The American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been catching a lot of flak in the blogosphere for putting out several alerts that terrorists may attempt to use bombs surgically implanted in their bodies to attack aircraft. Many have said that this is an example of a security culture run amok, where oddball threats are regularly presented to the public as real dangers. The surgically implanted bomb is more of a danger than this argument lets on, although it’s less of a threat than other sorts of bombs. How do we know this? It’s already happened.
In August 2009, Saudi Deputy Interior Minister for Counterterrorism Muhammad bin Nayef (son of the very senior Prince Nayef) agreed to meet with one of the many graduates of his program to reform terrorists. Once inside the prince’s office, the man exploded. He had been carrying high explosives implanted in his body, ahem, nonsurgically. (As the Daily Telegraph dryly remarked, the man had truly “turned his back to terrorism.”) The implanted bomb is thus not the wild fantasy of a bored TSA analyst (or the wild fantasy of a bored amateur jihadist that was picked up by a bored TSA analyst). However, it’s not as big of a threat as one would think. The prince survived with only minor injuries because the bomb’s blast was (grotesquely) absorbed by the body of his would-be assassin. A surgically implanted bomb would presumably be less, er, deeply implanted than the bomb used against the deputy minister, but it would still have some of its force absorbed by the terrorist’s body. Surgical concealment would also restrict the common practice of putting pieces of metal around a bomb in order to create shrapnel. We should not downplay the danger of this device too much–it would not be pleasant to be sitting near a terrorist using it–but it is not nearly as dangerous as a similar device that is not shielded by the attacker’s body. A surgical device would also presumably not be removable, which would hinder any attempt by the attacker to place it in an area where it could cause maximum damage.
The surgically implanted bomb has another problem. Having a large object implanted in one’s body would require major surgery and would be painful for the attacker. The risk of corrosion or degradation of the device would require the attack to be performed fairly soon after the operation. This means that the attacker would likely be in serious pain or be sedated. Each of these could cause discernible behavioral signals that trained security personnel could identify. However, American airport security places an emphasis on technology, not psychology, so there is a good chance that slightly unusual behavior would go unnoticed. The TSA has announced additional security measures to combat this threat. While a physical examination of passengers would reveal the cuts and bandages of recent surgery, it would also be very slow and inefficient. Thus, it’s only being implemented at intervals in random locations. While this is better than nothing, a more psychologically-focused examination would be more suitable to detecting devices like this–and for detecting all other sorts of terrorist activity. Just ask the Israelis, whose famously tough airport security uses this technique to great effect.