Today, the possibilities to detect and uncover sites of substance production are limited. However, production of drugs and preparations for a terror attack such as the bombings in London take time. Production of drugs is a more or less continuous effort from the criminals making them. A timeline for the terrorist preparations could be described as follows:
The amount of time spent in the different phases obviously varies from case to case but it is reasonable to assume that the first phase can be rather long, depending on the reasons behind the terrorist attack and the level of financing necessary. It was concluded in the investigations after the London attacks that “The chances of identifying attack planning and of preventing the 7 July attacks might have been greater had different investigative decisions been taken by the Security Service in 2003–2005.” 4 This statement reveals that the period during which warning signs were present was quite long. In this phase, terrorist plots may mainly be revealed through conventional intelligence gathering methods, e g surveillance of known terrorist groups, informants, monitoring of money transfers or intercepting the group in a robbery.
The second phase, obtaining equipment and materials, can also vary very much in length, depending on the type of material to be obtained. In many cases, necessary household chemicals or chemicals readily available in hobby stores can be obtained at low cost and little effort. Monitoring trade of restricted materials may be one possible way to reveal terrorist plots at this stage if large amounts of material are purchased or stolen.
The third phase, preparation and production, will by necessity be quite long (weeks to months). Unless the bomb-makers are very professional they will need to test and practice the procedures and in many cases the chemical manufacturing process in itself will take considerable time. An example of the production time frame is, again, the London attacks. The terrorists obtained hydrogen peroxide, one of the main bomb ingredients. “They could buy it as liquid in an 18 per cent concentration. Between the end of April and July 5, 2005, they are alleged to have bought 443 litres in either one-litre or four-litre containers.” They then reduced it to higher concentration in their kitchen. During this phase there are limited ways to reveal a plot unless suspicions have been raised in the previous phases. It could occur by chance when investigating something else or it could be revealed by informants.
The fourth phase, transportation, is likely to be quite short (of the order of hours). Detection is used mainly at airports today and is a very difficult task. Many places, like underground stations, are even more difficult to protect with detection at this stage due to the extremely large number of travellers. Another possibility to spot a suspect at this stage may be the study of deviant behaviour.
Detection during transportation is much more disadvantageous than detection during production. First of all, the detection itself is more difficult. Furthermore, even in case of successful detection in the transportation phase, the interruption of the attack is not without risk. If the person carrying the bomb is a suicide bomber, the bomb may be detonated with severe consequences for law enforcement personnel as well as innocent bystanders. Detection during the production phase gives more time for law enforcement to act without risk for themselves or others.
When the plot has reached the last phase - the attack itself - it will be too late and severe damages and casualties will be a fact.
FOI, Swedish Defence Research Agency
Dr. Sara Wallin
Tel: +46 8 5550 4097