Fighting to outsmart the terrorist scientists

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 17, 2014

IMAGINE a liquid explosive that can be used to coat shirts and trousers. When dried, it leaves no residue that can be detected by any existing airport scanner or security system.

A terrorist wearing clothes dipped in such a liquid explosive and dried properly can defy all security scanners and go anywhere.

When it is time for action, all he needs to do is to flick a matchstick or use a lighter to cause the clothes to ignite, triggering an explosion.

If that sounds like fiction, it isn't.

It is being developed by terrorist-scientists of extremist group Al-Qaeda. American intelligence officers picked up chatter between two key Al-Qaeda leaders on plans to bring down planes using such a new liquid explosive.

The brains behind it is believed to be Ibrahim Hassan Al-Asiri, Al-Qaeda's notorious weapon-maker now based in Yemen. The Saudi-born Al-Asiri studied chemistry at Riyadh's King Saudi University, but dropped out after two years.

He became a self-taught expert in making miniature bombs even smaller - and without metal parts - so that they can be smuggled into a country without detection.

He has created bombs that can be planted in printer cartridges or sewn into underpants. He is now said to be developing bombs that can be sewn under the skin of terrorists.

This new breed of terrorist-scientists call themselves the CEOs of Al-Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction programme.

Well-educated in science, they are tenacious in their pursuit of weapons with chemical, biological and radiological explosives. Their technical wizardry and devious plots pose a challenge to security officers worldwide.

In response, security agencies are similarly recruiting high-flying scientists and chemists to work with more traditional security experts to develop new strategies to counter the threat.

In Singapore, threat specialists in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) have begun research work in several areas to counter the threat of these Al-Qaeda terrorist-scientists.

The use of sarin by the Syrian regime has also heightened terrorists' recent interest in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

RSIS experts say the fight against this emerging threat of terrorist-scientists has to be cross-disciplinary, drawing on security, science and technology.

A new programme that requires a very strong science focus is being planned. While details are being worked out, RSIS researchers in the organisation's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research have begun work in this field.

One research analyst is biotechnology expert Krishna Khanal, 29. He holds two master's degrees, one in biotechnology from Vinayaka Missions University in India, and the other in water science from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

Terrorists will need strong knowledge of the sciences and sophisticated laboratory facilities to produce chemical or biological weapons, says Mr Krishna. "It is not like following a recipe from a cookbook."

Al-Qaeda, he adds, has intentions of acquiring unconventional weapons. The creation of the liquid explosive is just one example.

Last year, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested two Americans in New York who tried to build a device that could shoot lethal doses of X-ray radiation at people.

Those attacked would notice signs of radiation problems only days after the attack.

Mr Krishna notes that in 2003, the Thai authorities arrested a Thai man who had a large amount of radioactive material caesium-137. He was going to sell it to terrorists.

The terrorists' plan was to use it in "dirty bombs", where radioactive material is wrapped around conventional explosives.

Then there is the field of synthetic biology, which is opening new frontiers for terror scientists.

It is a new discipline, where scientists are producing virulent strains of dangerous viruses in laboratories.

American scientists have recreated a synthetic polio virus and the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed up to 50 million people.

The discoveries are meant for scientific research on cures for the diseases. But poor laboratory security measures could result in the knowledge - or even the virus - falling into the hands of terrorists.

Mr Idznursham Ismail, 28, another researcher in this RSIS department, studies terrorist groups and their production of biological and chemical agents. He holds a first-class honours degree in biological sciences from the Nanyang Technological University.

He reveals that about two years ago, manuals by terrorists on how to create explosive devices began appearing.

"Those writing these manuals seem to have extensive knowledge of chemistry. They give advice on how to set up a laboratory and safety warnings on how to prevent an explosion during lab work," he says.

Al-Qaeda's main man who oversaw chemical and biological weapons, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, had a chemical engineering degree from Alexandria University. Those who received training from him in Derunta camp in Afghanistan were taught how to make and handle chemical and explosives, says Mr Nursham.

Midhat Mursi was killed in a missile attack in 2008.

But his death does not spell the end of the Al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction programme, warns Mr Krishna. Terrorist-scientists will continue to work on new technologies and wait for the right moment to strike.

"Terrorists often say that security agencies have to be lucky all the time to thwart terror attacks.

"Terrorists only need to be lucky once," he says.

This is a weekly series featuring people in the fight against terror.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 17, 2014

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to