Chapter 52: The 'Liquid Bombs' Plot

Previous: A Long Shot

I used Vim to clean the
Comet off the counter tops.
I read for a few hours after dinner before turning in, slept fairly soundly, all things considered, and woke Thursday morning with an unexpected urge to check on the counter tops.

All the surfaces were dry and a powdery white residue was easy to see. Unfortunately it was extremely difficult to remove.

I used another cleaning product, a creamy white cleanser called Vim, to take off the last of the Comet residue. Then, sensing an opportunity, I didn't rinse the counter tops very well, but instead allowed them to dry.

Holmes was still away, so I sat by myself and ate the breakfast Mrs. Hudson had prepared for me. Then I went back to my reading.

Fresh from a night's sleep and with Holmes' questions in mind, I found his archives much less daunting than they had seemed the previous day. I also began to recognize and ignore the usual details, which were reported endlessly everywhere, and this made it easier for me to concentrate on finding the information I sought.

The technical details of the plot were difficult to find -- most reports omitted them entirely -- but I did find a few sources which I thought might interest Holmes. In doing so, I learned that three different mechanisms were ascribed to the plot at various times.

A disposable camera was
to serve as the trigger.
First an article appeared in the Guardian which said the plotters were planning to make TATP in mid-air. Later an article was published in an infamous issue of the New York Times -- infamous because it was never distributed in Britain -- claiming the plan was to make HMTD in flight. But then at trial the Crown said the plotters were planning to make TATP not aboard the planes but in the flat they had rented, their so-called "Bomb Factory."

Then, according to the Crown, they were going to hollow out some AA batteries, fill them with the TATP, and reassemble them so they could be smuggled aboard planes, where they would be used as primary charges. When they exploded, they would detonate the secondary charges, bottles of hydrogen peroxide which the plotters were planning to smuggle onto the planes disguised as soft drinks.

Once in flight, a bomber could tape a fake battery to a bottle of fake beverage and wire it to the flash unit of a disposable camera. After that, he would only need to press the shutter to trigger an explosion that would blow a hole in the fuselage, knocking the plane out of the sky and killing everyone aboard.

The plot, however it was described, struck me as more than slightly wacky. Whether it hinged on the ability to synthesize explosives undetected aboard a moving aircraft, or to hollow out batteries, fill them with homemade explosives and put them back together, it all seemed too difficult for me. I couldn't imagine how anyone could think the scheme would work. And yet here were photos taken in the 'Bomb Factory' of empty bottles the plotters had collected.

Holmes' knowledge of chemistry was in some ways superior to mine, and I was eager to consult him on this subject.

My friend had also asked me to watch for indications of how close the plotters were to being able to carry out their plot. This question -- which would make sense only if the plot itself was viable -- was easier to answer. The plotters had no airline tickets. They had no passports. Some of them had not even applied for passports. The notion that they were going to board transcontinental airliners in the near future seemed quite fantastic.

The plotters had collected
several empty drink bottles.
Furthermore, they had made no TATP, no HMTD, no bombs of any kind. Police searched for four months and found nothing more explosive than a few bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Granted, hydrogen peroxide can be used to make explosives, but it can also be bought wherever disinfectants are sold.

I became convinced that Holmes had been right about my intuition. The jolt of fear had been the result of a caricature. We'd all been hoodwinked. 

The "Liquid Bombers" were dreamers with no weapons. The "Bomb Factory" was a place where no explosives had ever been made.

The planned attack could not have been imminent, even it it were possible, which seemed very unlikely.

And therefore the story told to the public had been a lie. But what was the truth? What had really been happening?

Fortunately for me, I had been instructed not to try to answer all the questions that came to mind. So I put these thoughts aside and continued to make my way through the files.