an unstable dictator, who has been proven to have carried out terrorist attacks in Europe and target American interests in the past, how will airport security respond?
Aviation security needs to be proactive because being reactive is just to little to late.