Non-metal underwear bomb could cue full-body scanner step-up

A metal-free bomb potentially capable of passing undetected through traditional airport metal detectors has refocused attention on airline security, with the US government seizing a sophisticated explosive from what's said to be an Al Qaeda scheme. The device itself is described by US security forces as having a "more sophisticated triggering device" than the so-called underwear bomb of 2009, the NYTimes reports, and replaces that original design's metallic components with new parts that would not, it's suggested, show up in standard metal detector scan. The FBI is still to confirm whether the full-body scanners newly implemented at many airports would have spotted the device.

"As a result of close cooperation with our security and intelligence partners overseas, an improvised explosive device (IED) designed to carry out a terrorist attack has been seized abroad" the FBI said in a statement today. "The FBI currently has possession of the IED and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it. Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations."

However, the person in possession of the bomb had not, apparently, selected a target when he was challenged by security services in Yemen, and was not in possession of a plane ticket. "The device never presented a threat to public safety," the FBI insists, "and the U.S. government is working closely with international partners to address associated concerns with the device"

US security officials have said that, despite the new explosive device design, airport security policies are not expected to change in the near future. However, it's possible that the use of more invasive scanning systems could be ramped up as a workaround to identify non-metallic devices.

"Since this I.E.D. demonstrates our adversaries' interest in targeting the aviation sector, D.H.S. continues, at the direction of the president, to employ a risk-based, layered approach to ensure the security of the traveling public," DHS agency spokesperson Matt Chandler said in a statement today. "These layers include threat and vulnerability analysis, prescreening and screening of passengers, using the best available technology, random searches at airports, federal air marshal coverage, and additional security measures both seen and unseen."