New R&D Initiative Terror Prevention Goes Sci-Fi

How do you detect a suicide bomber from afar? It's as easy as testing the air above his head for traces of explosives. How do you do that? A new german government program is working on a method along with numerous other high-tech, anti-terror systems.

By Andrea Brandt

A Hamburg police officer in an armored suit with a suspect package. New technologies could aid the search for dangerous materials.

A Hamburg police officer in an armored suit with a suspect package. New technologies could aid the search for dangerous materials.

The stuff looks like sugar, but a few grams of it can kill. Horst Krause carefully drops the crystals inside a glass cylinder. Many an unknowing person has already "blown off their fingers" doing this kind of work, he points out.

But the 56-year-old chemist, who works in a laboratory near the southern German city of Karlsruhe, knows how to handle the explosive substance triacetonetriperoxide (TATP), which terrorists used in their 2005 attacks on the London underground. He and his colleagues in four German research facilities associated with the Fraunhofer Institute have been working with the substance since January. Among other things, they've been measuring the changes infrared light undergoes when it passes through various quantities of TATP.

His team is working towards the goal that terrorists carrying TATP will soon be recognizable even when they are 10 meters (33 feet) away and surrounded by a large crowd of people. Beams of infrared light from a hidden source will detect the invisible gaseous mist released by the explosive as it hovers above their heads. "We could make train stations and airports a lot safer that way," Krause predicts.

Germany's Education and Research Minister Annetta Schavan wants to encourage scientists like Krause to work on projects that could help to more effectively protect the country against terrorism. To do so, she has created the a major research and development program devoted to national security. Schavan has made €80 million ($102 million) available to researchers working on high-tech equipment to thwart the plans of violent Islamists and other terrorists.

Many of the ideas developed by the experts from the ministry have a sci-fi quality to them, but the task is clear: developing machines and methods especially suited for use in train stations, airports and seaports.

"We urgently need more innovative ideas so we can improve our chances of preventing future terrorist attacks and handling crisis situations more effectively," says Thomas Rachel, the parliamentary liason to the Minister for Education and Research. No one likes to talk about the details of the program yet and Schavan is hoping to keep things under wraps until December. The initiative will truly get underway amid a European security conference scheduled to be held in Berlin in March next year.

Looking for new ideas

Yet while Schavan and her associates haven't gone public yet, the initiative is being prepared with rigorous efficiency behind the scenes: 250 experts from academia, the police, the fire department and the German army, as well both the private and public sectors met for three preparatory meetings in Bonn this spring at Schavan's invitation. The minutes produced at the meetings and the emergency scenarios developed by the various experts are considered internal guidelines for the development of the research program.

The wish list compiled by the experts includes items such as robots capable of patroling train tunnels. They also speak of an "urgent need to catch up" in the development of machines that can help detect dangerous substances "early on and from far distances." So far, the experts say, "there is hardly any suitable sensor technology available."

A policeman searches a tourist with a traditional metal detector at the entrance to Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

A policeman searches a tourist with a traditional metal detector at the entrance to Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

Some preliminary work has already been done in other countries. In the United States, for example, scientists have developed shoe-sole scanners that can be used to determine whether passengers are carrying explosives. Airports in other countries, such as those in the Netherlands, have introduced special passenger portals: A person walks through an arch that blows streams of air all over his or her body. A kind of vacuum cleaner retrieves the air and analyzes it for traces of explosives.

But such controls take several seconds per passenger. That's no problem at the airport, but it's much too long for routine controls at train stations. What's more, terrorists could only be identified at close range -- which isn't much use when it comes to suicide bombers.

So several scientists, including Krause, are now working on early-warning systems for the detection of dangerous substances in large spaces such as train stations. Konradin Weber, a professor of physics at Düsseldorf's technical university, has spent years measuring methanol gases above waste dumps or in the emissions of ships. To do so, he used infrared beams with a range of as many as 100 meters.

Now Weber wants to use similar machines to detect explosives -- in the air above passenger lines outside passport checkpoints, for example, or in subway stations. Laboratory tests carried out with research institute staff have already been successful. Now tests with so-called irritant substances, such as perfume or disinfectant, need to show whether the method will also work under conditions like those in train stations, where countless substances mingle in the air.

Spotting the suspicious

One of the two long-distance detectors the researchers are working on could also make large airport carparks safer. The newly developed scanner will use so-called laser-spectroscopic techniques to identify traces of explosives on the outside of car trunks or on the handles of car doors, making it possible to detect car bombs from a distance of about 50 meters (164 feet).

Schavan and her associates would also like researchers to increase the safety of major public events by solving not one, but two problems: Identifying terrorists early on, if possible, and better caring for a large number of injured people, if necessary.

Documents from within Schavan's ministry feature plans for computer systems linked to closed-circuit TV cameras to recognize dangerous situations in large crowds automatically and sound the alarm. Participants at one of the preparatory conferences envisioned one possible scenario: A camera discovers a man who is behaving suspiciously. It passes a signal on to a sensor that checks the air above the suspicious person for traces of explosives. If the sensor actually detects such traces, security forces are alerted. The experts would also like rescue teams to be equipped with clothing featuring a special sensor that warns rescue personnel of biological, chemical or radioactive substances.

Whether the new program will just be a shot in the arm for research institutes or whether it will actually lead to greater security is still uncertain. The dream machines still have to be made to work -- and then they have to be put to use. But 80 percent of the infrastructure in danger of being targeted by terrorists -- train stations, airports, power stations -- is privately owned. And the experts from the Ministry for Education and Research admit that it will hardly be possible to make the private sector purchase new and possibly highly expensive security technology. What will really happen also depends on "how much more security the Germans really want," as one internal document states.

In any case, the gaps in Germany's system of anti-terrorism measures are still enormous, according to the technical experts. They point out that more and superior X-ray machines need to be installed in seaports and used there to check incoming cargo containers, in addition to "alternative sensor systems" that can detect "traces of biological poisons or explosive substance quickly and without error."

Only 40,000 of the five million containers that arrive at Hamburg's seaport every year are X-rayed -- more would simply overwhelm the facility there. Forty-thousand containers -- that's 0.8 percent of the total. The other containers move through the port unchecked and are ideally suited for transporting bombs.

Krause, the researcher from the Fraunhofer Institute, has already gotten to work on the problem. He's been working to develop a cheap sensor for detecting dangerous substances since 2004 by using a method developed by the pharmaceutical industry.

A sniffing device, which will sell for less than €10 ($13) a piece and would sound the alarm in case of an emergency, could perhaps even be built into containers the world over. "We could have a prototype ready in two years" with new research funding, Krause believes.

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