(AP, ABC7) - Airlines are being warned by the government that terrorists are considering surgically hiding bombs inside humans to evade airport security. And as a result, travelers may find themselves subjected to more scrutiny when flying in the heart of summer vacation season, especially to the U.S. from abroad.
The idea of implanting a device in a person is not new: drug smugglers have used it before. But recent intelligence indicates a fresh interest in using this method, as people-scanning machines in airports aren't able to detect explosives hidden inside humans. Still, there is no current information that points to a specific plot involving surgically implanted explosives, a U.S. security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss such sensitive matters.
As airport security has increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, so has the terrorists' creativity in developing methods to get around it. Aviation continues to be a special target, and evidence from Osama bin Laden's compound showed that the al-Qaida leader retained his fascination with attacking airplanes until his death in May.
"This is something we've been concerned about for quite some time," said J. Bennet Waters, a security consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based Chertoff Group and a former Transportation Security Administration official in the Bush administration.
The U.S. government has been working with foreign air carriers and governments to identify ways to discover hidden explosives, including bombs potentially hidden inside of humans. Officials did not want to discuss specific security measures under consideration so as not to tip off terrorists who could seek ways to get around them.
Would implanted bombs be found in security checks?
Once a terrorist finds a willing suicide bomber, secures the explosive material and makes the bomb, carrying off this tactic is not that difficult, said Chris Ronay, a former chief of the FBI explosives unit. "It's rather easy and the damage could be rather severe," Ronay said.
Surgery to implant explosives could be done a couple of days before a planned attack, said James Crippin, an explosives expert in Colorado. In order for it to work, there would need to be a detonation device, and it's conceivable that if the explosive was implanted in a woman's breast, the detonator could be underneath the breast so that all the operative would have to do is press downward, Crippin said.
Dan Kaniewski, deputy director of George Washington University's homeland security policy institute, said an implanted bomb would be difficult to detect during security checks.
"There are a series of measures that can assist, but there is no silver bullet for this particular threat,” Kaniewski said. He says the TSA is likely going to step up security.
"That might mean more thorough pat-downs, that might mean more intelligence operations, and that might mean longer security lines for all of us," he said.
But Jimmie C. Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island and explosives expert, said it would be tough to carry out such an effort successfully. She said there are only so many places to hide a bomb in the body, and a suicide bomber would have to recover enough from the surgery to travel and set off the device.
Airline passengers were worried about the revelations, but also said they mostly trust airport security.
“You can't really live your life scared, you just never what's going to happen,” said Chanucey Abany of Landover.
“I'm a little worried, but I think we're going to be fine,” said Tamika Wiggins of Temple Hills.
Al-Qaida has tried to smuggle bombs on planes
The al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen has emerged as the most inventive terror organization these days and has been behind two plots that nearly brought down planes over the U.S. The group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, was behind the Christmas Day attack in 2009 when a Nigerian hid a bomb in his underpants and nearly brought down an airliner over Detroit.
AQAP operatives also concealed bombs in printer cartridges last October, shipping them to Chicago addresses. That attack was thwarted because of specific intelligence about the plot. And in late December, the U.S. received intelligence that the Yemen group was considering hiding explosives in the insulated lining of beverage containers and carrying them aboard airplanes. There was no information pointing to a specific plot with insulated beverage containers, but, like the recent intelligence about the implanted bomb tactic, the Transportation Security Administration warned domestic and foreign carriers to be on the lookout.
"The idea that terrorists have been looking for other ways to circumvent security measures to target aircraft is not at all surprising," Carney said.