The dawn of the belly bomber

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his followers continue to seek ever more ingenious and dastardly ways of inflicting mayhem on the West,  according to media reports that the US Department of Homeland Security has ‘ identified a potential threat from terrorists who may be considering surgically implanting explosives or explosive components in humans to conduct terrorist attacks.’

The usual anonymous sources claim that such devices may be inserted in the bellies or buttocks of prospective suicide bombers and then allowed to heal, enabling their carriers to evade airport security detection devices and detonate themselves by injection on boarding the plane.   These possibilities are supposedly based on new intelligence and passengers coming to the US have been warned to expect tougher security checks, even though no plans or plots are ‘imminent.’

As always  these reports have sent a ripple of wide-eyed horror through an always credulous media and these turbulent waters have been churned up still further by self-styled ‘terrorism experts’ whose expertise often seems to consist of a willingness to echo back and magnify every dreadful hypothesis emanating from the security services.  One of them is Neil Doyle,  who has written about the belly bomb threat for the Daily Mirror.   I appeared with Doyle some years ago at the Edinburgh book festival, where he explained to an amused audience how he ‘tracked’ al Qaeda on the internet despite the fact that he could not read or speak Arabic, by using Google translator.

It was obvious then that Doyle was an opportunist on the make, and his Mirror piece is a classic of shallow terrorological reporting, flimsy speculation and seamless illogic.  To prove his assertion that ‘ Al-Qaeda has used surgically implanted devices before’,  Doyle cites the 2009 failed assassination attempt on the deputy head of the Saudi security services Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whose would-be perpetrator  had explosives ‘either up his backside or in his underwear ‘ – neither of which qualifies as a surgical implant.  Doyle also reports that ‘maximum security’ measures have been introduced at Kuwait airport and that

The airport and airlines were warned to look for travellers showing signs they had surgery in the previous 48 hours.  It was said that information suggested terrorists were planning to surgically implant explosive devices inside people and animals travelling by air.

Doyle does not explain how airport authorities will be able to detect these signs of surgery without stripping every passenger naked and checking them for stitches.  Nor does he say which animals will be ‘travelling by air’ – a phenomenon that I have yet to observe in more than half a century on the planet.   According to Doyle however

Roadside bombs in Iraq were sometimes placed inside the corpse of dogs and last month, al-Qaeda suspects were monitored in an internet chat room discussing using dogs to carry improvised explosives.

Readers might well be advised to remain vigilant next time they see a dead dog lying around the airport, or an alsatian with suspicious patches of missing fur getting onto a plane – whether accompanied or travelling alone.   But they might be better advised to be on their guard when faced with such unadulterated drivel.   Because al-Qaeda operatives may or may not be planning to implant bombs in their buttocks, but Doyle is clearly talking through his backside.

For the last decade, intelligence services, the media and ‘terrorism experts’ like Doyle have consistently exaggerated al-Qaeda’s intentions and capabilities with a stream of speculative hypotheses that regularly conflate what might happen with what will happen, and insist that no matter how bad things are, something worse is always just around the corner.

You don’t have to be a ‘terrorism expert’ to do this.  Consider these scenarios, both of which I made up myself:

An unnamed intelligence official has reported that al-Qaeda plans to turn airline passengers into human torches.   According to ‘chatter’ on Islamist websites, militants will be coated in flammable liquid, and their fingernails will be replaced with a coating of plastic explosive that can be detonated with a nailfile.  Officials insist that no such plan is imminent but warn passengers to remain vigilant.

Or this:

British intelligence sources have revealed exclusively to this paper that al-Qaeda plans to infect militants with bubonic plague.   According to new intelligence information, the infected terrorists will then travel through Europe during the summer disguised as students on an Interrail pass, stopping just long enough to infect every European capital.   There is no evidence of an imminent plot but passengers are advised to remain on the alert.

This morning my 15-year-old daughter offered her own imaginative scenario, in which al-Qaeda inject fish with cholera and put them back in the nation’s rivers.   Readers might like to consider their own worst-case hypotheses, and they may even conclude that some of them could happen.  Because in this world there are many dark possibilities,  and belly bombers may even be one of them.   But before we rush to defend outselves from this new menace, it is worth recalling the warnings from Dr David Brenner, head of Columbia University’s centre for radiological research, that the introduction of full-body x-ray scanners in some British and US airports last year might lead to an increase in cancers

If all 800 million people who use airports every year were screened with  X-rays then the very small individual risk multiplied by the large number of  screened people might imply a potential public health or societal risk. The  population risk has the potential to be significant.

Some governments are nevertheless planning to introduce new x-ray devices that will go beyond ‘naked’ body scanning and look inside the body, so that frequent passengers may find themselves exposed to regular levels of radiations of the kind that patients occasionally experience in hospital, and some may have their internal organs well and truly fried.   And if that happens it will not be due to al-Qaeda or the belly bomber.