Common Items, Extraordinary Threat

ABC News takes an exclusive look at what TSA says are terrorists' latest ploys.

April 10, 2008— -- "Allah loves us to die and kill in his path," Umar Islam is seen saying on an alleged martyrdom video.

The video, shown today in a London court, is part of what the prosecution says is evidence against Islam, one of eight men facing charges for an alleged plot to blow up at least 10 passenger jets in 2006, most of which were bound for the United States.

"There are many more like us, and many more like me ready to strike," the video continues.

With a shifting global terror landscape and increasingly stealth terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration has given ABC News exclusive insight into the nature of the threat: examples of what the TSA says are the latest tactics being developed by extremists intent on causing harm.

U.S. officials have been collecting examples of would-be bombs from airport security and intelligence agencies around the world.

The newest techniques involve everyday items. "They're always working to improve to use common objects to use against us; they're innovative, creative," TSA administrator Kip Hawley told ABC News. "And even though you think this is a very small container, you can put a lot of damage inside even the back of a watch."

Hawley showed ABC News one such watch, demonstrating that what looks like an ordinary accessory can actually become a bomb detonator -- an explosive charge -- which could be used to set off a huge explosion.

How would a would-be suicide bomber use it? "Well, you would smuggle it through security then you would actually be able to press it up against" a bomb-laden vest, Hawley explained.

"Just that simple. You have a power source, you have the detonator and everything else you need there in an explosive," Hawley said.

The watch -- a duplicate of one recovered from a suspected suicide bomber overseas -- comes complete with a battery for electrical spark and a tiny cube of TATP, a powerful explosive.

Authorities overseas also found an electric toothbrush, similar to one the TSA showed ABC News, which was actually re-engineered to detonate a plastic explosive that could be hidden in the lining of a briefcase.

A government test video shows how small amounts of explosives can cause a damaging blast. Islam and his co-defendants allegedly planned to use common sports drink bottles to conceal liquid explosives. Investigators said the group planned to use those materials, and seemingly innocuous electronic devices such as MP3 players, in their alleged plot, which authorities thwarted in 2006.

As a result, U.S. officials banned liquid containers of more than 3 ounces from all carry-on luggage.

In December 2001, British citizen Richard Reid attempted to blow up his explosive-packed shoes on a plane flying from Paris to Miami. He pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in 2002 and is serving his sentence at the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo. But according to the government, the threat posed by shoe bombs didn't end with the so-called shoe bomber.

Government tests have shown how a shoe bomb could easily slice through metal and potentially take down a plane.

In recent months, TSA screeners have been routinely discovering peculiar, suspicious items hidden in the lining and soles of shoes.

Authorities have discovered wires, electronic components, even toggle switches embedded in footwear.

Other items that cause concern for TSA screeners are medically necessary devices, such as a back brace, which, in the wrong hands, could be used to hide an explosive.

Hawley said security personnel could likely detect bomb components with a pat down, but that they need to be prepared to deal with suspicious travelers who might use a brace to conceal explosives.

"Frequently, somebody will talk their way out of [it]: 'Oh, that's just I've got a sore back. Don't touch back there,'" Hawley said. "So officers have to be prepared for somebody doing a little bit of a fake or talking them out of it. And they just have to just maintain their distance and their discipline to determine whether or not there is a threat object."

"Officers have to be polite and professional, but they do have to take a look at it and they do have to resolve it."

A thin back brace Hawley showed ABC News hid high explosive RDX and a blasting cap, tucked away in the lining.

These items are part of a growing list of concerns for transportation security officials, who describe a fluid, ever-changing threat environment flush with increasingly creative terrorists.

"Its very sobering," Hawley said. "This is the real deal. They are taking harmless objects, even food objects and turning them into explosives. And we have to be prepared for that.

"You have to be switched on totally and realize that they're going to use everything they can get their hands on to use against us and they want us to kind of lull… we have to be skeptical, we have to look at it and see, does this represent an anomaly, perhaps a threat?"

Each time such an incident occurs, investigations to be launched to determine if it's simply a hoax, or a move by suspected terrorists to test the system to figure out what they can sneak on to a plane.

Hawley says he thinks the TSA's screeners are "the best in the world, and I think our guys have a very hard assignment," and that the agency constantly tests its ranks.

"We do those covert testing drills every day, every shift, every airport, and we use very, very sophisticated testing devices to keep them on their toes," he said. "And the challenge for training is to keep it fresh, not only do you have to know this stuff, but you have to keep alert for what we haven't briefed you on yet, you have to be alert to see if you're the first person to pick up a clue."

It's a daily game of cat and mouse, with thousands of lives on the line.